A Cowboy Christmas: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and others sing about Santa Claus

Dec 15, 2003 (Updated Dec 16, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Walter Brennan, Rock Hudson...

Cons:A very weak CD booklet.

The Bottom Line: Some singing cowboy memories and a bit of Christmas fun.


Well, pardners, if you're hankering for a taste of the Old West (American-style, of course), then "A Cowboy Christmas: Carols By The Old Corral" might be of interest to you (it might also bring back the memories of having your parents dress you in a vest and making you look like Hugh O'Brien in TV's "Wyatt Earp" at the age of two --- but that's another story).

"A Cowboy Christmas" has perhaps the oddest mixture of country and western singers one could find among its 15 tracks, folks you might have heard of like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex (father of the late actor John) Ritter, Marty Robbins, Rock Hudson, Walter Brennan, Johnny Horton, Rose Maddox, Ed McCurdy, Jimmy Wakely, Rex Allen (with Victor Young & His Singing Strings), The Sons Of The Pioneers and The Rocky Mountain Boys.

The CD:

"A Cowboy Christmas" features 15 tracks presented on a single CD that are all G-rated, to say the least, and they bring back a ton of memories for the holidays.

The sound is crisp and clean, though a couple of tracks sound like radio show out-takes (still sounding very well after decades out of listening range, at least to this listener). The "A Cowboy Christmas" set will appeal to fans of Western movies, country music and of Christmas music (does that cover everybody?).

The CD booklet:

Four pages of no information other than advertising for other Laserlight Records releases and song listings (with artist and songwriter information only). The lack of biographical info on the artists is a bit disappointing.

The cover art depicts Santa in full Christmas uniform wearing a giant cowboy hat and waving a rope in the air --- yee-haw!!!

The 15 tracks:

"Here Comes Santa Claus" by Gene Autry, "Footprints In The Snow" by Rose Maddox, "Christmas Carols By The Old Corral" by Tex Ritter, "The Last Roundup" by Rex Allen with Victor Young & His Singing Strings, "Who Spiked The Egg Nog (Christmas In The Rockies)" by The Rocky Mountain Boys, "If We Make It Through December" by Merle Haggard, "There'll Be Peace In The Valley" by Roy Rogers & The Sons Of The Pioneers and "When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below)" by Johnny Horton.

Also, "A Good Year For Christmas" by Walter Brennan, "Each Season Changes You" by Rose Maddox & The Boys, "The Red River Valley" by Ed McCurdy, "Blue Shadows On The Trail" by Jimmie Wakely & The Jed Connlon Singers, "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by Marty Robbins," "Gone With The Cowboys" by Rock Hudson (arranged by Arthur Greenslade) and "The Lord's Prayer" by The Sons Of The Pioneers.

Recommendation:

Not for everyone, this collection is definitely for special tastes. Some performances are true classics (Rogers, Autry, Ritter, Robbins, Haggard) and others are pure novelty (Brennan, Hudson), but it is a fun collection to listen to if you can get past the odd mix of performances.

It's also a cheap buy --- I've seen this in the $5 to $10 range at most retailers.

The 1997 CD collection was produced by songwriter-poet Rod McKuen (from the original 1970 and 1979 LP releases).

Some of the interesting tunesmiths:

Gene Autry, "Here Comes Santa Claus":

In the case of Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy" of film, his 600-plus recordings (more than 300 of the tunes are songs he wrote) have sold more than 60 million records with tunes such as "Back In The Saddle Again" (Billboard magazine didn't start tracking the Hot 100 chart hits until 1955 and the RIAA didn't begin tracking Gold and Platinum Records until 1958, but Autry's track record in music remains amazing --- his 1931 hit "That Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mine" was the first recording to ever sell one million copies and it's one of Autry's 12 million-selling singles).

Any doubts about his songwriting credentials should be erased by the fact Autry was nominated for an Academy Award for his tune "Be Honest With Me" (written with Fred Rose) in 1941 (the Oscar-producers had Autry on stage that year singing another Oscar-nominated tune, "Lavender Blue").

For this CD, we'll call Mr. Autry simply "Mr. Christmas." Autry sang "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (sorry, but it's not in this collection) for a chart-topping 1949 hit single (that single has since sold 30 million copies and is the second biggest-selling Christmas single of all-time, behind Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"). Trivia buffs will note that "Rudolph..." was written by Johnny Marks, who also composed "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas."

