To most people, Gene Autry is that “singing movie cowboy” who owned the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. But he was much more than that.
He is the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for radio, recording, motion pictures, television and live performance.
Autry’s impact on show business in general and music in particular is still being felt generations later; facts that are excellently chronicled in Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No.1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, a must-read for any Autry fan and anyone with a keen interest in Hollywood history.
Thanks to George-Warren’s exhaustive research, it is the most detailed and honest portrait ever done on Autry and, certainly, ranks among the best biographies written about a movie star. It includes extensive footnotes, a comprehensive list of sources and index as well as Autry’s discography and filmography. It has purposely been published in 2007 to coincide with the yearlong Gene Autry Centennial Celebration.
George-Warren was given unprecedented access to Autry’s papers, momentos, letters and other artifacts by Gene Autry Entertainment and the cowboy’s wife, Jackie.
“He saved everything,” George-Warren said during a recent telephone interview. “I was given a free hand and no one interfered or tried to influence what I wrote.”
George-Warren wasn’t exactly a novice when it came to writing. Currently an adjunct professor of journalism at the State University of New York-New Platz, she is the author of Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West and co-author of How the West Was Worn. She has contributed to more than 40 books about popular music and is the co-editor of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. The rest of her impressive resume is too lengthy to list here.
Although she has written about different styles of music, country and western has a special place in her heart. George-Warren also is most comfortable in western wear.
A native of Ashboro, NC, she was born in 1957 and was introduced to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies at an early age because their films were still airing on regular television stations in many parts of the country.
“They did have an affect on me and I never forgot them,” she said.
The seeds for the book were sown in 1997 when George-Warren was assigned to do a story about Autry for the New York Times.
“At that time, he had done very few interviews in recent years,” she said. “But I managed to get one. I showed up in western dress and he was impressed with my knowledge of his music. We totally hit it off and the story was well received.”
Autry died the next year, but plans to do a definitive book on the singing cowboy’s career remained on the drawing board. When it came time to select a writer for the biography, Holly George-Warren won out over several others who had applied for the assignment.
“My goal was to concentrate on the entertainment phase of Gene’s life,” George-Warren said. “I didn’t want it to be the same old re-cycled stuff about his career. I wanted to expand on the music part of his career. His impact was far-reaching. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and so many others have talked about how Gene Autry’s records influenced them.”
Nelson contributes a brief but poignant salute to Autry prior to the introduction section of the book.
George-Warren said she approached the project “like a detective.” Her efforts to separate fact from fiction uncovered some truths that “were difficult” to write about.
“Gene definitely had an eye for the ladies,” George-Warren said. “But when you’re doing a biography you can’t leave something out like that and then have that information suddenly turn up somewhere else. People have to remember that Gene was a like a rock star of his day. He faced temptations every day he was on the road.”
According to George-Warren, Autry had a lengthy on-and-off again relationship with Gail Davis, who played in many of his movies and starred as TV’s “Annie Oakley.” Davis even wanted Autry to leave his wife, Ina Mae Spivey, whom he had married in 1932. Autry refused.
Autry also had been known to take more than a drink or two, especially in the latter part of his career when he was touring all over the country. George-Warren does not sensationalize these discoveries; presenting them as just another one of the many facets of Gene’s very human personality.
Born Orvon Grover Autry on Sept. 29, 1907, six miles outside of Tioga, Texas, the future multi-millionaire experienced a tough childhood while his family struggled to make ends meet. His roving father, Delbert, was hardly a sterling example for a son to follow. Autry once described him as “kind of a gypsy.” In 1913, his mother, Nora, Delbert’s third wife, packed up the family and moved to Oklahoma where Autry grew into manhood, “fooled around with guitar” and eventually got a job as telegrapher with the railroad.
Legend has it that Will Rogers came in the railroad depot one night while Autry was on duty. Rogers heard the young Gene strumming the guitar and singing. Then, as the story goes, Will advised Autry to pursue a show-business career. However, it appears that was more myth than anything else because George-Warren could find no evidence that such an incident actually happened.
No matter who inspired him, it is obvious that Autry was determined to make it as a successful singer. Having seen poverty firsthand, it was also obvious that he was just as determined to amass as much money as possible.
George-Warren vividly follows Autry’s development as a singer from his first recordings in 1929 when his voice had a distinct hillbilly flavor to those tunes he cut years later when he could smoothly deliver a variety of western ballads.
By 1934, he had become a successful recording artist with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” selling more than a half-million copies and he also had become a regular on Chicago radio station WLS’s “National Barn Dance.” But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Autry’s energetic drive.
He continued to do a pair of weekday morning radio shows and in the evening was off performing at various towns in the Midwest. It was a hectic pace and one he would maintain long after he became an international star.
