Gene Autry died October 2, 1998, three days after
his 91st birthday. He was, until the end, playing his greatest
and nearly sole role: himself. To explain the philosophy behind
a multifaceted career that put the screen cowboy into the ranks
of America's moneyed elite, Autry would recount the following:
Whenever a lone cowboy or Indian needed to take a long journey
by horseback, it was customary for him to ride on a saddled
horse while leading another bareback. When his mount began
to tire, instead of stopping for a rest, he merely slipped
the saddle onto the spare horse and rode on. In just about
that way I eased out of my life as a performer and began to
devote my full energy to business. I just changed horses".
Like his rival and friend, Roy
Rogers, who died just months
before Autry, he was first a singer and later a star in other
media. Rogers went west during the depression, seeking fortune
and fame. Autry, who was an actual Okie and later became
known as "Oklahoma's Yodellin' Cowboy", went east after
Rogers discovered him singing and strumming his guitar
one night on the job as a radio telegrapher. He scored early
hits in a number of genres - cowboy songs, folk songs, and
even with a labor ballad "The Death of Mother Jones".
His first real hit was "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine",
a mournful lament that has the distinction of being the first
official gold record certified as a million-seller.He prospered
during the depression, leading the National Barn Dance, a country
radio show, which was supplanted by the Grand Ol' Opry in the
In 1934 Autry started appearing in singing cowboy films,
his first being "In Old Santa Fe". He was far from being
the first singing cowboy. Even John Wayne - though his voice
was dubbed - had done some crooning in chaps. However, "In
Old Santa Fe," Autry set a number of precedents. It was
the first cowboy film driven primarily by song, Autry played
himself, and the film was named after Autry's current hit record.Second
billing went to his horse, Champion.
Since Champion had far
more screen time than the romantic lead, and since the
romantic lead never got so much as a chaste kiss, the billing
Considering the quality of the music and acting, Champion
probably should have received first billing in many of the
of these innovations were Autry's idea, although he did
write many of the tunes.
Scripts touched on social issues relevant to the day — Autry
portrayed an everyman facing down heartless business conglomerates,
corrupt politicians and the injustices of "the system".
Films were set in the present, and women were portrayed as
independent and intelligent - frequently in need of rescuing,
but not helpless.
Autry pumped out westerns at a rate of about eight a
year until his famous walkout of 1937, when he refused
Films until they paid him more and changed their practice
of tying distributors' access to his films to their
acceptance of other Republic pictures. It was an early
of Autry's developing business acumen. In retaliation,
Republic promoted Roy Rogers to starring roles. Autry
after a few months and returned to work alongside Rogers.
There was plenty of movie money for both of them. Autry
harbored no resentment for Rogers' scabbing. The two
Autry left Republic in 1942 to join the Army Air Corps,
which dropped his salary from $50,000 a month to
$115. While he
ferried planes he stayed involved in business, buying
stakes in radio
stations. On his return he bought television stations.
His recording career continued to strike gold, and
one of his
biggest hits was "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (not his
composition). He continued to make movies, but his career as
a content provider began to wane in the early 50s, and his
last real effort came in 1957. By then he was too deeply immersed
in business to miss his career in front of the camera and mike.
The western genre had peaked in years surrounding
WII, and Autry had the sense to realize that his
make a graceful transition. Besides media outlets,
he had investments in real estate, hotels, oil
80's he was regularly
featured in the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest
Americans. He was best known in later years for
his purchase of
the Angels, which he said, was "the most exciting and frustrating
experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight.
In baseball, I hardly ever won one." And indeed, the Angels
have remained a lousy franchise, never even reaching the playoffs.
He leaves behind a sprawling business empire, the
Museum (a serious institution in Los Angeles),
on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a catalog of
over 200 songs that continues to be recorded and to find
craziest thing is, some of the music is really