In the 1930s, Gene Autry was working as a "singing cowboy" on the Chicago radio show National Barn Dance when he caught Hollywood's attention.
"He got an audition and got a bit part in [In Old Santa Fe], a 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 tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Audiences just loved them — they had the music, they had the comedy and, of course, the action and those great fancy cowboy outfits, too."
In Public Cowboy No. 1, George-Warren traces Autry's life as he made his way from rural ranches in Texas and Oklahoma to one of Hollywood's most prolific acting careers. Autry appeared in more than 90 movies altogether, including 40-plus between the years of 1934 and 1940. After a break to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, he returned to Hollywood, where he hosted his weekly radio series Gene Autry's Melody Ranch, recorded songs under the Columbia label, made frequent public appearances and continued his film career, sometimes making as many as seven or eight films in a calendar year.
"Before James Brown and Elvis Presley, I think Gene Autry was the hardest-working man in show business," George-Warren says.
"Later on, he was also the first of the Western film stars to get on TV. He started his production company in 1950 and was doing a weekly TV show as well."
From Oklahoma To Hollywood
Autry's career started far away from show business. As a young man, he worked for the Frisco Railroad in Oklahoma as a telegrapher, where he was commended for his telegraphy expertise. As a hobby, he began hosting a weekly show on the radio and performing on other shows, which built his confidence and prompted him to start recording songs — at the height of the Great Depression.
"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. "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 made his way to Chicago in 1932 to star in 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.
"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."
Autry's persona — and his affinity for Western-style clothes — had a huge impact on the history of country music. "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 retired from show business in the early 1960s. He was elected to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and remains the only celebrity to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for motion pictures, radio, recording, television and live theater). He died of lymphoma at age 91 in 1988, shortly after George-Warren met him to write a New York Times profile.
"It was so incredible," she says. "He was 88 years old, and he still had that charisma, even though he was an elderly guy. He was funny, he was charming. He definitely liked the ladies. I have a penchant for Western cowboy gear myself, and I was decked out in my fanciest cowgirl outfit with my fanciest boots that day when I went to meet him, and he was quite taken by my outfit and even said, 'Honey, did you bring a Kodak with you so we can get some pictures?' and gave me tips on how to keep my boots all shiny. I can see why so many people loved the guy."
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.