Gene Autry, Radio and Christmas

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The holiday season has become a time when a lot of local radio –- if anyone is listening -– is entrenched in endless automated Christmas music.  This is not a critical posting of what we should more correctly call holiday music, nor another deserved attack on easy-out corporate radio program managers.  But it is an attempt to offer insight into one guy’s most famous Christmas songs which have been covered by hundreds if not thousands of performers over seven decades.

Gene Autry was a singer, songwriter, actor, musician and rodeo performer.  Those of us old enough to remember will know he was a primary singing cowboy of radio, movies and TV.   He logged a  sizeable list of lifetime talents and skills.  But perhaps foremost were four Christmas songs he wrote and recorded some 70 years ago.  All are classics and so common most people don’t associate them with the singing cowboy.

Folks, these ARE the originals!  (Audio running time 2:04)

Autry’s career was nationally acclaimed well before those four songs gained repeated radio air play in the late 1940s and early ’50s – lots of air play.  By 1953 (and in less than 20 years) he’d appeared in 93 films.  Between 1950 and ’56 he hosted “The Gene Autry Show” television series.  From his start in the 1930s and ’40s, he was the straight shooting American hero.  He was a model for kids, a gentlemen and war veteran that touched millions of young and old.  So, few people were surprised at his great success with those four Christmas songs, which were really intended for kids but loved by adults, too.  His career included more than 600 recordings, half of which he wrote or co-wrote.

Autry’s singing and acting success carried country music to a national audience.  He’s a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the only one awarded all five categories on Hollywood’s Walk fo Fame (film, radio, TV, music and live performance).

The savvy Autry built a phenomenal business empire.  He was the original owner of Challenge Records (Remember “Tequila” by the Champs in 1958 ?).   In the early ’50s he was a minority owner of baseball’s minor league Hollywood Stars.  His baseball interest leapfrogged in the early ’60s when he bought the California Angels, an ownership that lasted 36 years, a span in which he was also Vice President of pro baseball’s American League.

And then, there was broadcasting . . .

Autry owned KTLA, LA’s first commercial TV station, as well as a string of west coast radio stations, including Seattle’s KVI (aquired in 1959), under the corporate moniker Golden West Broadcasting.

KVI thrived in the Autry-owned years, as a personality/adult contemporary, MOR, and dominant Seattle market leader which included big-league sports broadcast coverage of the original Seattle Pilots, Seattle Mariners and later the Seattle Sounders.

Autry died in 1998 at age 91, having completed a remarkable entertainer-turned-business-owner career that impacted multi-generations.  But to many people, he’s most remembered for those kid songs about Rudolph, Frosty and  jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

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Ronald DeHart

Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media.  

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