Orvon Grover Autry was born September 29, 1907 near Tioga in Grayson County in north Texas, the grandson of a Methodist preacher. His parents, Delbert Autry and Elnora Ozment, moved in the 1920s to Ravia in Johnston County in southern Oklahoma. He worked on his father’s ranch while at school. After leaving high school in 1925, Autry worked as a telegrapher for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. His talent at singing and playing guitar led to performing at local dances.
While working as a telegrapher, Autry would sing and accompany himself on the guitar to pass the lonely hours, especially when he had the midnight shift. This later got him sacked. One night he was encouraged to sing professionally by a customer, the famous humorist Will Rogers, who had heard Autry singing. As soon as he could collect money to travel, he went to New York. He auditioned for Victor Records, at just about the time (end of 1928) it became RCA Victor. According to Nathaniel Shilkret, director of Light Music for Victor at the time, Autry asked to speak to Shilkret when Autry found that he had been turned down. Shilkret explained to Autry that he was turned down not because of his voice, but because Victor had just made contracts with two similar singers. Autry left with a letter of introduction from Shilkret and the advice to sing on radio to gain experience and to come back in a year or two. In 1928, Autry was singing on Tulsa’s radio station KVOO as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy,” and the Victor archives show an October 9, 1929, entry stating that the vocal duet of Jimmie Long and Gene Autry with two Hawaiian guitars, directed by L. L. Watson, recorded “My Dreaming of You” (Matrix 56761) and “My Alabama” (Matrix 56762). Autry signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1929. He worked in Chicago, Illinois, on the WLS-AM radio show National Barn Dance for four years, and with his own show, where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. In his early recording career, Autry covered various genres, including a labor song, “The Death of Mother Jones” in 1931.
Autry also recorded many “hillbilly”-style records in 1930 and 1931 in New York City, which were certainly different in style and content from his later recordings. These were much closer in style to the Prairie Ramblers or Dick Justice, and included the “Do Right, Daddy Blues” and “Black Bottom Blues,” both similar to “Deep Elem Blues.” These late-Prohibition era songs deal with bootlegging, corrupt police, and women whose occupation was certainly vice. These recordings are generally not heard today but are available on European import labels, such as JSP Records. His first hit was in 1932 with “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” a duet with fellow railroad man, Jimmy Long, and which Autry and Long co-wrote.
Autry also sang the classic Ray Whitley hit “Back In The Saddle Again”, as well as many Christmas holiday songs, including “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” his own composition “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and his biggest hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” after being the Grand Marshall of the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade (Now the Hollywood Christmas Parade). He heard all of the spectators watching the parade saying “Here comes Santa Claus!” virtually handing him the title for his song. He recorded his version of the song in 1947 and it became an instant classic.
Autry was the original owner of Challenge Records. The label’s biggest hit was “Tequila” by The Champs in 1958, which started the rock-and-roll instrumental craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He sold the label soon after, but the maroon and later green label has the “GA” in a shield above the label name. Autry made 640 recordings, including more than 300 songs written or co-written by himself. His records sold more than 100 million copies and he has more than a dozen gold and platinum records, including the first record ever certified gold.
Discovered by film producer Nat Levine in 1934, Autry and Burnette made their film debut for Mascot Pictures Corp. in In Old Santa Fe as part of a singing cowboy quartet; he was then given the starring role by Levine in 1935 in the 12-part serial The Phantom Empire. Shortly thereafter, Mascot was absorbed by the newly formed Republic Pictures Corp. and Autry went along to make a further 44 films up to 1940, all B Westerns in which he played under his own name, rode his horse, Champion, had Burnette as his regular sidekick, and had many opportunities to sing in each film. Pat Buttram was picked by Gene Autry, recently returned from his World War II service in the United States Army Air Forces, to work with him. Buttram would co-star with Gene Autry in more than 40 films and in over 100 episodes of Autry’s television show.
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll Autry was listed every year from 1936 to 1942 and 1946 to 1954 (he was serving in the AAF 1943–45), holding first place 1937 to 1942, and second place (after Roy Rogers) 1947 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1936 to 1955, holding first place from 1936 to 1942 and second place (after Rogers) from 1943 to 1952. While these two polls are really an indication only of the popularity of series stars, Autry also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films from 1940 to 1942, His Gene Autry Flying “A” Ranch Rodeo show debuted in 1940.
Gene Autry was the first of the singing cowboys in films, but was succeeded as the top star by Roy Rogers while Gene Autry served in the AAF during World War II. Autry briefly returned to Republic to finish out his contract, which had been suspended for the duration of his military service and which he had tried to have declared void after his discharge. He appeared in 1951 in the film Texans Never Cry, with a role for newcomer Mary Castle. After 1951 he formed his own production company to make Westerns under his own control, which continued the 1947 distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures.
