Today is the birthday of “the kindly gentleman in the white hat”: Gene Autry (1907), the original cowboy superstar of cinema. Autry gained fame in the 1930s and ’40s for a series of films in which he played a red-blooded cowboy hero of the American West, with his horse, Champion, and his sidekick, Smiley Burnett, always in tow. Autry was also a prolific singer and sang some of the most famous Christmas songs in history, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which is now the third-best-selling single of all time.
Gene Autry was born in Tioga, Texas, a tiny town of fewer than 500 people. Most people were poor, and many couldn’t read or write. Autry once said, “When I grew up on the [railroad] line between Texas and Oklahoma, X was not a rating for dirty movies. It was the legal signature of about a third of the population.” He didn’t have much schooling and took it upon himself to learn about the world by reading two or three newspapers a day, including the classified ads.
When he was 12 years old, he worked on his Uncle Calvin’s farm baling hay so he could save up $8.00 to buy a guitar from the Sears, Roebuck Catalog. “It was mean work for a wiry boy, but ambition made me strong,” he said. He taught himself to play and to sing, and before long, he’d moved on to working as a telegrapher, where he sang and played to pass the night shift. One intrigued customer turned out to be singer and humorist Will Rogers, who encouraged him to try his hand singing professionally.
Gene Autry was signed to his first record contract in 1929 and recorded the song “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.” Autry also wrote and recorded songs like “Peter Cottontail,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “South of the Border,” “Mexicali Rose,” and his theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again.”
In 1935, he made Tumbling Tumbleweeds, considered the very first “singing cowboy movie.” He went on to make movies like Western Jamboree (1938) and Cowboy Serenade (1942). A few years later, Gene Autry was so popular worldwide that when he visited Dublin, Ireland, 200,000 people lined the streets to see America’s famous singing cowboy.
Autry’s movies were simple: he saved good guys from bad guys, he never shot first, he never kissed his leading ladies, he sang, and he always rode off into the sunset on Champion. Autry even came up with a “Cowboy Code of Conduct” for kids, which included rules for young cowboys like, “He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals,” “He must always tell the truth,” “He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas,” and “He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.” The Cowboy Code of Conduct inspired the Boy Scouts of America to adopt its own code of conduct.
Gene Autry acted in movies, had a radio show and a television show, and when he retired from show business, he bought a baseball team and named it the Anaheim Angels. He was a devoted lifelong baseball fan. The Angels never won a pennant, to which Autry lamented cheerfully: “For sure, after baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one.”
Gene Autry once said: “It occurs to me that music, with the possible exception of riding a bull, is the most uncertain way to make a living I know. In either case you can get bucked off, thrown, stepped on, trampled — if you get on at all. At best, it is a short and bumpy ride.”
And, “I’m not a good actor, a good rider or a particularly good singer, but they seem to like what I do, so I’ll keep on doing it as long as they want.”
In 1941, the town of Berwyn, Oklahoma, renamed itself “Gene Autry.”