TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of film, "Public Cowboy No. 1")
Mr. GENE AUTRY (Musician): This is Gene Autry calling all cowboys. Calling all cowboys, go to (unintelligible) ranch at one, rustlers headed that way. Calling all cowboys.
GROSS: That's Gene Autry in his 1937 film "Public Cowboy No. 1," using his radio broadcast to call for help in catching the cattle rustlers. It's not the only one of his films in which he had a radio show.
Gene Autry was the first singing cowboy movie star. He influenced Westerns, country music and Western clothing. Frankly, much as I love Westerns, I didn't pay much attention to him as a kid, but a few years ago, I learned what a great singer he was. I've been watching his films Sundays on the Encore Western Channel. Turner Classic Movies is showing singing cowboy films every Friday night this month with five back-to-back Gene Autry movies this Friday.
So we asked Holly George-Warren to talk with us about Gene Autry. She's the author of the Autry biography "Public Cowboy No. 1." She also wrote "Cowboy: How Hollywood Invented the Wild West" and co-authored "How the West Was Worn."
I told you how much I like Autry's singing. In his movies, he didn't just do cowboy songs, he did some pop songs, too, like this one, "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You," from his 1946 film "Sioux City Sue."
(Soundbite of song, "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You")
Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) When I'm in love with somebody else, you expect me to be true and keep on loving you, though I am feeling blue. You think I can't forget you until someday you'll want me to want you, when I am strong for somebody new. And though you don't want me now, I'll get along somehow, and then I won't want you.
I know that someday you'll want me to want you...
GROSS: Holly George-Warren, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. HOLLY GEORGE-WARREN (Author, "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of Gene Autry"): Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: You know, it's so interesting in the Gene Autry singing cowboy movies, there's often like a radio show that fits into it, you know, because Gene Autry is always playing a character called Gene Autry, and usually he's not only singing with the boys on the trail and singing to his sweetheart, he's also singing on the radio, or he's singing in a rodeo or singing in a medicine show. But they're always in their own way kind of show biz-oriented.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: They're show biz-oriented, and the other new thing in these movies was that often they took place in the present day. Usually, the Westerns took place in the 19th century, and in these films, even though Gene was riding Champion, his horse, and there were plenty of - lots of, you know, Western things everywhere, but there were cars, there were airplanes.
The bad guys were often either corporate guys trying to wipe out the little man on the range or, you know, gangsters from back East and things like that. So of course radio was part of that modern-day period that they were depicting in these films.
GROSS: There were often women from the city who would come in to, like, the ranch with high heels on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Exactly.
GROSS: And then there's like, you know, Gene Autry in his, like, Western outfit on his horse and everything. So you had those two worlds colliding. It's always interesting to see in the Gene Autry Westerns how they were going to work in radio in those Westerns where they did work it in.
So I want to play an example. One of his better-known movies is called "Melody Ranch," and in this one, you know, Ann Miller, who is the star of musical movies, is in it. Jimmy Durante, the famous comic, is in it. So here's a scene in which, you know, Gene Autry actually has his own radio show, and his friend played by Jimmy Durante has lost a court fight against the villains who run the town. And Gene is on Durante's side, and here's Gene Autry in the court after the verdict.
(Soundbite of film, "Melody Ranch")
Mr. AUTRY (As Gene Autry): All right, your honor, I'm forced to respect the law, even the way it's handed out in Torpedo.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Court adjourned.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Cheer up, Genie Boy, you might be able to use that story on your radio program sometime.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) You'll have to rewrite the script so you'll be the noble hero that scares off all the bold bad men.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #4: (As character) (Unintelligible), you're a scream, you're terrific. My brother.
Mr. AUTRY: (As Autry) Thanks, boys, you just gave me a swell idea. Listen in on my program tomorrow night, and you'll hear a story about the law in Torpedo, and so will everybody else in the country.
Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character)I wouldn't use that material if I was you, Gene.
Mr. AUTRY: (As Autry) You may be running this town right now, Mark, but you're not running my radio program.
GROSS: I just think it's so funny because, like, the conflict isn't about, like, the cattle drive in the scene, it's about, you know, the radio program.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: And yes, the radio show actually was almost like a character of Gene Autry films from the very beginning. He was in a serial called "Phantom Empire," which is this just amazing sci-fi Western. And the whole crux of the matter was if he didn't arrive at the ranch each day, called The Radio Ranch, to do his broadcast, then they would lose the ranch.
