Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gene Autry - The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings

This dazzling CD was a gift from my son Alex for Christmas. It was the first time he ever ordered anything from Amazon!

It's hard to find newer obscurer new releases in a town of 225,000 (like Fort Wayne). You don't find many stores stocking their shelves the way they do like in New York, Indianapolis, or Chicago.

Try explaining that to a seven year old with a list.

I'm not sure why Alex picked this particular CD but my hunch is that since his oldest sister picked a "snow princess" like Peggy Lee, he had to pick something masculine and went with the only male artist on my list.

When he saw a cowboy on the cover, it was a done deal. A few clicks of the mouse, the order was in, and Alex was exhausted from shopping.

On Christmas morning, I opened this CD and thanked my son for his gift. I asked him if he knew who Gene Autry was. "Dad, he's a COWBOY!!!" was all I got and he went back to playing with his gifts. Not just a cowboy, son.

Gene Autry began his remarkable career not as a major league baseball owner, an astute media mogul, or a singing cowboy. Born on a ranch in Tioga, Texas, Autry grew up and learned to be a railroad telegraph operator.

One night in 1926, he received a $5 mail order guitar he ordered and was passing the time away strumming and singing. A passerby heard him and encouraged him to go into show business. Any guesses?

Autry took the advice from Will Rogers (WOW!) and began to perform on radio as "Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy". Soon he was recording for Victor Records and landed an important job on "The National Barn Dance" - the Grand Old Opry of the early airwaves.

This job was a critical juncture in Autry's life for two reasons; 1.) from 1931 to 1935, his voice was heard in households across the country. His first #1 hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine", came in large part to his appearances on the radio. 2.) one of Autry's radio co-stars was a talented musician (could play as many as 100 instruments) and a talented comedic actor.

His name was Smiley Burnette and he soon became the sidekick for Autry on his own radio shows and in the movies. In a five year period, Autry made an astounding 44 movies and by decade's end, Autry was the number one cowboy star in the movies.

The formula was simple: Gene, Smiley, Champion (Gene's faithful horse), and the guys at the Melody Ranch sang songs, helped foil the villains in cliffhanging fashion, kissed their leading ladies and horses, and finished each picture with yet another song.

The seeds for media mogul were planted when CBS Radio signed Autry for a weekly radio show in 1940 and stayed for sixteen years! The radio show allowed him to stay in the public eye while introducing new songs, fueling his recording career at Columbia Records, and making his public appearances instant sell outs. Autry was the first person ever to sell out the cavernous Madison Square Garden in New York City.

After World War II, in which Gene served with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Autry's attention turned to his media outlets - he began buying radio stations with an eye to the future.

He continued his radio show and continued to record music. Back in 1947, Autry wrote and recorded his first Christmas song which was a smash. If you're thinking "Rudolph", sorry - thanks for playing.

Gene's first big Christmas song was "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)", inspired by the Santa Claus parade held every year in Hollywood. Autry's business savvy held him in good stead - he released the single with a colorful picture sleeve. He reminded the kiddies listening on his radio show to look for the sleeve the next time they visited the record store - genius!

Autry waited a full two years before recording his next Christmas song. "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" became forever linked with Autry and was the top Christmas song not just for 1949 but for several years thereafter.

A famed story tells that Autry was eating in a studio commissary one day when Bing Crosby strolled in. He approached Autry and blurted "So that "Rudolph" song is selling great for you." Autry shook his head yes.

"Well," Crosby said dejectedly, extending his hand. "Shake hands with the guy who turned it down!"

The following year, Gene completed his trifecta of new Christmas songs he introduced. He chose the simple story of a snowman who comes to life thanks to a magic hat, knows his time is limited, and decides to raise hell by running down to a village waving a broomstick, disrupting traffic, only to be stopped by a traffic cop. "Frosty the Snowman" was Autry's third signature Christmas song in a row.

These three songs are included on this album but it's the smaller songs that deserve special attention on this CD. This compilation includes all 27 Christmas songs Autry recorded on Columbia Records. The list is breathtaking:


1.) Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
2.) An Old Fashioned Tree
3.) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
4.) If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas
5.) He’s A Chubby Little Fellow
6.) Santa, Santa, Santa
7.) Frosty The Snow Man
8.) When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter
9.) (Hard Rock, Coco and Joe) The Three Little Dwarfs
10.) Thirty-Two Feet - Eight Little Tails
11.) Poppy The Puppy
12.) He’ll Be Coming Down the Chimney (Like He Always Did Before)
13.) The Night Before Christmas Song (duet with Rosemary Clooney)
14.) Look Out The Window (The Winter Song) (duet with Rosemary Clooney)
15.) Merry Texas Christmas, You All!
16.) The Night Before Christmas (In Texas, That Is)
17.) Where Did My Snowman Go?
18.) Freddie, The Little Fir Tree
19.) Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
20.) Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
21.) Up On The House Top (Ho Ho Ho)
22.) I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus
23.) Sleigh Bells
24.) Round, Round The Christmas Tree
25.) Merry Christmas Waltz
26.) Everyone’s a Child at Christmas
27.) You Can See Old Santa Claus (When You Find Him In Your Heart)


Each one of these songs contains a charm that only Autry could bring to the corral. Admittedly, there are some over-the-top cutesy, wutesy songs in here ("Poppy The Puppy" and "Freddie, The Little Fir Tree" to name but two) but the others more than make up for it.

My favorites include "If It Doesn't Snow On Christmas", "Thirty Two Feet - Eight Little Tails", "(Hardrock, Coco And Joe) The Three Little Dwarfs", and "Merry Texas Christmas, You All!".

The standout tracks are "Look Out The Window (The Winter Song)" thanks in large part to the wonderful Rosemary Clooney, "I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus" (what kid didn't wish that?), and the original version of "Rudolph" with NO reverb whatsoever!

Shortly after the success of "Frosty" in 1950, Autry turned his attention to another new medium - television. He was one of the first Hollywood stars to have his own show on the air and it helps when you buy the TV station! "The Gene Autry Show" ran from 1950-1955 and by the time it was off the air, Autry owned several more television stations.

Towards the end of the 1950s, Autry began to focus more on the business side and less on performing. He ended his radio show, began producing westerns en masse for television, began dabbling in California real estate (again with an eye on the future), and continued to perform shows around the country.

In 1960, plans were announced for an expansion baseball team to come to Los Angeles for the American League. Autry approached baseball executives simply for the radio rights of the team, nothing more.

However, the executives were so impressed with Autry that they asked why not own the team instead? Autry committed himself and became the owner of the Los Angeles Angels (later California, later Anaheim!) - a job he held until his death in 1998.

When he died, Autry was worth an estimated $350 million dollars. That $5 mail order guitar had to be the most successful investment of all time!

Autry is the only person to have FIVE stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame - one for each possible catergory: films, radio, television, recordings, and live theater.

His legacy continues on at his official website, the Autry National Center he helped found, and through his films and music. The one hundredth anniversary of Gene Autry’s birth is in this year and the celebration of Gene's centennial plans to be memorable.

Not just a cowboy, Alex...


UP NEXT: What Santa stuffed into my offering plate... err, stocking!


Capt

7 comments:

Jonathan said...

This was one of my favorite additions a couple of years ago! I’ve always been a Gene Autry fan.

Here’s some more Christmas Gene available for download -

Melody Ranch Christmas Party – http://www.oldtimeradiofans.com/template.php?show_name=Gene%20Autry Choose the fifth show down or go straight to it now - http://tinyurl.com/f8h6j
Read my review about the show here - http://thexmasplace.com/newsletter/news062506.html Scroll down to Christmas Radio by RadioJonD

The folks at www.kiddierecords.com offered this a few weeks ago.
The Story of the Nativity – Gene Autry - http://www.kiddierecords.com/2006/archive/week_51.htm
Columbia Records should have included this on the Complete Christmas Recordings CD. They might have just run out of room!

CaptainOT said...

Jonathan - Thanks for all the extra Gene Autry links!


Capt

Stephen said...

Not bad for a guy who didn't want to sing Christmas kiddie records. Nice pick, Alex!

PDMan said...

Jonathan,

I wondered myself how "complete" this CD really is without "The Story of the Nativity." As far as I know, the Columbia recording has yet to make it to CD. He re-recorded it for Challenge and you can find that on "Here Comes Santa Claus" on Varese Sarabande. Not as good as the original, though.

CaptainOT said...

PDMan - I never knew he re-recorded "The Story Of The Nativity"! You also mentioned the Varese Sarabande CD... is there another CD that complements the "Complete Columbia Christmas" album?


Capt

PDMan said...

The "Here Come's Santa Claus" CD contains most of the re-records he did on Challenge/Champion/Republic after he parted ways with Columbia. I don't know how complete is is, but it's the best complement to the Columbia album I can think of. There was also a LaserLight CD called "Santa Claus Is Comin to Town" that contains most of the same tracks.

CaptainOT said...

PDMan - I will check out that CD! Thanks for all the info!


Capt