Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gene Autry, the Christmas Cowboy

When it comes to singers and Christmas, today most people probably think of Bing Crosby. And there should be no wonder why this would be the case. Crosby recorded the number one Christmas song of all time, "White Christmas," which originated in a classic Yuletide film (Holiday Inn). He also recorded several Christmas albums and had his own Christmas special each year until he died. It must be pointed out, however, that Bing Crosby did not have a monopoly on Christmas. In many respects he was rivalled by Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who recorded the best selling Christmas song of all time besides "White Christmas ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer").

Today when most people think of Gene Autry, they probably think of the many B Westerns he made from 1934 to 1953. In fact, Autry was a recording artist before he ever graced the silver screen. He started performing on local radio in 1928. By 1929 he had signed a recording deal with Columbia Records. He would have his first hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," in 1932. From the early Thirties into the Fifties, Gene Autry was perhaps the top Western recording artist. Roy Rogers may have overtaken Autry when it came to B Western movies in the Forties, but no solo artist surpassed him when it came to recording Western music.

It was in 1947 that Autry began his long association with Christmas by recording "Here Comes Santa Claus," a song co-written by Autry with Oakley Haldeman. The song was inspired when Gene Autry rode in the 1946 Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles. He could hear the crowd chanting "Here comes Santa Claus (like most Christmas parades, the Hollywood Parade climaxed with the arrival of Old Saint Nick)." "Here Comes Santa Claus" would become one of Autry's biggest hits. It reached #9 on the Billboard pop charts and #5 on the country charts. It has since been covered by such diverse artists as Doris Day, Elvis Presley, and Billy Idol.

The success of "Here Comes Santa Claus" established Gene Autry who could make hits out of Christmas songs. Songwriters began to send their holiday themed compositions to him in droves. Among the songs on which he passed was one based on a Christmas character already established as a part of American pop culture. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been created by copywriter Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward as part of holiday giveaway in 1939. It was about 1948 that May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks, adapted May's original story as the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Among the artists to whom Marks sent the song was Gene Autry. Initially Autry was none too fond of the song, feeling it did not fit his image. Fortunately, his wife Ina loved the song, seeing great appeal in its ugly ducking story. She convinced Autry to record the song, which he did on June 27, 1949. It was perhaps the wisest decision of his career, as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the biggest hit of his career, going all the way to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. In the end it would become the second best selling Christmas song of all time.

The success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" would bring another hit song to Gene Autry, and would create yet another character that has become a part of American pop culture. Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson had written "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," which had become an Eastertime hit for Autry. Taking note of the success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," they decided to write their own children's Christmas song. After considering a number of ideas for a few months, they finally settled on the tale of snowman comes to life thanks to a magic hat. Rollins wrote the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman," while Nelson then provided the music. They sent the song to Gene Autry in hopes that he would repeat the success he had with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Recorded on June 12, 1950, "Frosty the Snowman" was not quite the success that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was, but it was a bona fide hit. "Frosty the Snowman" went to #7 on the Billboard pop charts and #4 on the country charts.

Over the next few years Gene Autry would record several Christmas songs. In 1953 he recorded nine alone. Among the songs which he recorded were "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Up On the House Top," "'Twas the Night Before Christmas (with Rosemary Clooney)," "Jingle Bells," and others. Autry would also write other Yuletide songs following "Here Comes Santa Claus." He wrote co-wrote "Nine Little Reindeer" with Merle Travis and Johnny Marks (of Rudolph fame). He also co-wrote his last Yuletide hit, "Sleigh Bells," with Michael Carr. Released in 1957, "Sleigh Bells" was not the success that "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," or "Frosty the Snowman" were, although it did do quite well. In 1957 Gene Autry released a Christmas album: Gene Autry Sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Favourites. The album contained twelve of the Christmas songs performed by Gene Autry, which was not nearly all of them. In all, Gene Autry would record twenty six different Christmas songs in his career.

Having been the first artist to record three of the most successful Christmas songs of all time ("Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Frosty the Snowman"), one of them the second most successful Christmas song of all time, Gene Autry occupies a position among music artists that only Bing Crosby can match. Although many today do not identify Gene Autry with the season, there is every reason he should be so identified. Regardless, I am willing to be that for most individuals the holiday season would not be the same without hearing Gene Autry's renditions of various Christmas songs throughout the season.

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