And throughout his career, the radio plays an important role, and that was the other aspect of the Gene Autry films. He always played himself, Gene Autry radio star, singing star, and even if he was a sheriff, he was Gene Autry the singing, you know, sheriff.
And sometimes even the radio would be used to save the day, to alert his friends, like Smiley Burnette, where the bad guys were hiding. Or sometimes he would use a phonograph record, it would be playing as a way to trick the bad guys. They would think he was in the other room singing, and it was really, you know, the phonograph record.
So he definitely incorporated all those other parts of his career into his movies.
GROSS: For the movie "Melody Ranch" that we just heard a clip from, the studio hired Julie Stein, the great songwriter, who later wrote the music for the shows "Gypsy," "Funny Girl," "Bells Are Ringing," the music for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." So he wrote the melodies for this movie, and one of them - I just love this song.
So I thought we'd play it. It's called "Melody Ranch," and it's the title song for the film, and Gene Autry later named his ranch "Melody Ranch." And it's so interesting the way it opens the film because the film opens with this song, and it's later reprised at the end, where he's singing it to his sweetheart.
But in the opening of the film, Gene Autry and the boys are sitting around a campfire singing this song. Then Gene Autry gets up, the camera pulls back, and we see he's walking toward a microphone, and the campfire isn't real, it's a set for his radio program.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Right.
GROSS: So it's just so interesting again how they get radio and the West to figure into the same movie. But anyways, I want to play this song "Melody Ranch." I have to say the lyrics don't quite measure up to the melody.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: That's true sometimes.
GROSS: But, you know, his singing's so good, so relaxed, kind of behind the beat. So here's Gene Autry with Ann Miller singing "Melody Ranch."
(Soundbite of song, "Melody Ranch")
Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) Stake your claim on Melody Ranch with a song. As you ride 'neath the moon side by side let a tune be your guide. Stake your claim on Melody Ranch with a song, harmonize, learn the words, vocalize with the birds in the skies.
You'll find your love...
GROSS: That's Gene Autry with Ann Miller, from the movie "Melody Ranch," which of course starred Gene Autry. And we're talking to Holly George-Warren, who is the author of a book about Gene Autry, which is called "Public Cowboy No. 1."
And on Friday, July 8, TCM is going to be playing several Gene Autry Western musicals back to back. But also if you like Gene Autry films, the Encore Western Channel shows them every Sunday at noon.
So we just heard "Melody Ranch," very nice. These movies that Gene Autry made, he did so many of them. How many did he do?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: He was in about 93 films altogether.
GROSS: That's really a lot, and you said there were periods where he would do a movie a month. Now, okay, these are low-budget films, and, you know, some of them kind of adhere to a formula. Still, a movie a month, and they were short. Some of them were like an hour, an hour and 10 minutes. Nevertheless, that seems kind of ambitious or really cranking it out.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: He was - yeah. Before James Brown and Elvis Presley, but I think Gene Autry was the hardest-working man in show business. I mean, the guy sometimes made eight films a year. He was doing a national radio show that began in 1940. So that was a weekly show. He did public appearances all over, traveled around with a Western variety show, and he was always in the recording studio.
He was a Columbia Records artist. So he was working in the studios in California and New York, and then later on, he was the first of the Western film stars to get onto TV. He started his own production company in 1950 and started doing a weekly TV show, as well.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Gene Autry, who was among the most famous of the singing cowboys. And my guest is Holly George-Warren, who is the author of the book "Public Cowboy No. 1," which is a biography of Gene Autry. And on Friday July 8, Turner Classic Movies is going to be showing several Gene Autry musical Westerns back to back as part of their Singing Cowboy Month. But also if you like Gene Autry Westerns, the Encore Western Movie Channel shows them every Sunday at noon.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Gene Autry, who was among the most famous of the singing cowboys. And my guest, Holly George-Warren, is the author of the book "Public Cowboy No. 1," which is about Gene Autry, it's a biography of him.
And on Friday July 8, Turner Classic Movies is going to show several Gene Autry movies back to back as part of their Singing Cowboy Month. And if you enjoy those movies, they are shown, those Gene Autry movies are also shown every Sunday at noon on the Encore Western Channel.