Included in this collection is Autry's wonderful "Here Comes Santa Claus," another multi-million-selling hit from 1947 and one that he co-wrote (with Oakley Haldeman). The bright, country and western swing meets pop standard, with joyous ringing sleighbells and a delightfully innocent Christmassy orchestration, is probably a favorite of kids of all ages, with sales passing the 6.5 million mark:

"Here comes Santa Claus! / here comes Santa Claus! / right down Santa Claus Lane! / Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer / are pulling at the reins / bells are ringing, children are singing / all is merry and bright / hang your stockings and say your prayers / 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight..."

Autry, born in Texas in 1907, was still listed at the time of his death in 1998 as one of Hollywood's Top 10 Box-Office Moneymakers (despite the fact that his film career that began in 1934 was over by the mid-1950s after making some 95 films).

At the height of his fame, Autry left Hollywood during World War II to serve as a U. S. Air Force flight officer in 1943 (from 1937-1942, Autry was voted by theater exhibitors as the fourth biggest box office star, right up there behind Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy; he was voted the # 1 Western film star those years, as well, ahead of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda).

During the war, Autry enlisted, giving up a $600,000-a-year movie-singing career for a military job that only paid only $150 a month.

After the war, Autry made more films, but by the 1950's had formed his own production company with a keen business eye that saw money in early television. His "The Gene Autry Show" was a TV hit from 1950-56. His company produced such TV series as "The Range Rider," "Annie Oakley," "Buffalo Bill, Jr." and "The Adventures Of Champion" (which starred Autry's horse).

When he and his film sidekick Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney of "Green Acres" from 1965-71 to us young folks) hosted "The Melody Ranch Theatre" on The Nashville Network in the late 1980's (the show featured their films), it was the cable TV network's highest-rated show.

Autry owned the California Angels baseball team for some 37 years --- he was also vice-president of baseball's American League when he died in 1998. Other achievements include the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award, the Songwriters' Guild Life Achievement Award and the Hubert Humphrey Humanitarian Of The Year Award (Autry was legendary for his charity work, including his service with the USO entertaining U. S. military personnel around the world).

Autry was also inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall Of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters' Hall Of Fame and the National Cowboy Hall Of Fame.

Autry also should be remembered at Easter time --- he scored another million-seller with "Peter Cottontail" in 1950.

Roy Rogers, "There'll Be Peace In The Valley":

That other multi-talented film/TV/singing star of the 1940's, Roy Rogers, was Autry's close friend (despite being played against each other in salary negotitations at Republic Studios, where both were Western film stars). Trivia buffs may note that Rogers scored a hit novelty single in 1974-75 which was about those B-movie Western stars called "Hoppy, Gene And Me" (it peaked at # 65).

Rogers has influenced such modern country music stars as Clint Black and Randy Travis, among others. He was known as "King Of The Cowboys" (so-named by Republic Studios in 1943) while his wife, Dale Evans, was "Queen Of The West." Shall we mention his legendary horse, Trigger, "The Smartest Horse In The Movies"?

How popular was Rogers? Some 80 million Americans (half the nation's population, according to his official website) reportedly turned out in the 1940's to 1950's to see each of his "singing cowboy" films on average (he released as many as six films each year) and the man had more than 2,000 fan clubs worldwide at his peak in popularity (his British fan club had 50,000 members, more than any other then-popular entertainer's fan club in the world).

Funny thing: this "cowboy" was born as Leonard Slye in 1911 in Cincinnati and didn't leave Ohio until after he was 18 years of age. He then moved to California with his family to become a fruit picker.

He formed a group called The Pioneer Trio, which evolved into The Sons Of The Pioneers in the 1930's.

When Hollywood called in 1935, he had to change his name to Roy Rogers before Republic Pictures would hire him at $75 a week making his debut in Gene Autry's film "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

He played some serious roles (opposite John Wayne in "Dark Command," for one) and even did a parody of himself opposite Bob Hope in "Son Of Paleface."

Rogers made the jump to television (with his wife and his horse) for "The Roy Rogers Show" on NBC-TV, which ran from 1951-57 (I discovered the show in syndicated reruns as a kid in the 1960's; Roy seemed pretty cool, I must say). Dale Evans wrote a song for the show that she sang with Roy each week, "Happy Trails" ("...happy trails to you, until we meet again...").

Other TV shows followed, such as "The Chevy Show" and "The Roy Rogers And Dale Evans Show," but they were short-lived.

His film career continued into the 1970's with appearances in "The Gambler III" with Kenny Rogers (not related, by the way) and "Mackintosh & T. J." On television, he was a guest on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Tonight Show" (then-host Johnny Carson being a big fan).

