The famed “Singing Cowboy,” this iconic Oklahoma native remains the only person ever to win stars in all five categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: film, TV, music, radio, and live performance. He is probably the single person most responsible for the rise and enduring popularity of the country and western musical genre.
Autry grew up in poverty near Ravia in Johnston County. Autry’s career reputedly began during his lonely overnight telegrapher’s job in Chelsea at age nineteen or twenty when he grabbed Will Rogers’ attention while singing and strumming his guitar. He starred in 93 films, as well as long running radio and TV series’. Even his horse Champion had his own radio, TV, and comic book series’.
Autry recorded 635 records, among them such original and/or signature classics as Back in the Saddle Again, You Are My Sunshine, At Mail Call Today, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Here Comes Santa Claus, and Up On the Housetop.
Already a superstar when America entered World War II, he was also a patriot. He risked his career to enlist and serve. He learned to fly so that he could co-pilot U.S.A.A.F. supply planes into combat zones.
His career suffered for a while, but he eventually rebounded. From the 1950s on, he also established a remarkable entrepreneurial record. It included ownership of the California Angels major league baseball team, major record labels, and radio and television stations.
Autry apparently struggled with alcohol and marital fidelity problems. But he never forgot his own hardscrabble upbringing. He tirelessly sacrificed both his time and money to help the needy. He spent countless hours visiting sick and dying children.
Withal, he strove to live and promote a clean and brave example for American youth during an era in which they faced a mounting onslaught of societally-promoted moral temptations, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, racist segregation, and foreign threats such as Communism, Naziism, and violent Japanese Imperialism.
The Cowboy Code he authored symbolized this, and served as a model for similar creeds later developed by the Boy Scouts of America and many other organizations:
The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
He must always tell the truth.
He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
He must help people in distress.
He must be a good worker.
He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
The Cowboy is a patriot.
Bob Blackburn, dean of contemporary Oklahoma historians, offered some unique perspective into Autry’s state and national cultural impact: “A lot of people know about his movies and his songs, but he was huge in changing rodeo culture. He was such an entrepreneur, (including) in rodeo. He knew horses, because he came out of a ranch culture down near Ardmore. He loved horses, he wanted to continue riding. He found that the commercial opportunities were there through local roundup clubs in rodeo, so he started a rodeo stock company. To convince rodeos to use his stock company, he said, ‘If you use us, I’ll come sing.’ That brought music into what we now know as rodeo.” According to Blackburn, up to that point, many aspiring Oklahoma musicians had no path forward in such a career: “You might have a great musician, but if there’s no way to use it in a commercial setting, to make a living other than playing for the family dance on Saturday night, when you roll up the carpet and push the furniture back and neighbors come in and dance in your little rural community, you’re not going to make a living at it. You’re going to go back to plowing on Monday morning.” Thus, Blackburn continued, through Autry’s vision and influence, the burgeoning rodeo world’s growth developed an enormous platform for country and western music, and gave many aspiring Oklahoma musicians an opportunity to make a living: “There’s a direct path then to Clem McSpadden and the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) and Reba McEntire in Oklahoma. It’s Gene Autry who started this. Thus, the Beutler Brothers out of Elk City (the world’s largest producers of rodeos) had to start doing rodeo music, and so they started bringing in musicians in addition to just the traditional rodeo that you got out of the roundup clubs.”
In a similar way, Autry’s fellow country and western music legend Bob Wills, “the son of a sharecropper down in the Red River Valley, who didn’t want to go back to sharecropping himself, found a way to make it because of radio,” Blackburn said. In Wills’s case, Harry Sinclair of Sinclair Oil fame sponsored a program on Tulsa’s KVOO Radio that catapulted him to enduring fame. “Without Tulsa, the Oil Capital of the World,” Blackburn concluded, “we may not have had a Bob Wills, because there was a commercial opportunity for his unique brand of music.” In both cases, the power and energy of the American free enterprise system, which the consummate artist and entertainer Autry mastered, birthed and developed artistic expression for its people.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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