Gene Autry (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In 1933 there was a Lonestar / Monogram film ‘Riders Of Destiny, Sandy Sanders’ starring a young John Wayne. He had been cast as a singing cowboy – light entertainment in a B movie. The only problem was that Wayne couldn’t carry a tune. His voice was dubbed by Hollywood balladeer named Smith Ballew. The film was mildly successful and fans would ask Wayne to sing them a tune. He quickly tired of the requests and refused to play any singing cowboy roles again.
Lonestar was owned by movie magnate Herbert John Yates (1880-1966) who saw tremendous potential in the singing cowboy concept. In 1935 he bought out Monogram and several other small independent production companies to form Republic Pictures. Under Yates’ leadership between 1935 and 1959, Republic made 956 feature films and 849 serial chapters, many of which are classics still played today on television and DVD.
Yates’ assistant, Nat Levine, proposed a replacement for John Wayne for singing cowboy roles: a young telegrapher / singer in Oklahoma. He had a reputation and following by selling large numbers of records though the Sears and Roebuck catalog. His name was Gene Autry. Levine gave young Autry about 10 minutes in a Maynard western, “On Old Santa Fe” to sing a couple of tunes. Fans liked him and he was signed to a contract. The problem was that Autry could act about as well as Wayne could sing. They started the acting lessons right away. Levine cast Autry in a supporting role in a 12-part serial called “The Phantom Empire”. It was part western and part science fiction but assured Autry a 12-week exposure in any theater that booked serials. It worked, Autry sang many songs and the public appeared to like him. Autry’s next film, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was his first starring role and included his first hit record.
Traditional westerns had been a Hollywood staple for years. There were differences, however, between the new musical westerns and the traditional westerns. Beyond the emphasis on music: the usual trappings of the old west were shamelessly combined with automobiles, buses, telephones, electricity, radios, and crooked city slickers. Horses could even outrun motorcars. But the public didn’t seem to mind – they loved it.
Autry needed a suitable guitar for his stature on the silver screen. His cloths were flashy and the hat immense. He chose a Martin dreadnaught because any other guitar looked too small up there in the saddle. The instrument’s name is derived from the largest class of battleships of World War I. To enhance the look, his name was inlayed in large letters down the fretboard.
In 1937 Autry had done so well that he walked out on Republic thinking he wasn’t getting enough of the profits. Yates’ reaction was to get another singing cowboy. They found a young man from Ohio named Leonard Sly. He had formed a singing group with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer called (eventually) The Sons of the Pioneers. Sly had a fine singing voice and the trio had a following on Los Angeles radio and even sang some songs in Republic films. The timing was right. Sly underwent a name change to Roy Rogers. His first starring role was in the 1938 production: ‘Under Western Skies’.
Rogers rose to stardom quickly with the help of Dale Evans, his faithful dog Bullet and his trusty palomino stallion Trigger. Roy married Dale (in real life) in 1947. Gene Autry ultimately returned to Republic and Yates found himself with two of the country’s most popular singing cowboys under contract. This windfall would continue until Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the beginning of World War II.
The movies were only part of the picture. Record contracts and radio appearances were constant and relentless. The guitar-accompanied music was heard everywhere. The appeal of the music crossed between Pop and Country and reached more households than any other form of music at the time. Singing cowboys were a merchandising industry. The most popular toys of the era were six guns, holsters and cowboy hats.
Gene Autry was easily the most popular singer of the time. The list of hit records during the 1930s and 1940s includes “Yellow Rose of Texas” (1933), “The Last Roundup” (1934), “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (1935), “Mexicali Rose” (1936), “Back In The Saddle Again” (1939), “South Of The Border” (1940), “You Are My Sunshine” (1941), “It Makes No Difference Now” (1941), “Be Honest With Me” (1941), “Tweedle-O-Twill” (1942), and “At Mail Call Today” (1945), “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947), “Peter Cottontail” (1949), and nine million-seller “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1948). In 1969 Autry was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (together and apart) were the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music, and the definitive group for cowboy songs. They were also one of the longest-surviving country music vocal groups in existence, covering six decades with remarkably consistent quality. Their intricate harmonies and subtle arrangements delighted 3 generations and inspired many performers. Their hits on the Country singles chart included “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima” (1945), “No One to Cry To” (1946), “Baby Doll,” “Cool Water,” and “Tear Drops In My Heart” (all top five in 1947), “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water” (both 1948), “My Best To You” and “Room Full Of Roses” (both 1949).