Gene Autry was the "most popular western film star" as selected by a poll of theater owners from 1937-42, but Rogers took the top spot in the poll from 1943 (the year Autry went off to war) to 1954 (the final year the poll was taken).

And folks may be stunned to learn that this "All-American Cowboy" was part Indian --- his father being a full-blooded Cherokee (Hollywood "star-makers" didn't think it wise to announce that fact in the 1930's and 1940's).

All the while, Rogers toured with his wife, playing gigs at fairs, rodeos and The Grand Ole Opry. He also, seemingly with success I think, tried to live up the high moral standards he displayed on film because he was keenly aware of his impact on children, who tried to dress like him and to twirl a toy six-shooter like him (I became quite good at this, I might add).

Perhaps one of his greatest moments in his final years was when some of country music's biggest stars recorded a tribute album with him a few years before his death simply entitled "Roy Rogers Tribute." The album features duets by Roy Rogers with
Clint Black, Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, The Kentucky Headhunters, K. T. Oslin, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton and The Oak Ridge Boys.

For this CD, "A Cowboy Christmas," Rogers and The Sons Of The Pioneers offer the gospel tune "There'll Be Peace In The Valley," complete with church organ music, that is mellow and heartfelt:

"...there'll be no sadness, no sorrow / no trouble I'll see / there'll be peace in the valley for me..."

Merle Haggard, "If We Make It Through December":

Among Merle Haggard's nine Billboard Hot 100 Pop hits that charted between 1969 and 1977 is the lovely, gentle ballad, "If We Make It Through December," which peaked at # 28 in 1973-74. Though he had numerous country Top 10 chart hits, this was Haggard's biggest pop chart hit (his "Okie From Muskogee" peaked at # 41 in 1969-70).

Haggard's is a tale of a struggling couple who know that if they just can make it through Christmas-time that their relationship will last:

"If we make it through December / everything's gonna be all right I know / it's the coldest time of winter / and I shiver when I see the fallin' snow..."

Marty Robbins, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town":

One of the most performed Christmas tunes of all time (recent versions have been done by Hilary Duff, Lonestar, B2K, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton and All-4-One), the only version to make the Billboard Hot 100 (since that chart began in 1955) was done by The Four Seasons in 1962 (their version hit # 23).

Marty Robbins' version of the tune is true to the traditional performances of the tune (though Robbins is usually identified with country music, he scored 24 Billboard Hot 100 Pop chart hits between 1956 and 1970, including 13 Top 40 singles and a # 1 hit from 1959-60 with "El Paso").

Robbins' lovely voice, backed by female singers on the chorus and a fine orchestra, does a fine version of the tune, which was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie way back in 1934 (The American Society Of Composers, Authors And Publishers (ASCAP) released its list of the "25 all-time most-performed holiday songs" in January 2003, and "Santa Claus..." was ranked at # 3; the # 1 song? --- "Christmas Song," written by Robert Wells and (drum roll, please) Mel Torme):

"Well you better watch out / you better not cry / you better not pout / I'm tellin' you why / Santa Claus is coming to town / he's making a list / he's checking it twice / he's gonna find out / who's naughty or nice / Santa Claus is comin' to town..."

Tex Ritter, "Christmas Carols By The Old Corral":

Actor John Ritter's father, Tex Ritter, established himself as a Broadway stage star and radio actor ("The Lone Star Rangers," "Death Valley Days," "Tex Ritter's Campfire") before becoming a Western movie "singing cowboy" star (of his 85 movies, 78 were Westerns).

Tex Ritter also did pretty well in music (he's a member of Nashville's Country Music Hall Of Fame (he was the fifth inductee) and the Texas Country Music Hall Of Fame). In 1942 he was the first Western singer signed to Capitol Records and in 1945 was the first recording artist to hold down the top three chart spots at the same time in Billboard's (pre-Billboard's pop charts) "Most Played Jukebox Folk Records" list.

His songs were recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby and his title song performance for the Gary Cooper film "High Noon" sold nearly a million copies. Ritter's "High Noon" also won the Academy Award for Best Movie Song Of 1952 (Ritter performed it live on TV at the first televised Oscar show in 1953). Tex also conquered TV with his variety series, "Ranch Party," which aired from 1959-62. Not bad for a guy who started his working days as a dish washer.

Besides "High Noon," Ritter scored hits with tunes such as "You Are My Sunshine" and "Wayward Wind." Tex ran, unsuccessfully, for U. S. senator from Tennessee in 1970 and passed away in 1974.