Autry purchased the 110 acre Monogram Movie Ranch in 1953, located in Placerita Canyon near Newhall, California in the northern San Gabriel Mountains foothills. He renamed it the Melody Ranch after his movie Melody Ranch. Autry then sold 98 acres of the property, most of the original ranch. The Western town, adobes, and ranch cabin sets and open land for location shooting were retained as a movie ranch on 12 acres. A decade after he purchased Melody Ranch, a brushfire swept through in August 1962, destroying most of the original standing sets. However, the devastated landscape did prove useful for productions such as Combat!. A complete adobe ranch survived at the northeast section of the ranch.
In 1990, after his favorite horse Champion, who lived in retirement there, died, Autry put the remaining 12 acre ranch up for sale. It is now known as the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio and Melody Ranch Studios on 22 acres. The ranch has Melody Ranch Museum open year-round; and one weekend a year the entire ranch is open to the public during the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, another legacy of Autry’s multi-talents.
From 1940 to 1956, Autry had a huge hit with a weekly show on CBS Radio, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. His horse, Champion, also had a CBS-TV and Mutual radio series, The Adventures of Champion. In response to his many young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him, Autry created the Cowboy Code, or Ten Cowboy Commandments. These tenets promoting an ethical, moral, and patriotic lifestyle that appealed to youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, which developed similar doctrines. The Cowboy Code consisted of rules that were “a natural progression of Gene’s philosophies going back to his first Melody Ranch programs—and early pictures.” According to the code:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his own television show on CBS and made several appearances on ABC-TV’s Jubilee USA in the late 1950s. In 1995 Autry costarred with Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Deborah Winters and Peter Graves in the Warren Chaney docudrama, America: A Call to Greatness.
During World War II Autry enlisted in the United States Army in 1942 and became a tech sergeant in the Air Corps. Holding a private pilot’s license, he was determined to become an aviator and earned his service pilot rating in June 1944, serving as a C-109 transport pilot with the rank of flight officer. Assigned to a unit of the Air Transport Command, he flew as part of the dangerous airlift operation over the Himalayas between India and China, nicknamed the Hump.
Few are aware of Autry’s longtime involvement in professional rodeo. In 1942 Autry, at the height of his screen popularity, had a string of rodeo stock based in Ardmore, Oklahoma. A year later he became a partner in the World Championship Rodeo Company, which furnished livestock for many of the country’s major rodeos. In 1954 he acquired Montana’s top bucking string from the estate of Leo J. Cremer, Sr. and put Canadian saddle bronc riding champion Harry Knight in charge of the operation. A merger with the World Championship Rodeo Company in 1956 made Autry the sole owner. He moved the entire company to a 24,000-acre (97 km2) ranch near Fowler, Colorado, with Knight as the working partner in the operation. For the next 12 years they provided livestock for most of the major rodeos in Texas, Colorado, Montana and Nebraska. When the company was sold in 1968, both men continued to be active in rodeo. For his work as a livestock contractor Autry was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.
Autry retired from show business in 1964, having made almost 100 films up to 1955 and over 600 records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969 and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. After retiring, he invested widely and in real estate, radio, and television, including the purchase from dying Republic Pictures the rights for films he had made for the company.
In 1952, Autry bought the old Monogram Ranch in Placerita Canyon (Newhall-Santa Clarita, California,) and renamed it Melody Ranch. Numerous “B” Westerns and TV shows were shot there during Autry’s ownership, including the initial years of Gunsmoke with James Arness. Melody Ranch burned down in 1962, dashing Autry’s plans to turn it into a museum. According to a published story by Autry the fire caused him to turn his attention to Griffith Park, where he would build his Museum of Western Heritage (now known as the Autry National Center). Melody Ranch came back to life after 1991, when it was purchased by the Veluzat family and rebuilt. It survives as a movie location today as well as the home of the City of Santa Clarita’s annual Cowboy Festival, where Autry’s legacy takes center stage.
In the 1950s, Autry had been a minority owner of the minor-league Hollywood Stars. In 1960, when Major League Baseball announced plans to add an expansion team in Los Angeles, Autry—who had once declined an opportunity to play in the minor leagues—expressed an interest in acquiring the radio broadcast rights to the team’s games. Baseball executives were so impressed by his approach that he was persuaded to become the owner of the franchise rather than simply its broadcast partner. The team, initially called the Los Angeles Angels upon its 1961 debut, moved to suburban Anaheim in 1966, and was renamed the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when it became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Autry served as vice president of the American League from 1983 until his death. In 1995 he sold a quarter share of the team to The Walt Disney Company and a controlling interest the following year, with the remaining share to be transferred after his death. Earlier, in 1982, he sold Los Angeles television station KTLA for $245 million. He also sold several radio stations he owned, including KSFO in San Francisco,KMPC in Los Angeles, KOGO in San Diego, and other stations in the Golden West radio network.
The number 26 (as in 26th man) was retired by the Angels in Autry’s honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball’s rosters are 25-man strong, so Autry’s unflagging support for his team made him the 26th member.
Gene Autry died of lymphoma on October 2, 1998, aged 91 at his home in Studio City, California and is interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
- September, 29, 1907
- Burns City, Texas
- October, 02, 1998
- Studio City, California
Cause of Death
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
- Los Angeles, California