Singing Cowboys Captured the Imagination of Baby Boomers

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Gene Autry and Roy Rogers had an indelible impact on our culture during the 1950s.
Author: 
By Mark R. Gould

It all began with a simple song. In 1925 Carl T. Sprague of Texas recorded the first cowboy song, "When the Work's All Done This Fall." A year later, John I. White was the first to perform on a nationally broadcast radio show. But it wasn’t until the 1930s when the advent of sound motion pictures turned to the singing cowboy.

Ken Maynard (1895-1973) was the screen's first singing cowboy, appearing in silent motion pictures in 1923. His horsemanship and rugged good looks made Maynard a cowboy star.

 

Herbert Jeffreys posterOther notable singing cowboys were Jimmy Wakely, Dick Foran, Rex Allen and a singing cowgirl: Dorothy Page. Herb Jeffries (1913-present) was a singing cowboy in low-budget films, and was known as the "Bronze Buckaroo" by fans who flocked to his films. In a time of racial segregation these films played mostly in theaters that catered to African-American audiences. The films can be found on video and DVD and are titled Harlem on the Prairie, The Bronze Buckaroo, Harlem Rides the Range, and Two Gun Man from Harlem.

The Bronze Buckaroo is available on the Internet Archive.

And then there were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Autry and Rogers, the most popular singing movie cowboys, moved into television in the early 1950s, becoming baby-boomer favorites. Autry started the western stampede to television, and produced some of the more popular shows of that era.

Some of the other early television westerns included “Wild Bill Hickok” (1951-58 with Guy Madison), “The Cisco Kid” (1950-56 with Duncan Renaldo), “Annie Oakley” (1954-57, Gail Davis), “Kit Carson” (1951-55, Bill Williams) and “The Lone Ranger”, 1949-57, five seasons, with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels).

Gene Autry (1907-98), born Orvon Grover Autry in Tioga, Texas, first appeared in a movie western in 1934, and “unbelievably the ideas that came from this Western pretty much started the template of the musical Western," Autry biographer Holly George-Warren told NPR recently. "Audiences just loved them — they had the music, they had the comedy and, of course, the action and those great fancy cowboy outfits, too."

Autry grew up in rural ranches in Texas and Oklahoma and was known as a singer. "It was October of 1929 when he went to New York to launch his singing career and record his first records — not the most auspicious time," says George-Warren author of Public Cowboy No.1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry: "It was just one of those perfect-timing things, because Gene had this 'everyman' quality to him ... and was a real mimic ... so Gene doing [covers of bigger stars] started selling like hotcakes because people could order them in rural areas, and he built up a big audience that way."

By the time Autry arrived in Chicago in 1932 to star in the Radio Barn Dance, he had established his Western-themed brand. He began dressing in cowboy outfits and introducing himself as a "cowboy" on the airwaves, according to the author.

"He started emphasizing the beauty of being a cowboy and the romanticism of being a cowboy, and by 1933 he had begun recording [his own] cowboy songs," George-Warren says. "But he was not an expert horseman. It's kind of ironic — when he made it out to the movies, he had to take a lot of lessons and really train to learn how to be good on horseback."

"Prior to his popularity, for example, most of the music considered country or country-western was labeled 'hillbilly music,' " George-Warren says.”When Gene came along singing country songs for a national audience in the movies beginning in 1935, he was dressed up as a cowboy. And it had this much more heroic stature than, say, the country bumpkin that country music was associated with [prior to that].”

Autry would go on to star in 90 films for Republic Pictures, a low budget studio that specialized in westerns, movie serials and films featuring mystery and action. Despite low budgets, Autry was the number one Western movie star for many years, and in 1940 he was the fourth most popular movie star behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. In addition, he was a radio star, and recording artist whose versions of “Back in the Saddle Again” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” remain popular to this day. Autry recorded 600 songs and wrote 300 of them.

Good guy Autry’s Westerns had a sidekick, usually Smiley Burnet or Pat Butram, and were filled with classic battles between the haves and have-nots. It was hardly an era of political correctness, but his films often had themes that spoke to the issues of fairness to the poor and were respectful to Native Americans.

