Gene Autry is the only person to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. There’s one each for radio, records, film, television, and live theatrical performances.
During his career, he appeared in 94 films and released 635 songs that sold over 100 million copies. There were over one hundred episodes of ”The Gene Autry Show” on TV and 16 seasons of the ”Melody Ranch” radio show. He also owned radio and television stations, real estate, oil wells, a livestock company, and the California Angels. In 1988, he founded the Autry Western Heritage Museum. All in all, not a bad life’s work.
Autry was born in Tioga, Texas as Orvon Grover Autry. He grew up there and in Ravia, Oklahoma. His preacher grandfather had him singing in the choir at five and his mother taught him the guitar, but his way out of the hard life in small southwest towns was to become a telegraph operator. One night when he was singing and playing guitar to while away the time, humorist Will Rogers happened to be in the waiting room. Rogers suggested that Autry go to New York and audition at a record company.
Autry saved his money and did just that. When the record company turned him down he insisted on talking to the person in charge and left with a letter of recommendation and advice to sing on the radio to get some experience.
Gene Autry Lesson Nr 1: Good advice may not get the result you want. That’s the time to work out a way to make something good of the experience. Years later when television came in, it was Autry who advised other entertainers: “Let’s look it square in the face. The sooner we all start figuring out how to benefit from it … the better off we’ll be.”
Autry went to Tulsa where he appeared on KVOO as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” doing covers of Jimmy Rodgers’ songs. He was also doing hard blues, “hillbilly” music, and anything else he could sell.
Gradually, he became “a” and then “the” singing cowboy. His outfits went from work clothes to suits to tailored Western suits. I listened to several of Autry’s recordings as I prepared this piece, and what struck me was what a great singer he was. He could have succeeded in a number of genres, but he picked Western/cowboy music to go with the flow of opportunity.
Gene Autry Lesson Nr 2: If an opportunity is right, seize it. Gene Autry didn’t plan to become a singing cowboy, but he became “America’s Singing Cowboy” because he seized the opportunity when it came by.
Gene Autry made things work his own way. His westerns were set in the present day. Their main character was Gene Autry, who happened to have a radio show. Gene got to sing a lot. He cross-promoted everything. His products promoted his movies which promoted his radio show which promoted his records. He formed his own production company to control his movies and television show and to reap the profits.
Gene Autry Lesson Nr 3: Build on the strength you have to create new strength.