Gene Autry was one of the most influential figures in the history of country music and the film industry. He was known as the Singing Cowboy for his roles in 93 movies and 91 TV productions, where he portrayed the honest, brave, and true American hero. He was also a successful musician, singer, composer, rodeo performer, and baseball owner. He died on October 2, 1998, at the age of 91, from lymphoma. In this article, we will explore his life, career, and legacy.
Early Life and Career
Gene Autry was born on September 29, 1907, near Tioga in Texas. His grandfather was a Methodist preacher and his parents were Delbert and Elnora. He grew up working on his father’s ranch and going to school. In 1925, he left the family ranch and became a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. His talent at singing and playing guitar led to performing at local dances.
He was inspired by the music of Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered the first major influential artist of country music. Autry started recording his own songs in 1929 and soon became a popular radio performer. He signed with Columbia Records in 1931 and moved to Hollywood to pursue a film career.
Singing Cowboy Stardom
Autry made his film debut in 1934 in In Old Santa Fe, where he sang one song. He then starred in his own series of B-movies for Republic Pictures, where he played a singing cowboy who fought for justice and romance. He was accompanied by his horse Champion and his sidekick Smiley Burnette. His films were very popular with children and families, and he became one of the top box-office stars of the 1930s and 1940s.
Autry also continued to record hit songs, such as “Back in the Saddle Again”, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “South of the Border”, and “You Are My Sunshine”. He was one of the first artists to cross over from country to pop music. He also wrote and recorded many Christmas songs, such as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Here Comes Santa Claus”, and “Up on the House Top”. His Christmas songs are still widely played today.
Military Service and Post-War Career
Autry joined the US Army Air Corps in 1942 during World War II. He served as a flight officer and a transport pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater. He also entertained the troops with his songs and guitar. He returned to Hollywood in 1946 and resumed his film career. However, he faced competition from another singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, who had taken over his spot at Republic Pictures.
Autry decided to branch out into other media ventures. He started his own production company, Flying A Productions, which produced his films and TV shows. He also bought several radio stations in Southern California and launched his own television station, KTLA. He hosted The Gene Autry Show on CBS from 1950 to 1956, which featured him as a rancher who solved crimes with his sidekick Pat Buttram.
Autry also became interested in baseball and bought a minor league team, the Hollywood Stars, in 1952. He later sold the team and became the founding owner of the California Angels (now Los Angeles Angels) in 1961. He remained involved with the team until his death.
Retirement and Legacy
Autry retired from show business in 1964 after appearing in his last film, Alias Jesse James. He devoted his time to his business interests and philanthropic activities. He donated millions of dollars to various causes, such as education, health care, arts, and culture. He also established the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum (now Autry Museum of the American West) in Los Angeles, which showcases his collection of Western art and memorabilia.
Autry received many honors and awards for his achievements in entertainment and sports. He was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also awarded five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for film, television, music, radio, and live performance. He is the only person to have stars in all five categories.
Autry died on October 2, 1998, at his home in Studio City, California, from lymphoma. According to The Celebrity Deaths, he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills.
Gene Autry’s death marked the end of an era for country music and Hollywood. He was one of the pioneers who brought country music to a national audience through his singing cowboy films. He also influenced generations of musicians, actors, and fans with his songs and persona. He left behind a legacy of honesty, bravery, and generosity that will always be remembered.