Now, he started off working on the railroad and singing. How did the railroad help him get started in its own way?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, back in those days, we're talking mid- to late '20s, he worked for the Frisco Railroad, which had stops up and down Oklahoma, Missouri, and it was really a very family atmosphere. They had their own newspaper.
So I was able to find copies of the Frisco Railroad Newspaper, touting this great, you know, railroad telegrapher. He was a telegraph operator who entertained his friends and co-workers by performing for them. And he also started doing a local show in Tulsa, where he performed on the radio and started doing a few little shows around in that area.
So it kind of built up his confidence until he finally got his recording career started in 1929, actually October of '29 - not the most auspicious time to start a recording career, but that's when he went to New York and cut his first records.
GROSS: Yeah, his first records coincided with the crash that led to the Great Depression.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Right, and it was just one of those perfect-timing things because Gene had this very kind of like everyman quality to him, and recording had changed so that - he had a soft, kind of an intimate way of singing, much like, say, Bing Crosby did, and with the new type of microphones, this was perfect for Gene's voice.
And the other thing was Gene was a real mimic, and he could do songs like a very popular singer Jimmie Rodgers, which was a big seller for Victor Records back in the day and were selling for 75 cents a record. Gene started doing kind of Jimmie Rodgers sound-a-likes for 20 cents a record at these budget discount labels, and they started selling like hotcakes because people in rural areas could order these from mail-order catalogues, and he built up a big audience that way, though really kind of the budget chains of the day.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned Jimmie Rodgers, and, you know, it's understandable why Gene Autry would want to emulate Jimmie Rodgers, because Jimmie Rodgers was not only a great singer and songwriter, but he also was a railroad man like Gene Autry was.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Exactly, and in fact when I did research for the book, thank goodness there was all this correspondent that Gene had kept going back to the early '40s. And through a lot of detective work, I figured out that Gene and Jimmie actually did meet a few times.
And then of course when Jimmie Rodgers died, sadly, of TB, Gene recorded I think it was three or four tribute songs to Jimmie Rodgers, and he was really quite touched by the man.
GROSS: Well, let's hear one of the Jimmie Rodgers imitation, budget-label recordings, one of the knock-offs that Gene Autry did very early in his career, in 1929, and this is "Blue Yodel No. 5." You say this is basically like gesture-for-gesture, note-for-note replication of Jimmie Rodgers.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, and it was so strange, Terry, because he ended up actually recording some Jimmie Rodgers songs that Rodgers did at Victor and releasing them even before Rodgers' own versions came out. I think that he, you know, was able to get the lead sheets and the sheet music for some of these songs, and then he actually saw some of Jimmie Rodgers' performances, learned the songs and then rushed into to the studio and did the budget version of it, and it actually came out either the same week or even before Rodgers in a couple of cases.
GROSS: All right, so here's Gene Autry in 1929, singing Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 5."
(Soundbite of song, "Blue Yodel No. 5")
Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) (Yodeling) It's raining here, stormin' on the deep blue sea. Lord, it's raining here, stormin' on the deep blue sea. Ain't no black-headed mama can make a fool out of me.
(Yodeling) Now I can see a train coming down the railroad track, lord, lord, lord, I see a train coming down the railroad track and I love to hear the bark of that old smokestack. (Yodeling).
GROSS: So that's Gene Autry, singing Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 5," recorded very early in Autry's career, 1929, and recorded in a much higher voice than we're used to hearing him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, he did these crazy - I love them, actually - these rambling, gambling kind of, you know, songs that were the antithesis to the white-hatted good guy that Gene played in the Western movies. You know these were about loose women and boozing it up and things like that.
GROSS: So how did Gene Autry find his own voice after imitating Jimmie Rodgers?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, he was billed early on as the Oklahoma yodeling cowboy because he did, you know, grow up in Texas and Oklahoma. And by the time he made his way to Chicago to star on WLS, which was a huge radio station and had the National Barn Dance in 1932, his announcer, a woman named Ann Williams started really building up: Here comes our hero cowboy Gene Autry.
And they would do the whole clippity-clappity, you know, of him riding up and really inspiring him to start dressing more in cowboy outfits because before that, he just dressed, you know, in a nice business suit when he did public appearances.
