Not much happened in the telegraphy office of the St. Louis-San Francisco railroad, especially not on the late shift. To pass the time, the young clerk brought his guitar and played to amuse himself. On one of those lonely nights, he received a visitor. That visitor was legendary humorist Will Rogers, and Rogers liked what he heard from a young man called Orvon Gene Autry.
The chance meeting launched a career spanning six decades that included 640 records with over 100 million copies sold. And that’s just the start of it. Gene Autry starred in 95 movies, had a long running radio program, and produced and starred in his own television show. When he retired from Hollywood, he went on to own the California Angels and KTLA, a Los Angeles television station. He’s also the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for every category established by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. No wonder he’s on a postage stamp honoring Hollywood cowboys!
His success was quite a leap for the young man born Sept. 29, 1907 in Tioga, Texas. At the age of five, Gene’s preacher-grandfather taught him to sing. His mother encouraged her son’s interest in music with hymns and folks songs. Gene was 12 when he bought his first guitar for $8 out of the Sears Catalog. After graduating from high school, he took the telegraphy job that led to his chance meeting with Will Rogers.
Rogers advised him to purse a career in show business, and a year later Gene went to New York to audition for RCA Victor. He didn’t win immediate favor. An executive told him to come back when he’d gotten more experience, and Gene did just that. He returned in six months and made his first recording, “My Dreaming of You” with a flipside of “My Alabama Home.”
In 1929 he signed with Columbia Records and went on to star in “National Barn Dance,” a popular show on a Chicago radio station. By the 1930s, he was one of the most beloved country singers in America, and his sales proved it. Gene Autry earned the first Gold Record ever awarded. No wonder he’s known as “America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy.”
Movies came next for Gene. He first appeared on the screen in 1934, but the film that made him a star was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” in 1935. It led to several more “singing cowboy” movies, produced by Republic Pictures at a rate of a movie every six weeks. By 1937, Gene was rated a top box office attraction in the class of Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy.
In addition to the movies, Gene had a radio presence. His “Melody Ranch” show aired from 1940 to 1956. Just about everyone knew the words to Back in the Saddle Again. When television became the main source of family entertainment, Gene was the first major movie star to make the shift. He produced and starred in the Gene Autry Show for six years.
The stats for Gene Autry go on and on, but there are two things he’s known for that don’t have a number attached. One of those things is “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Gene recorded this Christmas song in 1949, and it’s a true American Classic.
The second is even more fitting for Petticoats & Pistols, a blog dedicated to western romance. Gene Autry is credited with “The Cowboy Code.” Here is it:
1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage – even of an enemy.
2. A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word.
3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
4. A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.
5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.
6. A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.
7. A cowboy is always a good worker.
8. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation’s laws.
9. A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.
10.A cowboy is a Patriot.
If that doesn’t sum up what it means to be a western hero, I don’t know what does.
The Singing Cowboy stamps go on sale Saturday, April 17th. It’s fitting the official unveiling will be at the Autry National Center in the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.