Western Stars of the Past: Gene Autry


Gene Autry 1907-1998

I have been following the career of Gene Autry for many years but only today did I know his first name was Orvon and that he was Orvon Eugene Autry when he was born on September 29, 1907 in Tioga, Texas.

His family moved to Oklahoma in the 1920’s and after becoming a telegrapher for a railroad company he would practice singing especially after midnight. Will Rogers overheard him singing and told him he should be a professional singer.

He signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1929 and three years later he recorded his first hit song  That Silver-Haired-Daddy of Mine. Back in the Saddle Again was another of his early hits.

Autry not only received a Gold Record for That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine but it was the first Gold Record received by any recording artist according to his official website.

Although Autry is known for singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer he wrote the Christmas standard Here Comes Santa Claus.

He would make his movie debut in 1934 in the movie In Old Santa Fe with Smiley Burnette who would be his sidekick portraying Frog Milhouse and Burnette also wrote many of the songs sung in the Autry films. He appeared in 80 of the Gene Autry westerns.

Pat Buttram would later replace Burnette in his movies when Autry returned from fighting in World War II since Burnette had found other employment. However, Burnette played a lot of different characters in the Autry films having different names in most of the movies.

Burnette did return to appear in the last six Gene Autry films which were released in 1953 after being in 56 films with western star Charles Starrett in the Durango Kid movies.

Not only was Gene Autry a recording star and western movie star but he also served in the Army Air Force from July of 1942 till October of 1945 during the height of his movie career. He was a flight officer flying planes in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Autry also was  an old time radio star appearing on his Melody Ranch radio program from 1940 to 1956. His horse Champion also had a radio show Adventures of Champion.

He wrote the Cowboy Commandments for his young listeners of the radio program:

  1. Never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage;
  2. Never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him;
  3. Always tell the truth;
  4. Be gentle with children, the elderly and animals;
  5. Not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas;
  6. Help people in distress;
  7. Be a good worker;
  8. Keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits;
  9. Respect women, parents and his nation’s laws;
  10. Be a patriot.

Autry’s films were loaded with action and singing and he was one of the first of the singing cowboys in the movies.

The town of Gene Autry, Oklahoma was named for him in 1941 and the 2000 census shows a population of 99 for the town. He bought a 1,200 acre ranch named the Flying A Ranch in 1939 near Berwyn, Oklahoma.

He also appeared on television on the CBS network and even had a Golden Book for children written about him.

Another first for Autry is that he was the first recording artist to sell out Madison Square Garden. He also received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his accomplishments in five categories with stars in five different locations.

Dell Published printed a million copies of Gene Autry comic books in 1948 showing again how popular Gene Autry was in radio, television, movies, childrens books, comics and later as a baseball owner.

Even with all that was going on with his career Autry he also found time to provide stock for rodeos and was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame for his participation as a stock contractor.

He bought several radio stations and television stations and owned the broadcast rights to the Los Angeles Angels baseball team and became the owner of the team. He not only was the first owner of the Angels was the vice president of the American League.

Among his other accomplishments were his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969, the Angels retired No.26 in his honor even though he never played professional baseball and was honored for his work to preserve the memory of the old west days. Major league teams have 25 player rosters so that is how the No.26 became his number since he was regarded as the 26th man.

His entry into the restaurant business was short-lived when he refused to pay the Chicago mafia a fee to open his business. Gangsters showed up on opening night and ordered the staff to leave and then destroyed the restaurant. That ended Autry’s foray into the restaurant business.

However money was never a problem for Autry as he was on the list in Forbes magazine of the 400 Richest Americans for many years and his fortune was valued at $320 million in 1995 which by then was not enough to be in the top 400 richest.

Surprisingly Gene Autry was the musical inspiraton for Beatle Ringo Starr who made this quote about his interest in Autry:

Gene Autry was the most. It may sound like a joke – Go and have a look in my bedroom, It’s covered with Gene Autry posters. He was my first musical influence.
Ringo Starr

Gene Autry’s life ended on October 2, 1998 due to lymphoma dying at his home in Studio City, California. His death came less than three months after the death of his contemporary singer-cowboy Roy Rogers.

It can said that Gene Autry was a success at everything he attempted in life except for the restaurant business but nobody could have succeeded under those conditions.




Gene Autry died extremely rich but was buried in a grave with a simple marker with all the others in the cemetery. This tells me he never thought he was special but he will be special to those of us who remember seeing his movies and listening to his recordings especially the Christmas songs.




This memorial at the Find A Grave website reminds me of how much I loved him singing Christmas songs:

Santa Claus comes tonight! Thanks, Gene for all you did for us kids of yesteryear. May you rest in peace, and may God be with you always.
– K. Williams
Added: Dec. 24, 2010

What a tribute to a great man who was such a great role model for kids and adults alike.


Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

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