So he really started taking on this guise as the cowboy, even though he knew what it was really like to be a cowboy, having come from Texas and Oklahoma, and that was really drudgery and hard work in reality. So of course he started emphasizing the fantasy, the beauty of being a cowboy and the heroicism(ph) of being a cowboy.
So by 1933, he had begun recording strictly cowboy songs, along with still a few of the Jimmie Rodgers style rambling, gamboling songs.
GROSS: Had he ever been a cowboy? Had he ever rode horses before being in movies?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, he grew up in, you know, rural Texas. So you pretty much had to be able to ride a horse. I think sadly he probably rode a mule more often because he came from a very impoverished background, and his father deserted the family when he was quite young.
But his uncle ran a small ranch in Texas, and he helped a lot on the ranch and definitely knew how to, you know, drive a cart, you know, and ride a horse. But he was not an expert horseman, and he certainly did not want to be. I mean, it's kind of ironic, when he made it out in California in the movies, in 1935, he had to take a lot of lessons and really train to learn how to be good on horseback.
GROSS: Of course, one of the songs Gene Autry became most famous for is "Back in the Saddle Again." Did he use that as the theme on his radio show?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes, Gene was very shrewd. He did not write that song. A guy named Ray Whitley wrote it, and it actually appeared in a film that Whitley was in around 1938. But Gene loved the song, and maybe, you know, he was a great stylist. So maybe he changed it a little bit with the way he sang it, but before long, his name was on the writing credits, and he ended up getting the publishing to the song. Once that happened, it became the theme song to his radio show.
GROSS: Clever, because you get a lot of money when people buy it.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Oh yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So let's hear "Back in the Saddle Again," and I have to say I always thought of this as just, like a really corny song, but it's really lovely the way he sings it. So here's Gene Autry.
(Soundbite of song, "Back in the Saddle Again")
Mr. AUTRY: (Singing) I'm back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend, where the long-horned cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed. I'm back in the saddle again.
Riding the range once more, toting my old .44, where you sleep out every night, and the only law is right, back in the saddle again. Whoopi-ty-aye-o, rocking to and fro, back in the saddle again. Whoopi-ty-aye-o I go my way, back in the saddle again.
GROSS: Holly George-Warren will be back in the second half of the show. She's the author of "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life And Times Of Gene Autry." Turner Classic Movies will show five back-to-back Autry films this Friday night as part of this month's singing cowboy series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. We're talking about Gene Autry with Holly George-Warren, the author of a biography called "Gene Autry: Public Cowboy No. 1." This Friday, Turner Classic Movies is showing five Autry films back-to-back as part of their July Singing Cowboy series. And the Encore Western Channel shows Autry films every Sunday. Gene Autry was also quite a businessman, and after his movie career owned the American League baseball team the California Angels. I became a Gene Autry fan because I love his singing.
Holly, where would you say Gene Autry fits into country music? And what impact would you say he had on subsequent country music performers?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene Autry had a huge impact on the history of country music. Prior to his popularity, most of the kind of music considered country or country and western was labeled hillbilly music, or old-time tunes, that kind of thing. And for example, the music that was popular in Nashville, there was kind of a hayseed image surrounding the music. Most of the performers even dressed kind of in these overstated outfits with the overalls and the patches and the blacked out teeth, sometimes that kind of thing, to really give it that rural flavor.
When Gene came along basically singing country songs for a national audience on the movies beginning in '35, he was dressed up as a cowboy. And it had this much more kind of heroic stature than, say, the country bumpkin that country music was associated with. So...
GROSS: And romantic because he was a leading man.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes. It was romantic. He won the day with the music rather than his fist, although he could throw a punch now and again. But it was basically playing guitar and singing that often won the day. And suddenly national audiences started clamoring for this kind of music.
And before, you know, country music had been quite regional with the audiences mostly in, you know, pockets of the Midwest, like the Southeast and Texas and places like that. So the popular audience for country music started to expand and Western music, which had some similarities to it but different themes, of course, with great songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and those kind of things, you know, descriptive lyrics about the Western plains, etcetera, those kind of lyrics sometimes matched with the more traditional country music, the hillbilly mountain style music and created what became known as country and western music in the 1940s.
