Remembering Gene Autry
The Singing Cowboy Is Still Beloved By His Fans
CBS Sunday Morning
September 30, 2007
(CBS) A caravan of ten gallon hats galloped into Hollywood this past summer – worn by starstruck baby boomers (and older) who gathered to celebrate the life of their childhood idol Gene Autry.
"Well, my husband is the love of my life," fan Eleanor Eaton said. "But Gene Autry runs a close second."
Scores of aging buckaroos searched for Autry's stars on the walk of fame - he has five of them - toured the western museum Autry started where his memorabilia is on display, and visited the home where he died nine years ago at the age of 91.
"This is hog heaven! Gene Autry! His home," Autry enthusiast John Bray Warner said. "My big dream!"
Autry was known as the singing cowboy and he rode his way into the hearts of a generation of youngsters dazzled by Saturday movie matinees and later mesmerized by their hero on that novelty, the television.
"They remember him as their Saturday afternoon babysitter," his second wife and widow Jackie told CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen. "And if you consider the '30s, '40s, '50s, the baby boomers, they consider him to be their role model."
"In 1940 he was the fourth most popular of all actors in the country," author of the book "Public Cowboy Number One: The Life and Times of Gene Autry," Holly George Warren said. "He was right after Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. So people just can't imagine how hugely popular he was."
He recorded over 600 songs and had a radio show for 16 years. He starred in more than 90 films and made it big on television as a performer and producer.
Autry made it even bigger as a businessman: He acquired TV and radio stations and a baseball team, and died a multi-millionaire.
Not bad for the Texas boy who dropped out of high school to support his family as a telegraph operator for the railroad. Then one day he took the train east for the trip that changed his life.
It was in New York City that a railroad worker named Orvon Grover Autry became Gene Autry. He came to town with a couple of songs and a prayer.
"Can you just imagine coming in the Erie Lackawanna train station on the train, and looking across this little expanse of the Hudson River and there it is," Warner said, before the Manhattan skyline. "The world is his oyster."
In October of 1929 Gene Autry made his very first recordings. The recording studio ledger now in the Sony corporation archives shows Autry's music was listed as "Native American Melodies." Country and western didn't exist yet.
"I couldn't believe this book actually existed," Warner said. "And when the archivist showed it to me, I just, I welled up. I was afraid I was going to drop a tear and ruin the artifact. And it's recorded here when he was paid. So that's pretty incredible when you think about it. And his millions and millions of dollars started with that payment right there: October 29th, 1929 for those two songs, 'My Dreaming of You' and 'My Alabama Home.'"
October 29th, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday. In the decade that followed the stock market crash, Autry sang and yodeled his heart out to an America in need of comfort. His 1931 hit "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" sold more than 1 million copies.
His traveling rodeo show featuring his horse Champion packed New York's old Madison Square Garden. Soon the singing cowboy was a regular at Manhattan's 21 Club where his picture still hangs today.
"It was this, you know, symbol of success and glamour," Warren said.
As his celebrity grew, Autry's name became more powerful.
"In the 1930s, height of the Depression, this town Kenton, Ohio was about to go under because the one factory in town, everyone worked at a foundry and they made iron banks," Warner said. "But of course no one had any money. So no one needed any bank. So what they did, they got a deal with Autry to license his name for the Gene Autry Cap Pistol. It became so unusually successful that they ended up having three shifts."
Autry wasn't just the singing cowboy anymore. He was king of the cowboys and a marketing genius.
"He was a master at licensing things," Jackie Autry said. "He would put his name on just about anything that pertained to a child. Gene Autry jeans. Lunch boxes. Boots, galoshes, hats, vests, guns, holsters. I mean anything that a kid would like that was safe for a child, or good for a child, Gene put his name on."
During World War II, Autry, a pilot, served in the Army Air Corps and flew a fuel tanker into the dangerous China-Burma theater.
And after the war he found his movies were as popular as his upcoming television shows would prove to be. His faithful young fans believed in Autry's cowboy code, the cowboy ten commandments that began with "the cowboy must never shoot first."
"I guess I always wanted to be a cowboy, you know?" Dominic Lagreca of Brooklyn said. "He emphasized every thing that was right. And I liked the movies 'cause they all had good endings. Good always won out over evil. So I think it presented a really good image for all of us growing up at that time."
Autry now owned some of the lucrative radio and television stations that he appeared on, and the rights to almost every song that he sang.
Autry's recordings of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" are still money in the bank.
"I think most people could retire on what we get from 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' and 'Here Comes Santa Claus,'" Jackie Autry said. "Matter of fact, I think I made the observation that that's what takes care of this house every year."
Along the way Autry helped transform that "Native American" music - what became known as hill-billy music - into something respectable: Country and western, inspiring the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and some you'd never expect.
"Even people that you wouldn't think about," Warner said. "Ringo Starr from the Beatles. Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. They saw Gene Autry movies in the early '50s in England, so they saw 'Oh, there's this guy playing guitar and singing and wearing these short black shirts. So hey, maybe I should do that to get the girl.'"
In his day, Autry was the equivalent of a rock star, with rock star vices that were kept under wraps.
"These people that went to his movies every weekend," Warner said. "At the matinee every Saturday afternoon, saw him as squeaky clean. But you know, Gene did kind of have this frisky side, liked to have a good time."
"So much so that if he would go out in public, women would give him their room key, like a rock star today," Jackie Autry said.
And he was a heavy drinker, like his father who had abandoned the family.
"He said that one time he was in a show in Madison Square Garden and he fell off the horse because he'd had too much to drink," Jackie said.
Jackie Autry came into Gene's life after his first wife of 48 years, Ina, died of cancer. Jackie was Autry's banker and helped him oversee his vast holdings that included the radio and television stations and the California Angels baseball team.
She was 34 years younger and not sure she wanted to be married. But it lasted 18 years and she would not have missed a single day.
"Somebody said to me, 'If you had to describe your relationship with your husband?' I would say my husband was my best friend. He was my pal. My buddy. My lover. And my child," she said. "All in one person."
And to a certain generation, much older and grayer now, Gene Autry remains an idol from long ago childhoods and lifetimes when good always triumphed over evil.