Personalities | Gene Autry | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
It’s hard to fathom now – 70 years on – the enormous impact that the laid-back, unassuming Gene Autry (1907–98) had when he rose to national stardom in 1935. Cowboys and western music had enjoyed a certain currency and mystique before he came along, but the first singing movie cowboy’s phenomenal rise inspired an entire generation and changed the course of country music.
The First Singing Cowboy
Autry was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, in 1907 and moved to Oklahoma in his teens. Little is known about his early musical influences. He learned guitar from his mother, briefly worked in a medicine show, and in the late 1920s began pursuing music while working for the railroad. On a trip to New York, he met the Marvin Brothers, Frankie and Johnnie – pop stars from Oklahoma who would remain important figures in his career. Frankie gave him the advice that changed his life: forget the pop music and try hillbilly. Autry chose Jimmie Rodgers as his role model and, beginning in 1929, recorded dozens of songs in the Rodgers style. He developed confidence as both a performer and songwriter, but blue yodelling was just the means to an end. As he came into his own, he abandoned the Rodgers style and later never cited Rodgers as a formative influence.
Autry’s first hit, a duet with his uncle-in-law Jimmy Long, was the sentimental ‘That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine’. The song took him to Chicago radio station WLS where, guided by his recording producer Art Satherley, he began to style himself as ‘Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy’. Hollywood soon beckoned. After a successful appearance in a Ken Maynard film (In Old Santa Fe, 1934), he was signed by Republic Pictures as essentially the first of a new breed: the singing cowboy. Within a year, Gene Autry was a major star and singing cowboys were all over the place.
King Of The Hill
Autry’s film career skyrocketed, though his recording career developed at a slower pace. Despite a few classics like ‘Riding Down The Canyon’, written with sidekick Smiley Burnette, there was a stilted, old-fashioned quality to much of his 1930s output. Around 1939, however, when he cut his future theme song, Ray Whitley’s ‘Back In The Saddle Again’ and around the time he hired the Kentucky-born country jazz fiddler Carl Cotner (who would become his musical director for the rest of Autry’s career) his music began to catch up with his film career and to settle into a distinctive style that boasted twin fiddles, Frankie Marvin’s unobtrusive steel guitar backing and muted trumpet. His singing remained straightforward, as did most of his songwriting with partners like Johnnie Marvin or Fred Rose, which yielded classics like ‘Dust’ and ‘Be Honest With Me’.
Despite increasing competition, Autry remained king of the hill until the Second World War; he served with distinction in the Army Air Corps for four years, then resumed his career. He scored major hits with...
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