GROSS: Do you think that Autry played any role in establishing the clothing style for country music?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene played a huge role in that because, again, the country artists who dressed kind of not with a lot of stage presence, saw these great cowboy outfits with, you know, the piping and embroidery and things like that and they began wearing them on stage. And pretty soon the stages of the Grand Ole Opry, everybody had on a cowboy hat and boots and, you know, a fancy western shirt.
GROSS: So Gene Autry actually started his movie career with a serial, a cliffhanger serial of, you know, of really short movies called "Phantom Empire." And this is actually on DVD. So I'm going to read the blurb on the back, on the video box because it's concise and perfect.
So Gene Autry does a radio show from a place called Radio Ranch and this is: (Reading) Radio Ranch is a dude ranch resort owned by Tom Baxter and popular radio entertainer Gene Autry. Twenty-five thousand feet beneath the ranch lies the super-scientific highly advanced kingdom of Murania, which is rich in radium deposits and ruled by the beautiful Queen Tika. Gene's radio contract states that he must broadcast daily from the ranch or he will lose it to a discredited scientist trying to steal the ranch for its radium. The Queen tries to protect her kingdom from the outside world by getting rid of Gene Autry and the Junior Thunder Riders.
And that's a group of children and teenagers who, well, it's too complicated to explain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: But they have great costumes, like they have helmets made out of buckets on their head and, of course, the capes and it's got all this kind of things like the Little Rascals used to have as far as secret hideouts and secret laboratories. But mixed in with that we have Gene Autry singing this great country music with his sidekick Smiley Burnette, who was called Oscar in this particular serial but later became known as Frog Millhouse because of his way of making the frog voice and all these kinds of funny sound effects and things like that.
But it's got an early (unintelligible) television. And, you know, you figure this was 1934 when they started filming this and television is a big part of the Queen Tika's artillery of technological advances that she uses to see what the surface people are up to. And there are robots that are just hysterical.
GROSS: The robots look like the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz."
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes they do. And one really great part, they get inhabited by Oscar and Pete, the two bumbling sidekicks, which is really quite amusing.
GROSS: So to give a sense of what this serial sounded like I thought I'd play a short scene. Gene Autry isn't in this scene but he's the subject of the scene because the Queen and one of her men are talking about how to get rid of Gene Autry.
(Soundbite of show, "Phantom Empire")
Mr. WHEELER OAKMAN (Actor): (as Lord Argo) There's the key to our entire situation.
Ms. DOROTHY CHRISTY (Actor): (as Queen Tika) Explain yourself, Argo.
Mr. OAKMAN: (as Lord Argo) If we can capture Gene Autry, Radio Ranch would soon become deserted and the entrance to our underground kingdom would forever remain undiscovered.
Ms. CHRISTY: (as Queen Tika) We can never allow Murania to become desecrated by the presence of surface people. Our lives are serene. Our minds are superior, our accomplishments greater. Gene Autry must be captured.
GROSS: Give you a sense of the great acting...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yes.
GROSS: ...in that. But this was his breakthrough, huh?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: This was. It became hugely popular. And it was interesting too that some of the themes that we would later see in the Gene Autry films, kind of like the, you know, the cowboys-versus-technology kind of thing. And then also there was a really strong female character, the young girl who was an incredible trick rider, Betsy King Ross, who plays a large role in the film, I think was a big inspiration to a lot of the young girls who were watching the serial on Saturday afternoons.
GROSS: After Gene Autry became famous his biggest rival was Roy Rogers. When did Roy Rogers come along?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, it's interesting. One of my favorite early Gene films was from 1936 call "The Old Corral." And in that film there's this guy, I don't think he even gets credited, but his name at that time was Dick Weston and he was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, a great singing group, and that was Roy Rogers to be. He played actually kind of a bad guy in that that Gene turns around and he becomes a good guy in the end. And he actually does a little bit of singing in it as do the Sons of the Pioneers.
Well, a couple of years later in 1938 Gene actually went on strike because he had such a horrific contract with his movie company. I mean he started out at $100 a week and hadn't gotten that much more it even though he was a huge star. So while he was on strike literally refusing to go before the cameras, that's when Herb Yates, who ran Republic Pictures said okay, we're going to make somebody else a star. And that's when he helped Roy Rogers get the name Roy Rogers. He was actually born Leonard Slye in Ohio.
