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They Were Known as the Singing Cowboys
Gene Autry was a true cowboy born in Texas and from the thirties through the sixties Gene Autry became a legend. Radio gave him fame in the thirties and his first movie was in nineteen thirty five called The Phantom Empire. This spectacular performance was followed by another movie appearance in the film called Tumbling Tumbleweed. Tumbling Tumbleweed was a western with a new twist. It was the first of its kind to be presented as a musical. The success grew as he astounded his audience. Thus, Gene Autry became known as the Singing Cowboy. In the fifties he headed a show called The Gene Autry Show and it ran for six years.
In nineteen forty two, Gene Autry enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and put his career on hold while he served his country as a pilot. It was the Christmas of nineteen forty nine when he made a big comeback by recording the hit Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
Gene Autry won two Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. His talented achievements led to him receiving five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In 1988, The Autry Museum of Western Heritage was opened and most of the memorabilia came from Autry’s own special stock of keepsakes. We lost Gene Autry at the age of 91 in 1998. Today, his legacy lives on as he will forever be known as the first King of the Singing Cowboys.
Back in the Saddle Again
Roy Rogers was beginning to shine as a singing cowboy soon after Gene Autry enlisted. Here at home we were missing the entertainment brought to us western style. Musicals were most welcome and the cowboy singing from the back of his horse appealed to the general audience. It was as though Roy Rogers picked up where Gene Autry left off. But lucky for the public there was plenty a room for both sensations to make a rewarding career in cowboy style stage presence.
Roy took excitement to a new level when he glamorized the talents of his well trained horse, Trigger. Trigger won the hearts of everyone and Roy Rogers reigned at best he could as King of the Cowboys. Animal adventure films became very popular among the young people as Roy Rogers was not only accompanied by Trigger, but also his sidekick, German shepherd called Bullet. Both the movies and television audiences saw his career through six decades.
Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans, known as Queen of the West are seen together in the movies and on television. Dale is Roy’s second wife. They worked together long before the spark of real romance began, but after Roy lost his first wife Arlene in nineteen forty six following the birth of Roy Jr. the singing couple married a year later. Roy and Dale celebrated their fiftieth anniversary New Years Eve 1997. Roy passed away at the age of 88 from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.
So called “B” westerns (low budget films) brought stardom to many actor/ singers of its era. The 30s sure knew how to make great films that were both low in cost and entertaining. What they lost in appearance made up for in talent. The talent of actors and actresses in those days were amazing.
Most film stars were not only good at acting but were musically inclined. Stars like Tex Ritter who were great in the westerns of the 30s and 40s soon became a country music legend. He was well known for the theme song of High Noon made in 1952. He was the first western performer to sign a record deal with Capitol Records. Tex Ritter was a singing cowboy star of radio, television and the movies and he was inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame in 1964. He was married to western starlet Dorothy Fey. The talent was passed down to son John and grandson Jason making Ritter a well known family of popularity.
Singing cowboys continue to shine well into decades yet to come. Rex Allen was an actor, singer and songwriter of the 40s, 50s and 60s. They called him the Arizona Cowboy. He was well known for his distinct voice. He was narrator to nature and western films which merited him another nickname, “The voice of the West”. He wore a white Stetson and starred in western movies using his own name. Rex Allen had great success with his single, “Don’t Go near the Indians”, and Rex was yet another singing cowboy honored with a star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame.
Once a member of Sons of the Pioneers (a famous western band appearing at Carnegie Hall), Ken Curtis tried breaking into his film career about the time “B” westerns were on their way out in the late 40s. His talent landed him many movie deals and when the singing cowboys faded into the horizon Ken Curtis took on more serious roles. He focused on drama and became quite good at doing the comedy parts of these shows. His biggest role came when he was cast in the longest running western drama, Gunsmoke. His character Fetus Hagen became well loved. As he dazzled his audience with the funny stuff he sang to them when all else failed. Ken Curtis surely makes the list as one of the singing cowboys.
When the West was Sung
Singing cowboys take on a different meaning today, but over the years many a singing star turns actor or vice versa. They star in a western film. Does this make them a singing cowboy? I really don’t know. I suppose shows where the cowboy sings and plays a guitar would give the actor the title of a Singing Cowboy, but a singer turned actor without showing their musical talent at all on the film has no rightful claim to such a title or does it?
Such stars like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, John Schneider, Walter Brennan, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Trace Atkins, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and even Elvis may have tried with great success both singing and acting as a professional career. They all could be singing cowboys. They all helped make great westerns.
Even the Duke (John Wayne) tried his luck as a singing cowboy in 1933 movie, Riders of Destiny, but he decided it was not his kind of role. From then on the only time you heard him sing in a western was when he was playing the role of a drunk, such as his performance in True Grit.