It would not be exaggeration in the slightest to call Gene Autry a true American hero. From humble roots, he got his start in the show business covering Jimmie Rodgers’ hits for other record labels, but soon proved his own merit as a prolific songwriter and talented musician. Before long, he broke into Hollywood in a series B-Westerns and rose not only to become one of America’s earliest “superstars”, but the idolization of millions of adoring fans. His shrewd business sense made him a multi-millionaire by the time of his retirement at the age of only fifty-seven, and surely one of the only twentieth century entertainers to have a town named after him.
Gene was born Orvon Grover Eugene Autry in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, son of Delbert and Elnora Autry. The family moved a few miles north to the towns of Achille and Ravia, Oklahoma, when Gene was a child, and when not preoccupied with song he spent time in his youth helping out on his father’s farm. In 1941, the nearby town of Berwyn was renamed “Gene Autry” in his honor. Autry took up the guitar at the age of twelve on a model from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. After graduating from high school, he got a job working as a telegrapher for the Frisco Line. He often played his guitar and sang to pass the time during slow hours on the job, a habit which gained him the attention of a notable passer-through: Will Rogers. Rogers liked Autry’s music, and recommended that he go to New York to make records. Autry did just that in the fall of 1928, but he was turned down by Victor A&R man Nat Shilkret on the grounds that the company had only just signed two similar artists (one of whom may have been Jimmie Rodgers, who had only begun his recording career the previous summer). Shilkret suggested that Autry seek work on the radio instead, and that he did. Upon his return home to Oklahoma, Autry began singing on KVOO in Tulsa as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”. He made his triumphant return to New York the very next fall, and this time he found success. With Frankie and Johnny Marvin accompanying, he cut two sides for Victor in duet with frequent collaborator Jimmy Long. Thereafter, he began recording prolifically for a variety of record labels, beginning with a session for Gennett, the masters of which were sold to Grey Gull and Cova’s QRS label. He then signed on with Columbia for a short time, mostly appearing on their budget labels singing dimestore imitations of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs. In 1930, he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on Sears-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago. The same year, he began his long association with the American Record Corporation, appearing on their many dimestore labels and still covering Rodgers, but increasingly producing his own original material. It was that arrangement that brought him his first big hit in 1931: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”. Meanwhile, he continued to record occasionally for Victor and Gennett until going exclusive with the ARC in 1933. The following year, while singing on the radio with Smiley Burnette, he was “discovered” by Hollywood big-shot Nat Levine and selected to appear in an uncredited role in the Ken Maynard western picture In Old Santa Fe. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Montgomery Ward M-4244 was recorded in two sessions in New York City, the first on February 12, 1931, and the second on March 31 of the same year. Side “A” was originally issued on Victor 23548 (which sold 1,901 copies) and “B” on Victor 23589 (which sold only 1,537). Autry accompanies himself on guitar on both sides, and his joined on steel guitar by his friend Frankie Marvin on the first.
The rollicking and raunchy “Do Right Daddy Blues” is a distant cry from Autry’s typically mild and genial cowboy songs of later years, instead more resembling one of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” songs with their characteristic braggadocio and hint of machismo. Two takes of this number exist, though this one—take “1”—was the only issued originally; the second take was released as part of Bluebird/BMG’s 2004 compilation East Virginia Blues, in their When the Sun Goes Down series examining the “secret history” of rock ‘n’ roll. Autry also recorded a version of the song for the American Record Corporation’s dimestore labels (Perfect, Banner, Romeo, etc.) two months later, and he followed up with a different version for Victor’s short lived Timely Tunes offshoot and sequel titled “Don’t Do Me That Way” (and subtitled “Do Right Daddy Blues No. 2”) at the same session in which he recorded the “B” side of the record presented herein. The song was later picked up by western swinger Leon Chappelear, who recorded it first as “New Do Right Daddy” in 1937, and again as “I’m a Do Right Daddy” in 1951.
On “High Steppin’ Mama”, Autry shows us just how much inspiration he drew from Jimmie Rodgers in his early career, presenting a song that sounds like it could have come straight from the Blue Yodeler himself—equally in content as in style.