Anyway, that was his first starring role was in 1938. And so he then became kind of a little bit of a competition to Gene at that period. But it wasn't really until World War II, when Gene served in the military, that Roy Rogers became the, you know, king of the cowboys.
GROSS: So while Gene Autry was serving in the Pacific, Roy Rogers was making movies?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Yeah. It's - I go into a lot of detail in the book about this because I was able to find correspondence of - pretty unbelievable, Herb Yates really wanted Gene Autry to stay out of the service, and Gene insisted in going in and Herb Yates, you know, Gene was Republic Pictures' cash cow. He was much more popular than John Wayne even at that point.
And so Herb Yates said okay, forget it. We're going to make somebody else a star. You're never going to work again. And literally, I found correspondence that Herb Yates sent to all the movie theater chains in the country saying forget Gene Autry. Republic's new cowboy king is Roy Rogers. We only want you to play the Roy Rogers.
And, of course, Gene wasnt able to make films while he was serving in the Army Air Corps so suddenly, you know, these Roy Rogers pictures became, you know, number one. He was on the cover of Life magazine. And Gene recovered somewhat when he came back from the war and started making pictures again but never quite outdid Roy Rogers in popularity after that.
GROSS: Something that Gene Autry and his rival Roy Rogers shared is that they didn't want their studio to show their movies on TV. What were they afraid of?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Well, what started happening was that people stopped going to the movies to stay home and watch television for free. And, you know, these B westerns had always been kind of budget films, a lot of times they were double features and things like that. So they were really afraid that they were undercutting their, you know, the film's value by having them on TV for free.
Of course, Gene got very smart and actually ended up buying all of his films from Republic Pictures and was able to then show them on his own television stations because he was also very smart and he got into broadcasting. He started buying radio stations during World War II and later TV stations, so he started showing his own films the way he wanted them to be seen on his own stations.
GROSS: You know, weve talked about where Gene Autry fits into the movies as the singing cowboy where his music fits into country music. Where would you say he fits in as a businessman within the entertainment world?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Gene was very savvy early on, that the way to make money in music and a way to sustain an income was through publishing, music publishing. So very, very early, even when he was just singing on the radio in Chicago, he started his own publishing company and started trying to buy copyrights of songs. So that kind of sustained him through some hard times in, you know, in World War II when he was just drawing the pay of a soldier, he was able to make quite a bit of money from the publishing company. And also shrewdly, he was able to invest in radio stations that would continue to, you know, play his music.
During the shellac shortages during World War II he bought a jukebox company that distributed jukeboxes, so he knew that all the enlisted men and women would be listening to jukeboxes, and also that his records would have to be distributed to go on to these jukeboxes.
So he really had a knack for figuring out business and also he was able to look into the future as far as, you know, getting in television really early, buying up some real estate really early and, you know, buying TV stations too when still it was kind of a crapshoot if those were going to really pan out at the time.
GROSS: Gene Autry retired from public performance in 1962. He died of lymphoma in 1998 at the age of 91. You did a feature story on him for The New York Times. You met him when you wrote that story. What was your impression of him?
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: It was so incredible. He was 89 years old. I met him in March of '97 and he still had that charisma. You know, even though he was an elderly guy and, you know, he was funny. He was charming. He definitely liked the ladies. I happen to have a penchant for, you know, Western outfits myself and I was, of course, decked out in my fanciest cowgirl outfit and my fanciest boots that day when I went to meet him and interview him and he was quite taken by my outfit and even said honey, did you bring a Kodak with you so we can get some pictures? And gave me tips on how to keep my boots all shiny and he was just a really - I could see why so many people loved the guy.
GROSS: Well, Holly George-Warren, I want to thank you so much talking with us.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Oh, this has been just a true honor. Thanks for having me on the show.
GROSS: Thanks for being here.
Holly George-Warren is the author of "Public Cowboy No. 1." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. You can see five Gene Autry films this Friday night on Turner Classic Movies as part of this month Singing Cowboy series. The Encore Western Channel shows Autry films every Sunday.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Dolly Parton, who Ken thinks is often underestimated as a singer and songwriter.
This is FRESH AIR.