There were other singing cowboys — Ray Whitely and Tex Ritter, for example, but the box office belonged to Republic through the early fifties. Tex Ritter made films for Grand National, Columbia and PRC, and rose to some prominence for his rendition of the title song of ‘High Noon’ in 1952. Smith Ballew, the performer who had dubbed John Wayne made a few films. Eddie Dean made a series of singing westerns as well.
Ray Whitley began his singing career in New York City in 1930. He worked in New York as a construction worker on the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge. He formed a western vocal group called “The Range Ramblers” broadcasting on WMCA. They later traveled with the World Championship Rodeo, renaming the band “The Six Bar Cowboys”. Whitley was skilled with a bullwhip. It is said that he could remove a cigarette from a man’s lips with a single stroke, using either hand. Whitley recorded for several record labels, including Okeh, Apollo Records and Decca.
In 1937, Whitley had some screen exposure and decided it would be appropriate to have a bigger and flashier guitar than anyone else on-screen. He approached Gibson and together they developed the Gibson Super Jumbo acoustic guitar. Whitley presented his design ideas to Gibson suggesting that this could really boost the Gibson name. As a result, Whitley was the first performer to own a Gibson Super Jumbo. This instrument is on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The SJ-200 has since become an American icon.
In 1938, Whitley was signed to RKO Pictures and made 54 movies alongside other cowboy actors including Gene Autry. When Autry saw the Gibson Super Jumbo, he simply had to have one. There were a few specification changes requested including much flashier binding and, of course, his name inlayed in large letters down the fretboard.
Whitley wrote the original western tune “Back In the Saddle Again.” The song was first heard in the western movie “Border G-Man” in which he played the part of “Luke Jones”. Gene Autry heard the song and reportedly bought it for $200, making it his theme song. Whitley and Autry changed the order of chorus and verse, and made some slight changes to the melody. The present version is one of the most recognized and recorded Western songs in history.
Other than Autry and Rogers, the most successful of the singing cowboys were Jimmy Wakely and Rex Allen. Wakely was an Autry protégé. The star heard the group in Oklahoma and told Wakely if he ever got to California to look him up. Wakely almost beat Autry back to the coast. Autry was true to his word and the trio joined him on his weekly radio show “Melody Ranch”. They were a success. Wakely went on to make over 30 singing westerns.
Rex Allen was the last of the singing cowboys. By the early 1950s Republic was shifting its energies to television. The “B” western was dying. Autry had moved from Republic to Columbia and would make his last film in 1953. Rogers completed his last western for Republic in 1951 and was in production for a television series. The western was evolving to television and moviegoers were looking for fresh topics. The generation that could afford television had returned from the war and wanted new diversions. Allen made the last singing western in 1954.
Upon Trigger’s death at 33, Dale had him skinned and mounted for display at the Roy Rogers – Dale Evans museum.
Dale Evan’s horse Buttermilk was also mounted for the museum.
When Bullet died, he too was mounted and displayed at the museum.
Roy Rogers died on July 6th, 1998. He was 87 years old. (It’s assumed that his body is buried next to Dale).
Gene Autry died on October 2nd, 1998, 2 days after his 91st birthday.
Tex Ritter died January 2nd, 1974, aged 68.
Ray Whitley died on February 21st, 1979, aged 78.
Their music had been born during the depression in the heartland of America. It had a natural resonance from shared experience. It was optimistic and sentimental. For the Baby Boomer generation (the children of those returning from the Great War to End All Wars), movie and TV westerns left a lasting impression. Here were guys that could really make a difference – they could save their towns and promote justice throughout the land. They somehow managed to do it with determination, a guitar, a loyal horse and a good woman. It was a pleasant American view of the world. It also somehow tied the concept of a guitar to changing things for the better. This concept would grow through the late 1950s and well into the 1960s.
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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth