|Birth name||Lemeul Eugene Lucas|
June 24, 1900|
Gainesville, Cooke County, Texas, USA
|Died||January 24, 1972
Palm Springs, California
Gene Austin (June 24, 1900 – January 24, 1972) was an American singer and songwriter, one of the first "crooners". His 1920s compositions "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" and "The Lonesome Road" became pop and jazz standards.
Austin was born as Lemeul Eugene Lucas in Gainesville, Texas (north of Dallas), to Nova Lucas (died 1943) and the former Serena Belle Harrell (died 1956). He took the name "Gene Austin" from his stepfather, Jim Austin, a blacksmith. Austin grew up in Minden, the seat of Webster Parish in northwestern Louisiana, located east of Shreveport. There he learned to play piano and guitar. He ran away from home at 15 and attended a vaudeville act in Houston, Texas, where the audience was allowed to come to the stage and sing. On a dare from his friends, Austin took the stage and sang for the first time since singing as a Southern Baptist choir boy. The audience response was overwhelming, and the vaudeville company immediately offered him a billed spot on their ticket.
Austin joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 in hopes of being dispatched to Europe to fight in World War I. He was first stationed in New Orleans, where he played the piano at night in the city's notorious vice district. His familiarity with horses from helping his stepfather in his blacksmithing business also prompted the Army to assign Austin to the cavalry and send him to Mexico with General John Pershing's Pancho Villa expedition, for which he was awarded the Mexican Service Medal. Thereafter, he served in France in the Great War.
|Spouse(s)||(1) Kathryn Arnold Austin (1924–1929), (2) Agnes Antelline Austin (1933–1940), (3) Doris Sherrell Austin (1940–1946), (4) LouCeil Hudson Austin (1949–1966), (5) Gigi Theodorea Austin (1966–1972)|
|Children||Ann (first marriage), Charlotte (second marriage)|
On returning to the United States in 1919, Austin settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where he intended to study dentistry. Soon, however, he was playing piano and singing in local taverns. He started writing songs and formed a vaudeville act with Roy Bergere, with whom he wrote "How Come You Do Me Like You Do." The act ended when Bergere married. Austin worked briefly in a club owned by Lou Clayton, who later was a part of the famous vaudeville team Clayton, Jackson and Durante.
Victor bought his popular song "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", which he recorded solo and in a duet with Aileen Stanley. Nat Shilkret, in his autobiography, describes the events leading to the recording.1 In the next decade with Victor, Austin sold over 80 million records—a total unmatched by a single artist for 40 years. Best sellers included "The Lonesome Road," "Riding Around in the Rain," and "Ramona."
Gene Austin's compositions included "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", recorded by Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, Hot Lips Page, Johnny Mathis, The Four Freshmen, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols' Five Pennies, Ella Fitzgerald, Sy Oliver, and the Wolverines Orchestra; "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?", recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, Gene Rodemich, Marion Harris, George Wettling, and Erroll Garner; "The Lonesome Road", written with Nat Shilkret, recorded by Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Mildred Bailey, Les Paul, Judy Garland, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dick Dale, The Fendermen, Frank Sinatra, Chet Atkins, Bobby Darin, Duane Eddy, Paul Robeson, Jerry Vale, Muggsy Spanier, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Frankie Laine and Ted Lewis; "Riding Around in the Rain", written with Carmen Lombardo and "The Voice of the Southland".
Arriving with the advent of electro-magnetic recording, Austin, along with Rudy Vallee, Art Gillham, Nick Lucas, Johnny Marvin and Cliff Edwards, adopted an intimate, radio-friendly, close-miked style that took over from the more sentimental style of tenor vocals popularized by such singers as Henry Burr and Billy Murray. Such later crooners as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Russ Columbo all credited Austin with creating the musical genre that began their careers.
Gene Austin was an important pioneer crooner whose records in their day enjoyed record sales and the highest circulation. The Genial Texan ex-vaudevillian and would-be screen idol, Austin constitutes an underrated landmark in popular music history. He made a substantial number of influential recordings from the mid-1920s including a string of best-sellers. His 1926 "Bye Bye Blackbird" was in the year's top twenty records. George A. Whiting and Walter Donaldson’s "My Blue Heaven" was charted during 1928 for 26 weeks, stayed at #1 for 13, and sold over five million copies (until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" replaced it, it was the largest selling record of all time). In the hope of duplicating the success, this was quickly followed by "Ramona", an L. Wolfe Gilbert-Mabel Wayne song created for the 1927 romantic adventure film Ramona with Dolores Del Rio. It charted for 17 weeks, was #1 for eight and easily topped a million in sales. Despite its longevity as a ballad, however, his next success, Joe Burke and Benny Davis’ 1928 song "Carolina Moon", did not quite measure up to its predecessors, albeit out of 14-weeks charted it stayed for seven at #1.2
Offered to work in Hollywood at the height of his career as the "Voice of the Southland", Austin appeared in several films, including Belle of the Nineties, Klondike Annie, Sadie McKee3--all 1934 releases, and My Little Chickadee (1940), at the request of his personal friend, Mae West.
Gene Austin married his first wife, Kathryn Arnold, a dancer, in 1924 and divorced her in 1929. They had a child, Ann, born in 1928. Austin married his second wife, Agnes Antelline, in 1933, and their daughter Charlotte was born that same year. He and Agnes divorced in 1940. Austin then married actress Doris Sherrell in 1940, and divorced her in 1946. He married wife number four, LouCeil Hudson, a singer, in 1949, and the marriage lasted until 1966. Austin married Gigi Theodorea in 1967; this was his fifth and final marriage. Country music singer Tommy Overstreet, who had his biggest hits in the 1970s, is Austin's third cousin.
In 1956, CBS made a television drama about Austin's life. In 1962, Austin campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of Nevada. He polled only 5,017 votes (10.21 percent) to his opponent, Grant Sawyer, who received 40,168 ballots (81.4 percent) Sawyer then won the governorship by a nearly 2-1 margin over weak Republican opposition in the fall campaign.
Austin had retired to Palm Springs, in the late 1950s and had been active in civic boards there until 1970. Income from his record sales allowed him to live comfortably the rest of his life. He died in Palm Springs of lung cancer and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. He was a godfather of country singer David Houston, who like Austin also lived in Minden, Louisiana, during his youth.
In 1978, Gene Austin's 1928 Victor recording, Victor 20964A, of "My Blue Heaven", was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2005, Gene Austin's 1926 Victor recording, Victor 20044, of "Bye Bye Blackbird", was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a recording which has long been considered a definitive rendition of that song.
- Shilkret, Nathaniel, ed. Niel Shell and Barbara Shilkret, Nathaniel Shilkret: Sixty Years in the Music Business, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2005. ISBN 0-8108-5128-8
- CD liner notes: Chart-Toppers of the Twenties, 1998 ASV Ltd.
- "Gene Austin," A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 1 (1988), p. 25
- John Agan, "The Voice of the Southland," North Louisiana History, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Fall 1997), 23-37
- Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, Nevada gubernatorial primaries
- The Rise Of The Crooners, Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman; Scarecrow Press, 2002
- Gene Austin at the Internet Movie Database
- Biography in the Handbook of Texas Online
- Audio link for recording of Got the Railroad Blues (RealAudio)
- "Gene Austin". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2008-02-10.