As we’re in the period between Christmas and New Year, the gap between episodes is going to be longer than normal, and the podcast proper is going to be back on January the ninth. So nobody has to wait around for another fortnight for a new episode, I thought I’d upload some old Patreon bonus episodes to fill the gap. Every year around Christmas the bonus episodes I do tend to be on Christmas songs and so this week I’m uploading three of those. These are older episodes, so don’t have the same production values as more recent episodes, and are also shorter than more recent bonuses, but I hope they’re still worth listening to.
It’s the middle of December, as you have probably noticed, and that means it’s a time when the airwaves in both the UK and the US are dominated by Christmas music. The music that’s most prominent in the UK will have to wait until we get to the seventies for a discussion, but this week and next week in these bonus episodes I’ll be looking at a few American Christmas classics:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Here Comes Santa Claus”]
If I’d been doing these Patreon bonus episodes from the beginning of the podcast, rather than waiting for the first six months or so to do them on a regular basis, I’d have covered Gene Autry in one by about the fourth episode. He’s someone whose name you’ll have heard a lot in the podcast — he was an influence on all sorts of musicians we’ve looked at, in all areas of music. Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Hank Ballard, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Fats Domino, and Les Paul all acknowledged him as someone they were trying to imitate in one way or another, and that’s just the ones where I’ve been able to find clear confirmation.
Autry was not, in any direct sense, a precursor to rock and roll. He didn’t make records that included any of the elements that later became prominent in the new music, and he didn’t have a rebellious image at all. But from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, he was the single biggest star in country music. He starred in many films, had his own radio show, had a line of comics about him, and he was so popular that even his *horse* had his own radio and TV show. British people from my generation may well remember Champion, The Wonder Horse still being repeated as kids’ TV in the eighties.
THAT’s how big Gene Autry was, and so it’s unsurprising that he influenced pretty much every singer of note in the rock and roll field.
But he was also, along with Bing Crosby, one of the people who pioneered American secular Christmas music:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”]
I specify “American” secular Christmas music here, because one thing that differs between the US and the UK when it comes to Christmas is the music that’s ubiquitous. In the UK, Christmas music mostly means glam rock — you hear Slade and Wizzard incessantly, and other 70s artists like Mud. In the US, though, it means primarily the music of the forties and fifties — the music of people like Gene Autry.
Autry started his career as just another country singer, who performed as “Oklahoma’s Yodelling Cowboy”. His early recordings were very much in the style of Jimmie Rodgers, and were very different from his later clean-cut image:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Black Bottom Blues”]
But in 1932 he had a hit with a song he wrote, which would soon become a standard of country music, a rather maudlin ballad called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine”:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine”]
As a result of that hit, Autry started appearing in films. The first film he appeared in was a serial — The Phantom Empire — in which he starred as a singing cowboy who is kidnapped by people from the underground super-science kingdom Murania, descendants of the lost tribe of Mu, and has to help them defend themselves from an evil scientist who wants to steal their radium. It may not surprise you that the writer of the film came up with the plot for it while on nitrous oxide, having a tooth extracted.
Autry made another forty-four films in the next five years, and every year from 1937 through 1942 he was the top star of Western films in the US, as well as having a whole series of hits with songs like “Blueberry Hill”:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Blueberry Hill”]
However, in 1942 he enlisted in the army, against the wishes of Republic, the film studio for whom he worked. They told him that if he was just going to go off and fight Nazis instead of making singing cowboy films, they were going to promote Roy Rogers instead. So from 1942 through 1945, Autry was off fighting in the Second World War. After he got back, he was the *second* most successful singing cowboy film star, after Rogers.
It was in 1947 that Autry got the inspiration for the song that would define his career. He was riding his horse in a Christmas parade, known as the Santa Claus Lane parade, and he heard spectators saying “here comes Santa Claus”:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Here Comes Santa Claus”]
“Here Comes Santa Claus” not only charted that Xmas, it charted the Xmas after as well. Given that Autry’s recording career was slowly fading, it seemed to make sense for him to record another Christmas song about Santa and see if he could repeat his success:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”]
Not only did that go to number one — and become the first number one of the fifties — but “Here Comes Santa Claus” charted for the third year in a row. So of course, the next year (after an Easter single, “Peter Cottontail”, which also charted, but didn’t have the same repeat success as the Christmas songs), he recorded yet another Christmas single, “Frosty the Snowman”:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Frosty the Snowman”]
The next year, he didn’t release a Christmas single at all, and he seemed to lose momentum. In 1952 he released one final Christmas record, “Up on the Housetop”:
[Excerpt: Gene Autry, “Up on the Housetop”]
But that had nothing like the success his earlier Christmas records had. He carried on making films and TV shows until the mid-fifties, and he finally retired in 1964. He died in 1998. His Christmas records still occasionally hit the charts in December, and regularly feature in the special Holiday charts Billboard publish every year.