Here is a review from Investor's Business Daily for the book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry by Holly George-Warren.
Gene Autry Rode Straight Up
By Curt Schleifer
April 3, 2007
Gene Autry felt a sense of responsibility to his millions of kid fans.
That's why he felt it important always to set a good example of clean living. He'd visit hospitals and orphanages when he was on tour and made it a point to always be on his best behavior.
It wasn't easy, as he admitted to a young reporter:
Being a role model is "a tough job sometimes. There are times when you feel like doing something, but you can't because you feel you must live up to your reputation. And the reputation I have for being a pretty square-shootin' guy, I wouldn't trade for anything. It gives me a lot of pleasure that young Americans look up to me as an example for their own lives."
Autry (1907-98) came from a humble background. His father was a scalawag who deserted the family when Gene (born Orvon Grover Autry) was a child.
Despite his impoverished background – or perhaps because of it – Autry was ambitious at an early age. As Holly George-Warren writes in her newly published biography, "Public Cowboy No 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry":
"Orvon was usually up at dawn doing farm chores before school – milking cows and baling and stacking hay." He also worked after school, sweeping up a barber shop.
"Even as a boy," Autry said later, "I had ambition and wanted to make something of myself."
Did he ever. Autry became one of the best-selling recording artists of his time. "You Are My Sunshine," "Back in the Saddle Again" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are three of his songs that still resonate.
During his film career, he changed the way cowboys were perceived.
Film historian Joseph McBride, an assistant professor in the San Francisco State University cinema department, noted: "He helped change the nature of the Western hero by introducing a certain gentleness and urbanity to the genre, as well as giving us a portrait of the Westerner as an artist (a musician) as well as a man of action."
Like Roy Rogers, who followed Autry, Gene "liked to make modern Westerns – ones set in the present that blended Western iconography with modern machinery such as airplanes and Jeeps," McBride said. "That was appealing to me as a kid and helped keep the genre lively as it developed."
Autry dropped out of school after 10th grade to take a job at a local railroad, where he handled baggage and did other chores. His boss was impressed with Autry and taught him the rudiments of Morse code, which led to a promotion.
Autry throughout his career was plain and simply a nice guy. People enjoyed being with him; they enjoyed helping him.
"From the time I went to work on the railroad I knew everybody by their first names – and I knew their families," Autry recalled in a 1982 interview. "I made it a point to be very warm to the people I worked for. I could see both sides of every story and I always tried to cooperate to the best of my abilities."
In 1928, Autry, self-taught on the guitar, took a two-month leave from his job so he could go to New York City to seek his fortune. It turned out he wasn't ready for the big time. He wrangled a few auditions, but sang songs no longer in vogue. Worse, he sang them nervously. He was told to go home and practice.
Some might have been discouraged. Autry took the advice to heart. If anything, he became more determined to succeed.
"You can never tell when that break comes along, and when it does you have to be prepared for it," he said in a 1991 interview.
He returned to Oklahoma and hired a vocal coach. In addition to his work for the railroad, he took on an unpaid job singing on a radio station during hours when there was no sponsored programming. He took every singing job he could get – from Kiwanis to employee clubs – building his skill and confidence.
Autry stayed focus on his goal. Introduced to Art Satherley, the recording executive who would champion his cause, Gene immediately "asked me if I could do something for him," Satherley recalled.
It was Uncle Art, as Gene began to call him, who spearheaded Autry's first big hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine."
It was Satherley's confidence in his ability that prompted Autry to move to Chicago, where he got his own show on WLS radio.
Show business wasn't as rewarding then to its stars as it is today. His salary was only $35 a week, so to make ends meet Autry took a second morning job on another radio station – and took every weekend gig that came his way.
He handled all the arrangements of those weekend jobs – from chauffeuring his team to handling the advertising to checking the receipts.
Autry understood his limits – and his strengths. He once told film director Frank McDonald: "I know I'm not a great actor. And I'm not a great rider and I'm not a great singer. But whatever it is I'm doing, they like it, so I'm going to keep doing it as long as I can."
Moviegoers associate a number of characteristics with the good guys in Western pictures, and Autry – known as the Singing Cowboy – had them all in real life.
He was honest. Autry typically bought songs before he recorded them. Once a writer sold a song he didn't own to Autry. When Gene found out, he flew to Chicago, returned the song to composer Scott Wiseman for free and then recorded it. That song, "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?," became a major hit for Gene and was rerecorded by Bing Crosby, the Andrew Sisters, Perry Como and, more recently, Van Morrison and Rod Stewart.
He was loyal. Autry wanted to hire a horse trainer, but wrote the conditions of employment: "Right now, the (current trainer) is pretty sick (and) I don't know whether or not he will be able to train horses again. . . . I want you to understand that we are not letting him go, as he will be more or less on a pension with me as long as he lives."
Doing What's Right
Like any cowboy hero, he was fair. Between movies, Autry did a number of personal appearances with a troupe of 40 to back him. Unlike typical showmen, Autry didn't force the promoter to front guaranteed money. It was strictly a percentage deal. If Autry filled the house, they both made money. If he didn't – which rarely happened – they shared the loss.
Autry was a shrewd investor. Over the course of his career he bought rodeos, radio stations and lots of land. He also saw the future and built the first TV sound stage.
He retired from show business in 1964. By then he had made his biggest purchase: the expansion Los Angeles Angels baseball team.