Gene Autry Biography: Public Cowboy #1


The New York Times has posted a review of the new biography of this famous singing cowboys.  I got to see him on stage, with Champion, when I was little, and all I remember was how exciting it was and how much the fans loved him.

Reviewed By Jeanine Basinger the New York Times |
Posted April 22, 2007

The first man I fell in love with was Gene Autry. I was only 4, but I wasn’t alone in my ardor. Autry, the singing cowboy, was a true showbiz phenomenon, the only American performer to have five different stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — one each for films, recordings, television, radio and live performance. In 1941 alone, he did eight recording sessions, seven movies and a weekly radio show.

In 1940, he was No. 4 on the motion picture exhibitors’ Top 10 box office draws, following Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable — and was No. 1 among Western stars, for the fourth year a row. When he died in 1998 at 91, Autry was worth $320 million, and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now the Autry National Center), in Los Angeles, stands as a testament to his cultural significance. Under the circumstances, it’s surprising that Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No. 1 is the first full-length Autry biography.

George-Warren was given access to Autry’s archives, and she presents a complete portrait of the poor boy named Orvon Grover Autry who worked hard to rise to the top of a profession that was alien to his origins. She doesn’t psychoanalyze Autry, interpret him or tell alleged “secrets” that she alone miraculously knows. Her Autry is externalized, but her research is deep and impeccable. Every celebrity could use a biographer of this caliber.

In describing his rise to stardom, George-Warren provides an excellent explanation of how Autry’s 1930s radio career evolved. (He became a star because of radio.) She describes his hit songs and traces his gradual fashion change, from work clothes and cheap suits to an upscale buckaroo look.

She describes Autry as a shrewd businessman who knew how to brand more than cattle. He sold products bearing his signature (guitars, Western duds, paper dolls and coloring books), shrewdly selected the songs he recorded (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is still with us), created traveling rodeo shows and was a promoter worthy of P.T. Barnum. When he had only three days to get his famous horse, Champion, to Madison Square Garden for a sold-out rodeo, Autry turned the problem into a publicity bonanza. Champion was toasted as “the first horse to make a transcontinental flight cross-country” — on a specially outfitted TWA plane.

Autry put his signature on 20th-century entertainment. He mastered synergy before anyone had coined the term. He used his movies to sell his radio show, his radio show to sell his recordings, his records to sell his sheet music and the covers of his sheet music to sell his movies. When television arrived, he was the first real star to accept it. “Let’s look it square in the face,” he said. “The sooner we all start figuring out how to benefit from it the better off we’ll be.”

Autry became the owner of hotels, television and radio stations, record labels, valuable real estate and the Los Angeles area’s American League baseball franchise, then known as the California Angels.

Today he is best known for his Western movies, which, George-Warren takes care to explain, were always musicals. Autry, called “Bing Crosby on horseback,” was the biggest of the singing-cowboy stars. His voice contained the lonely moo associated with the “alone on the trail” song, but he could also knock out an up-tempo beat or a ballad. He entered films as an amateur with no acting experience but found the perfect movie role: himself.

His Westerns were set in modern times, and although he ropes, rides and delivers plenty of action, his enemies are Nazi spies, gangsters, evil film producers and crooked oil companies. In Public Cowboy No. 1, the film that gives George-Warren’s book its title, Autry fights cattle rustlers who track herds by short-wave radio and airplane surveillance, killing the beef on the spot and carting it off in refrigerated trucks, dropping tear-gas bombs on their pursuers.

Unabashedly a fan, George-Warren respects Autry but does not try to hide his demons. She discusses his considerable ability to knock ’em back, his womanizing and his quarrels with the president of Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates. Autry never forgot how, when he voluntarily enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Yates spent lavishly during his absence to promote Leonard Slye from Cincinnati as a rival replacement. (Slye, renamed Roy Rogers, worked out fine.)

Autry, however, never really lost his fans and always believed in his ability to remain popular: “If you stay out there long enough, it’ll come back in style.” As George-Warren makes clear, Autry’s style was original and still hasn’t gone away. His clothes, his guitars and his easy-does-it manners became the country-music prototype. Johnny Cash called him a major influence, Ringo Starr wanted to be a cowboy like him, and Willie Nelson named a son for him. “Public Cowboy No. 1” tells the story of the man who inspired their admiration with a quality worthy of the subject.

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