His "Christmas Carols By The Old Corral," which he wrote, is pure uptempo country and western swing (slide guitars, acoustic guitars, soft bass, strings) mixed with sleighbells. Ritter had a marvelous voice (reminding one of Hank Williams, Sr.):

"...gonna be singin' / Christmas carols by the old corral / celebratin', congregatin', and exchanging greetings by the old corral / there'll be lots of little children / and how big there eyes will be / when they see what Santa left around the tree..."

Walter Brennan, "A Good Year For Christmas":

When he wasn't competing for motion picture Academy Awards (four nominations and three wins; he's one of only four actors/actresses to win three or more Oscars) and television Emmys (he was nominated for playing Grandpa on "The Real McCoys"), legendary actor Walter Brennan (with 100 film credits during his lifetime) was "singing" (much closer to spoken narration, actually) and scoring hit records --- his 1962 album, "Old Rivers," hit # 54 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.

Brennan scored several hit singles, too, in the 1960's while starring in TV's "The Real McCoys." Three of his singles went Top 40: "Dutchman's Gold" (# 30 in 1960), "Old Rivers" (# 5, 1962) and "Mama Sang A Song" (# 38, 1962).

His Christmas singing/narration of "A Good Year For Christmas" shows the actor at play amid some gentle acoustic guitar and country piano, with Brennan telling a tear-jerker of a story about a father experiencing "hard times" and telling the kids not to worry because "Santa don't never get lost":

"...so what with this and that and then the weather / old Santa don't never get lost / you can just bet / it don't storm forever / it's going to be a good year for Santa Claus..."

Rock Hudson, "Gone With The Cowboys":

When he wasn't playing opposite Doris Day in a film comedy or starring in TV's "McMillan and Wife," the late Rock Hudson made a handful of motion picture Westerns among his dozens of films and apparently found time to make some recordings, such as "Gone Are The Cowboys," written by Rod McKuen.

Opening with a gorgeous whistle of the song's melody (sounding like an out-take from a Clint Eastwood "spaghetti Western," actually), this mid-tempo ballad is surprisingly good (I never really thought of Rock Hudson as a singer, I must admit) with Hudson singing sweetly about wanting to live the cowboy life (not exactly a Christmas song, however):

"...sure as the sun sets / and the world rides on the wind / I'll be riding somewhere / with the cowboys again / gone with the cowboys again..."

On the web:

Johnny Horton ("Battle Of New Orleans") sings the ballad "When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below)" in this collection. You might enjoy his "Greatest Hits" CD, which I reviewed at: http://www.epinions.com/content_54264434308

The ASCAP Top 25 Christmas songs list: http://www.ascap.com/press/2002/25holidaysongs_122002.html

The InfoPlease website's Gene Autry page: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0766185.html

A biography of Gene Autry: http://www.cow-boy.com/musaut.htm

The MSN biography of Gene Autry: http://entertainment.msn.com/celebs/celeb.aspx?mp=b&c=60168

The Muse bio of Gene Autry: http://www.musesmuse.com/mrev-autry.html

The Gene Autry Virtual Memorial Website: http://www.digitalsol.com/geneautry/

The Classic Images page for Gene Autry: http://www.classicimages.com/1998/november98/geneautryrem.html

The official Roy Rogers and Dale Evans website: http://www.royrogers.com/

The Songwriters Hall Of Fame: http://www.songwritershalloffame.org

The Tex Ritter Museum: http://www.carthagetexas.com/ritter.htm

Nashville Songwriters tribute to Tex Ritter: http://www.nashvillesongwritersfoundation.com/fame/ritter.html

The Famous Texans tribute to Tex Ritter: http://www.famoustexans.com/texritter.htm

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum: http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/r_a_bren.html

The Lost Mind website contains listings of movie, TV, music and virtually every type of entertainment award listed year by year, including nominees and winners: http://lostmind.100megsfree2.com/index.html

Find any cowboy at The Cowboy Directory: http://www.cowboydirectory.com

A history of television Westerns (remember "The Guns Of Will Sonnet" starring Walter Brennan, an ABC-TV series from 1967-69?): http://www.cvalley.net/~canote/west.html

Hollywood.Com's Walter Brennan biography: http://www.hollywood.com/celebs/bio/celeb/1678216

The Classic Movies website's bio of Walter Brennan: http://www.thegoldenyears.org/brennan.html

The official Rock Hudson website: http://www.cmgww.com/stars/hudson/

Rod McKuen's official website: http://www.mckuen.com


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