Gene Autry, Legendary ‘Singing Cowboy:’ Iconic Christmas Song and Great Stories

by Suzanne Halliburton

Gene Autry made sure we all can recall Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen. And of course, we especially know Rudolph, because he’s the most famous reindeer of them all.

But do you ever wonder why we sing about Rudolph and know every last word by heart? Or why this time a year we sing a host of other songs about Santa Claus?

You can thank Autry, aka the “singing Cowboy” and the creator of the “Cowboy Code” for making “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” part of our holiday lexicon. He recorded the song in 1949 and it had the distinction of being the first No. 1 song of the 1950s.

And Autry wrote or recorded a host of other Christmas classics, including “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Plus, he added a song for Easter, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

All the songs have roots in a certain period of time – the 1940s. That decade started with World War II. Radar was developed. So was commercial television. Americans watched “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” on big movie screens. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were the most popular singers.

And the decade gave us Gene Autry and Christmas classics.

What did Gene Autry Do When He Wasn’t Singing Christmas Songs?

Gene Autry, the Oklahoma native, earned his first paycheck as a telegraph operator. He brought his guitar to work and would sing and play during the night shift. He was fired because singing wasn’t part of the job description. Fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, the famed American humorist, encouraged Autry to sing professionally.

Autry took the advice and took off in a very big way. He was dubbed “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.” when he played his first real gig for a Tulsa radio station. Autry signed his first record deal in 1929.

His most famous, non-Christmas songs probably are “Back In the Saddle Again” and “I Hang My Head and Cry.”

Overall, Autry recorded 640 songs. He wrote almost half of them. That’s a dizzying number.

Collectively, they sold more than 100 million copies. Autry seemed destined to be in films, too. That’s why he starred in dozens of B westerns, the shorter movies in a double feature. His character always was named Gene Autry. He always rode his own horse, Champion. He always sang strummed his guitar while guarding us all against the bad guys.

Gene Autry Was Big On The Cowboy Scene

It seemed that everyone loved Autry. He was the second most popular Cowboy in the country on this side of Roy Rogers. And he’s still the only entertainer to have a star in all five categories of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He hosted television and radio shows. And for one of those shows, he created what he called the “Cowboy Commandments.” You probably follow the code. It can apply to cowboys and non-cowboys alike. Word hard. Keep your language and your life clean. Respect women. Respect other races and tell the truth. Be gentle with youngsters, the old folks and animals. When you give your word, don’t go back on it.

His No 1? “The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.”

Autry also was a businessman. He owned a record company and TV and radio stations. Autry owned the World Championship Rodeo Company. And he owned the California Angels in Major League Baseball. He even served as American League president.

If you’ve ever watched reruns of Gunsmoke, the iconic television series, you’ve seen Autry’s old ranch.

He retired in 1964. In 1969, he was selected for the Country Music Hall of Fame. The following year, Autry was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

But Back To Christmas Music

If your parents or grandparents ever referred to Santa Claus as “Santy Claus,” here’s why. That’s how Autry pronounced it in “Here Comes Santa Claus.” He wrote it after serving as grand marshal of the 1946 Santa Claus Lane Parade, which has evolved into the popular Hollywood Christmas Parade. Autry was riding Champion as part of the route. He heard so many kids squeal in excitement about seeing Santa. So he wrote the song. And, there you go, another classic gets its wings.

Check out this song. It’s nine days til Christmas and a perfect holiday tune for a chilly Wednesday afternoon.