He was as homespun as a bedroll, as jovial as Saturday night in the bunkhouse. When he talked, you could smell the campfire burning and the coffee brewing.
His twang was as flat and dry and dusty as 40 miles of Panhandle. He didn't talk, he rumbled, a baritone as deep and heavy as storm clouds over the mountains.
He sang ballads as mournful and melancholy as a coyote in a full moon, and he made strong men cry and little kids grow big-eyed and silent.
He was America's cowboy, the real article, not the rhinestone or midnight or drugstore kind. He grew up in Texas in a town so small the trains only stopped there if they hit a cow or got held up by the Laredo Kid or the Hole-in-the-Wall gang.
He was ahead of his time in that he sang his own songs, not Irving Berlin's or George M. Cohan's. He was as sentimental as a wedding cake.
He managed to project an image of shyness and countrification, but he was as sly a businessman as any Rockefeller or Rothschild. Whether you were playing poker on a blanket or trading shares in a board room with him, you had better count the cards.
They coined the phrase \o7 horse opera \f7 for him because he was the movies' first singing cowboy. John Wayne was "Singing Sandy" briefly but didn't use his own voice.
He never got the girl, just the money. Women wanted to mother him, men wanted to be him. He rode off singing into the sunset in 93 movies with more or less identical plots, and none of them lost money.
He played himself. Other actors wore powdered wigs, buckles on their shoes, false beards and dress suits. He just wore his cowboy clothes and a hat.
He didn't need Garbo, Grable, Harlow or Hepburn. His co-star was a horse. The women in his pictures were usually baking bread or teaching school. People kept their shirts on and the rest of their clothes, too, even their hats. His hat never came off even when he was beating up 10 rustlers or going over a cliff into a river on horseback.
His movies never played art houses or even Radio City. But every kid in America found their way to them in the little backwater Bijous in every neighborhood in the land.
They had titles like "Comin' Round The Mountain," "In Old Santa Fe," 'Git Along Little Dogies," and "Rhythm in the Saddle," and the Academy never bothered to screen them. But he sold more popcorn than Paul Muni.
America loved him and the movies he made. Virtue always triumphed and justice was served, even if his horse had to cut the ropes the crooks had put around his wrists, or use his hat to fan him into consciousness.
He was born Orvon Gene Autry, the grandson of a Baptist preacher in Tioga, Tex., in 1907, and his life was as big a myth as any of his movies except it was caked with hard work. He went to work as a railroad telegrapher--his friend Pat Buttram once said it was the last time he was on key, but he took a ribbing as well as any man who ever sat through a roast--until one day, Will Rogers, no less, came in to send a wire and heard him sing and recommended a show business career.
Gene Autry never looked back. He dashed off his first big hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," with a fellow railroad employee. He went to Chicago and New York, where he had his own radio shows off and on for a quarter of a century. He played the guitar back in the days when not everyone did and he had a pleasant baritone with a quaver in it that every man thought he had.
In the 1930s, Hollywood called. The movies had begun to talk--and sing--and Gene turned out potboilers by the score. Too canny to sit at home and spend his money in the fleshpots of the Sunset Strip between pictures, he went on tour instead with his own rodeo and his own cash register.
He was as thrifty as an egg farmer and he didn't mind the overnight buses, sleeping with his horse and jumping through hoops of fire. He amassed enough money to buy radio stations, TV stations, hotels, music companies and chunks of Sunset Boulevard.
He remained unaffected, boyishly bashful. He picked up not only money but also song cues wherever he went. Once, when he was sweet-talking a starlet into being in one of his shows, she pouted, "Be honest with me!" Autry raced to his room to set it to music.
A loony, an early-day groupie in Iowa, once wrote him a gushing letter in which she cooed, "You're the only star in my blue heaven," and Autry had it in Tin Pan Alley before he read the rest of the letter.
He picked up "South of the Border" in a theater in Dublin. He was grand marshal in the annual Santa Claus Lane parade in Hollywood when little kids chanting, "Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus!" suggested to him one of the 10 most successful Christmas songs.
He made only one musical miscue. He didn't want to do "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." He finally put it on the flip side, grudgingly, of three other records he was releasing as a package. It sold 120 million records worldwide and was the biggest kiddie hit ever.