That year producer Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures signed Autry and his pals Smiley Burnette and Frankie Marvin to do three musical numbers in a movie billed as a Ken Maynard special, “In Old Santa Fe.” Maynard, then one of Hollywood’s most famous movie cowboys, befriended the young Autry during the production. It was something Gene never forgot. Many years later, when Maynard was down on his luck, he received a check from Autry every month.
“Gene Autry was a kind, very compassionate person,” George-Warren said. “He took care of many people he had known on the way up, be it a stuntman or a sibling.”
Levine next starred him a 12-chapter serial, The Phantom Empire, a fantastic tale that combined the science-fiction and western genres. The serial marked the first time a movie cowboy used his actual name for the character he played on screen. It was a practice other cowboy stars would soon follow.
Although a Texas native who had spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, Autry was by no means an expert horseman or a polished actor at the time the serial was shot. Levine put him on a crash course in both departments. Over the years, Autry became a good rider and became more and more at ease in front of the camera. Whatever he did, it worked.
Fan reaction to Autry was so great, Levine decided to star him in a series of “musical westerns.” By then, Mascot had merged with several other studios to become Republic Pictures, which churned out four Autry films in 1935. It was soon obvious the public couldn’t get enough of the singing cowboy and his wonder horse Champion. Autry had pumped new life into what many had considered a sagging genre—the B western. It would continue to flourish for nearly two more decades thanks in big part to Autry who also opened the door for other singing cowboys such as Rogers, Tex Ritter and Rex Allen.
By 1937, Autry was the No.1 money-making box-office western star. By 1939, he ranked fourth among all Hollywood stars, western or otherwise. As George-Warren points out, Autry knew how valuable he was to Republic and he wanted a bigger slice of the pie. He waged more than one battle with the studio, eventually winning bigger increases in salary and other considerations.
Autry became one of the first celebrities to merchandise his name paving the way for Gene Autry guitars, Gene Autry lunch boxes, Gene Aury watches, Gene Autry comic books, Gene Autry cap pistols and dozens of other items. Meanwhile, he continued to record and hit the road for personal appearances tours.
One of his most famous tours came in August 1939, when he, his wife Ina, Champion and Republic studio head Herbert J. Yates made a journey to the United Kingdom. The reception was overwhelming as more than 50,000 Londoners turned out to greet him upon his arrival.
“The only thing you can compare it to is when The Beatles first came to New York in the 1960s,” George-Warren said. “Gene Autry was that big.”
On his last night of the tour in Dublin, more than 10,000 saw Gene standing at a window and serenaded him with “Come back to Erin.” “Fifty-eight years later,” George-Warren writes, “Gene still described that moment with wonder, and how those voices in unison had brought tears to his eyes.”
When Autry returned home he resumed making movies but also began plans to launch his Melody Ranch radio show in 1940. It would run for 16 years. Always a patriot, Autry was also well aware that the war clouds in Europe might eventually drift to America.
In 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor, against Yates wishes, Autry decided to enlist in the armed forces rather than wait to be drafted. Autry eventually earned his pilot wings and flew several cargo missions over the China-India-Burma theater.
After World War II, Autry made five more films for Republic and then organized his own production company with his movies being released through Columbia Pictures. Between 1947 and 1953, Autry made 32 films under the arrangement.
Overall he starred in 89 features. All were popular because of Gene’s warm, easy-going on-screen persona. But there was another factor; his leading ladies were rarely portrayed as defenseless damsels in distress but instead were strong-willed women who had minds of their own and let Autry know it.
In the late 1940s, he also found new recording fame with such holiday favorites as “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Both still get heavy air time on the radio each Yuletide season.
During that time he became the first major Hollywood star to go into television with The Gene Autry Show premiering on CBS in July 1950. His venture into TV angered some movie theater owners who thought Autry no less than a traitor. He told them television wasn’t going away. It was the wave of the future and they had better come along for the ride. The TV show remained on the air until the summer of 1956.
His movie and TV career was over but by then Autry had invested in oil wells, hotels, TV stations and eventually his beloved Angels baseball team. He was set financially. Still, he continued to make personal appearances on into the early 1960s.
“Gene just loved touring,” George-Warren said. “He loved entertaining the people and he did it as long as he could.”
But, George-Warren notes, things were changing rapidly in the 1960s not only socially, but also in the entertainment field especially with music and movies. The singing cowboy and western music soon fell out of favor with the general public. She regrets that many people have never seen a Gene Autry movie or have spent the time to appreciate them. They deliver what they promise—light entertainment, some exciting action and a welcomed escape from the outside world.
George-Warren re-discovered just that in 2001.
“It was a tough year for me,” she said. “I lost my father and mother that year and then there was 9/11. I was in New York that day and it was horrific. Finally my husband, my son and I retreated to our place in the Catskills to get away from it all. We spent part of time there watching Gene Autry movies on the VCR. They were so soothing and calming. It made you understand why Gene Autry was so popular.”