Dan Conway remembers the legendary cowboy actor, Gene Autry
It was typical of those tricky pub quiz questions: “Who is the only person to be awarded stars in all five categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and had a town in Oklahoma named after him?”
To save you scratching your head to the skull bone trying to remember, or figure it out, let me tell you straight away — the answer is Orvon Grover ‘Gene’ Autry. The five categories mentioned above were: Film, Television, Radio, Records, and Live Performance.
After Autry died in 1998, Ronald Reagan, former US President, said, “Gene delighted and touched millions through many careers, as cowboy, singer, actor, radio star, baseball owner, art collector, philanthropist, businessman, and good and caring citizen… So often we’ve caught ourselves humming ‘Back in the Saddle Again’, a song that will always bring back warm memories of Gene.”
Autry became a massive film star (95 films in a 30-year Hollywood career), had his own television series that lasted for six seasons, and he was known by a couple of nicknames —‘The Singing Cowboy’, and (early-on) ‘Oklahoma’s Yodelling Cowboy’.
The yodelling bit was because a major part of his early live performances centred on singing Jimmie Rodgers songs; Rodgers had, of course, been one of America’s best known yodellers.
Autry was the Texas born son of a horse trainer and ranch owner, but he grew up in Oklahoma. From a young age he was driven by the ambition to become a professional singer.
The acquisition of a guitar from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue when he was 12 got him pointing in the right direction. He began performing at local dances when he was 15. But there was no overnight transition from apprentice and railroad telegraph agent to paid professional performer.
He found that out in the blunt traditional way. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” the agents and radio stations in New York told him on an exploratory visit to The Big Apple.
Back out west he went again to give it a lash with the plethora of local radio stations.