Gene Autry/AP Photo
Gene Autry was known as "The Singing Cowboy" and that was long before he was singing all the way to the bank.
A few years before he died of lymphoma at 91 on Oct. 2, 1998, Forbes magazine’s list of richest Americans estimated Autry’s worth at $320 million, a fortune he amassed through entertainment, real estate (including a 110-acre ranch in California used for Western movie locations) and ownership of radio and television stations, hotels, oil wells, and the American Baseball League’s Anaheim Angels.
Not bad for a "singing cowboy"!
Orvon Grover Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907 on a ranch in Tioga, Texas. His grandfather was a preacher, which landed him a spot singing soprano in the church choir. When he was a teenager, his parents moved to Oklahoma, where he worked on his father’s ranch after school. Legend has it that he was working as a railroad telegrapher, singing, yodeling and playing guitar (he started out with a cheap mail-order instrument) at local events when Will Rogers encouraged him to go pro.
In his early 20s, he signed a recording deal with Columbia Records and had his first hit with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" which was later recorded by Simon and Garfunkel and other artists.
It was Ray Whitley’s tune, "Back In The Saddle Again," that became Autry’s theme song and the title of his 1976 autobiography.
Autry’s wide appeal was due to his acting and singing talent, his gentle nature and his generosity.
Autry was married to Ina Mae Spivey from 1932 until her death in 1980. The next year he married Jacqueline Ellam, a bank vice president. He had no children from either marriage.
During World War II, the already successful and wealthy Autry enlisted in the Army Air Force ferrying cargo from the Far East. According to Autry’s obituary in The New York Times, the Army allowed him to wear his beloved cowboy boots with his uniform. He continued to wear Western wear long after his retirement from show business. It was during his absence overseas that his rival Roy Rogers rode into place and was promoted as "King of the Cowboys."
Gene Autry might have been America’s favorite Singing Cowboy and impressively rich, but the numbers from every facet of his life – from the GeneAutry.com website – tell a deeper story:
• His entertainment career spanned 70 years.
• He is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for his work in radio, records, film, television and live theater – including rodeo performances.
• He starred in 93 feature films, many of which also featured his horse Champion.
• In 1940, theater exhibitors voted Autry the fourth biggest box office attraction after Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
• He made 640 recordings, 300 of which he wrote or co-wrote.
• His records sold more than 100 million copies.
• He has more than a dozen gold and platinum records.
• His version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is the second all-time best selling Christmas single with over 30 million sales.
• He produced and starred in 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show for CBS Television.
• He was the first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."