From the early 1930s to the mid-1950s, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” dominated the country & western genre as the biggest-selling recording artist of the era. But more than that, Autry was a phenomenally successful radio personality, movie star and businessman, too—a cross-platform creative mogul of the kind that today’s pop superstars strive to be. Born on this day in 1907 near Tioga, Texas, Byron Orvon Gene Autry grew up to be one of the most important figures the country music world has ever seen.
As a boy, Autry sang in the church choir in Tioga and mastered the mail-order guitar his parents bought him for his 12th birthday. He was already an accomplished amateur and sometime-professional musician when, in the early 1920s, his family moved to Oklahoma, setting in motion the events that would make him into a star. While Autry strummed his guitar and sang casually during a quiet swing shift in the telegraph office in Chelsea, Oklahoma, in the summer of 1927, Okahoma’s favorite son and one of America’s favorite entertainers, Will Rogers, happened into the office and encouraged young Gene to head to New York City to pursue a recording career. One year later, Autry did just that, landing an audition at RCA Victor that led to his first recording sessions in the autumn of 1929.
Autry’s commercial breakthrough came two years later with the first of his many big hits, “That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine.” When the record sold its first half-million copies, Autry’s label, American Records, presented the young star with a commemorative gold-plated copy of the disc—the first-ever Gold Record. A regular spot as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” on the National Barn Dance radio show out of Chicago soon followed, giving Autry the platform that made him a star nationwide. Then, in 1934, Autry made his first film appearance in a movie called In Old Santa Fe, which in turn led to his being cast as Himself in a B-movie serial called The Phantom Empire, a series that featured not only singing cowboys, but also an advanced civilization called Murania driven underground during the last Ice Age. The Phantom Empire also became one of the most successful film franchises of the first half of the 20th century, earning Gene Autry recognition as one of Hollywood’s top 10 box-office attractions.
Except during a hiatus for service in World War II, Autry continued an amazing career streak well into the 1950s, amassing a string of classic hits that includes not just country classics such as “Back In The Saddle Again,” but also numerous holiday standards including “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” which he wrote himself, and also the biggest hit of his career, 1949’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
In later life, Gene Autry owned a record label, Challenge Records, and also became the original owner of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels. Born on this day in 1907, Gene Autry died shortly after his 81st birthday on October 2, 1998.