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Autry, Orvon Gene (1907–1998)

Jarad Brown Biography Entry

Gene Autry, the movie star known as the "Singing Cowboy," was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907. He was the first child of cattle rancher Delbert Autry. A few years after his birth, the family moved to Ravia, Oklahoma. At age five Gene began singing in the church choir where his grandfather was a minister. At age twelve he received his first guitar lessons from his mother on a guitar ordered through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As a young man Autry was hired as a telegraph operator for the Frisco Railroad in Chelsea, Oklahoma. One evening in 1927, during Autry's shift, Will Rogers overheard the young telegraph operator singing and playing guitar. Rogers was so impressed that he suggested Autry move to New York and try to find work on radio. Autry heeded Rogers's advice but was unable to establish a successful radio career and soon returned to Oklahoma.

Autry was billed as the "Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy" on Tulsa radio station KVOO. In 1929 he signed his first record deal and returned to New York. Two years later he recorded his first hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," which eventually sold a million copies. The recording set an industry record for sales and became part of the first album in history to go gold (500,000 units sold). The next year Autry married Ina Spivey, a schoolteacher from Oklahoma. In 1934 he began his Hollywood career as a singing cowboy in the Western movie In Old Santa Fe, starring Ken Maynard. The following year Autry played the lead in another Western named after his hit song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." By 1942 he had established a successful career in recording, touring, and moviemaking. All of these projects were put on hold, however, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Autry returned in 1946 to his singing and acting career. He also began to invest some of his new-found fortune in television, radio, real estate, and other ventures. In addition, he formed his own publishing company in order to retain the rights to all of his songs.

As the popularity of B Westerns declined, Autry broke new ground as the first film actor ever to become a major television star. In 1949 he recorded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which became the first record in history to go platinum (1 million units sold). In 1960 he expanded his financial empire further by purchasing the Los Angeles Angels (later the California and then the Anaheim Angels) baseball franchise. Autry was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969. In 1978 he published his autobiography, Back in the Saddle Again.

In 1981 following the death of his first wife, Autry married Jackie Ellam. Together they helped cofound the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The facility has since, through the merger of three interconnected institutions, become the Autry National Center of the American West. In 1995 he sold 25 percent of his baseball franchise to the Disney Corporation. At the time of his death on October 3, 1998, in Los Angeles, he had earned an unprecedented five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. His numerous honors include induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. ASCAP honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Gene Autry's birthplace of Tioga, Texas, held its first annual Gene Autry Music Festival on September 29, 2001, and continued the event for several years. In 2011 he was inducted into the Angels Hall of Fame as that baseball team's first owner.

Gene Autry (http://www.autry.com/), accessed September 7, 2015. Daily Variety, October 5, 1998. Holly George-Warren, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Hollywood Reporter, October 5, 1998.

Categories:

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)
  • Stage and Film

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jarad Brown, “Autry, Orvon Gene,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/autry-orvon-gene.

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