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Tex Ritter, Singing Cowboy

Published: 1/2/2014
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Tex Ritter (AP Photo)

B-movie Westerns of the 1930s and 40s relied on a variety of archetypes and stereotypes – the villain in a black hat and the hero in a white one, the barmaid with a heart of gold, the saloon brawl. Perhaps none is as delightfully goofy as the singing cowboy. These wranglers would break into song at the drop of a white hat – whether they were sitting in the saddle, relaxing around the campfire, or striding down a dusty road.

Two of the most famous singing cowboys were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne dabbled (though his vocals had to be dubbed). You didn’t necessarily have to be a great singer to star as a singing cowboy, but the best-loved ones provided their own golden tones. And up there among the greatest genuine singing cowboys was Tex Ritter, multi-talented star of movies, radio and beyond before his death 40 years ago today.

Born Woodward Maurice Ritter on Jan. 12, 1905, he grew up on a farm in Panola County, Texas. He acquired his not-too-surprising nickname early in his career – in 1931, just three years after he moved to New York City to pursue fame as a singer. He landed the part of cowboy Cord Elam in the Broadway show Green Grow the Lilacs (the basis for the musical Oklahoma!). His Texas accent set him apart from his New York co-stars, and the moniker was born.

Ritter broke into the movie biz with a bang in 1936 – his first film, Song of the Gringo, gave him several solo musical numbers, and he even loaned his own nickname to his character. Ritter also got to show off his skills for getting a laugh…and for charming the ladies.

Tex Ritter would play singing cowboys named Tex in Western after Western – almost 50 of them between 1936 and 1945. Trouble in Texas was another early favorite.

Around the same time he began starring in movies, Ritter started recording songs as well. But it would be a few years before his music career took off. His first No. 1 hit on the country charts came in 1944 with I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You.

It was followed by a string of Top Ten hits, the bulk of them in the 1940s. And Ritter’s recording career led to a history-making moment: he was asked to sing the theme song to 1953’s powerful Western High Noon. The song won the year’s Best Song Oscar, and Ritter performed it at the Academy Awards ceremony that year – the first ever Oscar ceremony to be televised.

Ritter continued recording in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, with several more hits on the country charts. One was his 1961 roll call of fellow country music stars, I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven.

All these hits led Ritter to greater fame and renown in the country music world. He was a founding member of the Country Music Association, and he worked to form the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. In 1964, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame – the first singing cowboy in its ranks. Next up was a gig at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became a lifetime Opry member.

Ritter worked outside of country music and movies as well. He helped found United Cerebral Palsy after his son Thomas was diagnosed with the illness. He dedicated time and money toward raising awareness and advocacy. And in 1970, Ritter made a bid – ultimately an unsuccessful one – for Tennessee’s Republican nomination for U.S. Senator.

Tex Ritter died of a heart attack on Jan. 2, 1974, but his legacy endures. In addition to listening to Tex’s songs and watching his movies, we can watch the acting work of his son, the late John Ritter (star of Three’s Company and 8 Simple Rules) and his grandson, Jason Ritter, who followed in the family footsteps with turns on Joan of Arcadia, The Event, Parenthood and dozens of other TV and movie roles to his credit.

And that’s not all – Tex himself still has one prominent role. He’s the voice of Big Al, one of the Magic Kingdom’s Country Bears. He performs "Blood on the Saddle" in classic Tex Ritter style, still getting a laugh just like he did as a singing cowboy back in 1936.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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