Although he was writing about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry could have been the example cited by Raymond E. White in his book, King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West. He wrote that Rogers and Evans "personified American society's image of the West...They presented a lighthearted and musical West where goodness always triumphed and justice prevailed."

One of my favorite Autry films is The Cowboys and the Indians (1949).  Here is the story: Autry, a rancher, runs is tricked by a crooked trading post proprietor, when he attempts to aid neighboring Navajos suffering from malnutrition. When the Navajo Chief is found unconscious and his priceless turquoise necklace stolen, Lakohna, next in line to be chief, is falsely blamed. Soon Gene and Lakohna combine forces to take down Martin and help the starving tribe.

After he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, he returned to Hollywood, where he hosted his weekly radio series Gene Autry's Melody Ranch, continued to record songs under the Columbia label, made frequent public appearances in rodeos and continued his film career, sometimes making as many as seven or eight films in a twelve month period.

His horse, Champion, also had a Mutual radio series, The Adventures of Champion. Autry created the Cowboy Code, or Cowboy Commandments, in response to his young radio listeners’ devotion. Under his code, the Cowboy must:

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.

 

According to author Bruce Eder. “When he returned to the recording and movie studios in 1945, Autry was still a name to be reckoned with at the box office, although he was never again ranked among the top ten money-making stars of movies. His movies still made money, however, and he kept making them right into the beginning of the 1950s. Autry had already begun buying up radio stations before the war, and by the early '50s he was owner of several television stations, a studio, and his own production company, where he made his own television program as well as others that he owned.

“His singing career was bigger than ever, however. Even before the war, Autry had occasionally moved away from country music and scored big, as with his 1940 hit version of "Blueberry Hill," which predated Fats Domino's recording by 16 years. After the war, he still did cowboy and country songs such as "Silver Spurs" and "Sioux City Sue," sprinkled with occasional folk songs and pop numbers. In 1949, however, Autry scored the biggest single hit of his career -- and possibly the second- or third-biggest hit song ever recorded up to that time -- with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a song by Johnny Marks that Autry had recorded only reluctantly, in a single take at the end of a session. That same year, he cut "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," a number by a former forest ranger named Stan Jones, which became both a country and pop music standard, cut by everyone from Vaughan Monroe to Johnny Cash.”

Beginning in 1950, he produced and starred in his own popular television show on CBS, Now he and his horse Champion were featured in a weekly television series of western adventures. Gene's role changed almost weekly from rancher, to ranch hand, to sheriff, to border agent, etc. Gene's usual comic relief and sidekick, Pat, was played by Pat Buttram, better known to later television viewers as "Mr Haney" on "Green Acres." He also purchased his old westerns and sold them to TV stations for airing.

Throughout his career, Autry proved he had a knack for business."He was a master at licensing things," wife 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."

Autry retired from show business in the early 1960s. He died in 1998. Forbes said he was one of the richest men in America. He owned television and radio stations and the California Angeles baseball team.

 

Singing cowboy resources @ your library

Public Cowboy no. 1 : The Life and Times of Gene Autry
by HollyGeorge-Warren, 2007.

King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West
by Raymond E. White, 2005.

Roy Rogers: A Biography, Radio History, Television Career Chronicle,
by Robert Phillips.

Cowboy Princess: Life with My Parents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans,
by  Cheryl Rogers Barnett and Frank Thompson, 2003.

Happy Trails: The story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans,
by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans with Carlton Stowers, 1979.

Hopalong Cassidy: An American Legend 
by  Grace Bradley Boyd and  Michael Cochran,  (2008).

Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy by Douglas B. Green,

Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History
by Peter C. Rollins, 2005.

The Gene Autry Book
by David Rothel in Back Matter

Cowgirl Poetry : One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin'
by Virginia Bennett in Front Matter, 2001.

Trail Talk : Candid Comments and Quotes
by Performers and Participants of the Saturday Matinee Western Films

by Bobby J. Copeland in Back Matter, 1996.

 

Look for part two of this article:
King of the Cowboys—Roy Rogers

 

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