Today when you’re looking for some sort of electronic entertainment, and, say, want a Western story, then you have quite a variety of choices. However, back in the 1930s and 1940s there were far fewer – mostly just movies, radio programming, or for Western music – records. And one of the most popular entertainers in this area was Gene Autrey who was so popular that he even got an invitation to attend Athens’ Fiddlers Contest in 1941 – and also got an invitation to speak to the Texas Legislature.
The headline of the May 22, 1941 article in the Athens Weekly Review was clear: “House-Senate Invite Gene Autrey to Athens.” The reporter started, “A joint resolution was passed by the Texas Senate and Legislature Thursday inviting Gene Autrey, listed as the outstanding cowboy singer of the nation to visit the Texas Fiddlers Contest and Homecoming on May 30.” The resolution was passed unanimously and the introducing legislators “had asked the body [legislature] to issue the official invitation.” But there was a catch: “Autrey was told that in event he accepts he was also invited to address a joint session of the House and Senate during his visit to Texas.” And in case the reader wasn’t familiar with him the reporter identified him: “Autrey is a native Texan and appears regularly on the radio with a string band and also tops the list as a movie attraction.”
Yet while many performers of that time are long forgotten today, Autrey and his influence is still around.
Orvon Grover Autrey was born in 1907 in Grayson County in northern Texas, the son of a Methodist preacher who moved his family to southern Oklahoma in the 1920s. Autrey worked on the family ranch, but also sang and played his guitar at local events as well as working as a telegrapher for a railroad. One time he even got some encouragement from famous humorist/columnist and customer Will Rogers who stopped by when Gene was playing and singing during a slow moment. Rogers was apparently impressed and suggested Autrey sing professionally.
And Gene did – on the radio and on records and over the next few years he recorded many songs, some of which he wrote himself. One early hit he co-wrote was “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” and another crowd pleaser was his trademark song – “Back in the Saddle Again.” His Christmas numbers remain popular today – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and his own composition “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Autrey was a consistently popular recording artist issuing, according to one source, more than 300 records, and selling more than 100 million copies. One of these was the first certified gold record.
As a major Western movie actor, Autrey was one of several of the “singing cowboy” type – and his movies had a standard format. In fact one of his most popular early movies was a 12 part serial titled “The Phantom Empire.” As he would in future movies, he portrayed a “singing cowboy” with his own radio program and it was set on his ranch. The plot involved a pair of youngsters and how they all confronted the threat of an underground alien empire they discovered. The format of these films was standard – he portrayed himself, rode his own steed (The “Wonder Horse” Champion!) and there were always a few songs interspersed among the action. Yet one interesting feature was that while most Western movies were set in the 1800s Gene’s pictures were often set in modern times. One example was “Twilight on the Rio Grande” (1948) where Gene and his inevitable sidekick are in Mexico when they have to find the murderer of a friend. And like in other westerns they ride horses of course and there are gun battles, but they also use telephones and cars.
Gene also starred in his own radio program, and then went on to appear in a TV series, sponsored by his own production company. His organization also produced other popular TV series at the time including a series based on “The Adventures of Champion.”
Autrey was also a successful businessman, owning record companies, and real estate properties that became the scene of filming for many Western movies and TV series – his own and others. He also owned baseball teams, as well as television and radio outlets.
Another major achievement was founding a Western museum to house many treasures of the old West.
Many performers of this period became and remained obscure, but Gene Autrey is still remembered today.