Home » The Voice of the Southland: Minden’s Gene Austin, conclusion

The Voice of the Southland: Minden’s Gene Austin, conclusion

by Minden Press-Herald

Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of John Agan’s article about Gene Austin.

In 1956, Austin began a comeback in earnest.  The success of the movie based on the life of Al Jolson, sparked an interest in the stories of other great entertainers of the 1920s.  On June 4, 1956, the following article appeared in the New York Times:

“The life of Gene Austin, Texas-born blacksmith and cowboy who helped to establish the singing vogue called crooning in the early Twenties will be portrayed in a motion picture. ‘The Lonesome Road’ is the tentative title for the film, based on a story by Larry Marcus.  It will be made by a new company known as Case Productions. Mr. Austin . . . started his singing career in New Orleans and became popular with his recording of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” His most famous recording, however, was of “My Blue Heaven.” The partners plan to make the film after the fashion of The Jolson Story with Mr. Austin himself singing while an actor portrays Austin on screen.

Within the year, plans regarding this script had changed.  An article in the entertainment newspaper, Variety, on December 26, 1956, reflected those changes.  Austin had been performing in Kansas City at the Hotel Muehlebach and had told the press of plans for a TV dramatic show, a film, and a book of his life.  The music was almost completed for an episode of the Alcoa Hour on NBC scheduled for February 15, 1957.  This episode would feature one segment of the planned feature film focusing on the peak period of Austin’s career.  It would also introduce two new songs written by Austin.  In addition, Gene reported that the story outline for the feature film had been completed and he had been working with cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame on a planned biography. Still more changes were made to the plan before the program finally aired on NBC’s Goodyear Playhouse, on April 21, 1957.  Austin recorded new versions of 19 different songs for the soundtrack of that program.  Actor George Grizzard portrayed the crooner and mouthed the words to the songs during the teleplay.  At the conclusion of the broadcast, Austin appeared as himself and introduced one of his new songs, entitled “Too Late.”

A large number of promotional interviews were held in preparation for the program. These included the feature article in the Saturday Evening Post and another article in Newsweek.  In both of these articles, Austin downplayed his past financial troubles and simply said he preferred the easy life to working.  However, he emphasized that he was ready to get back to work.  He described rock and roll as nothing new: “it’s old hat — first there was Dixieland Jazz — then the saxophone was added — then along came swing — this stuff today has a little more definite beat to it.”  The television program, while not a great success, did give some impetus to Austin’s comeback.  After Decca Records released a successful album of his old recordings, RCA-Victor responded by signing Austin to a new contract.  He released a few records and made some public appearances during this comeback attempt.  He was now working with a young producer named Billy Sherrill.  Sherrill would later manage the careers of some of the most successful acts in country music, including Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Tanya Tucker.  Austin helped

Bossier City native, David Houston, son of his old business partner, gain Sherrill as a manager, since reference books list Austin as influencing Houston’s career.

Austin hoped the television program would be aired in England and increase demand for the future film.  However, success did not come as easily for Gene Austin in the 1950s.  As the comeback began to sputter, a strange event occurred.  Austin had retained his fondness for boats.  He had purchased another yacht and was on a sailing excursion when the boat was reported missing.  After several days, friends and fans conducted a memorial service for the entertainer, presumed dead.  Several days later, Austin emerged alive and well.  It is not clear whether this was a planned publicity stunt or an actual crisis.  Whatever the case, Austin was reported as shaken by the event and again retired from public life.

The next appearance of Gene Austin in the public eye came in an entirely different area, politics.  In 1962, Austin entered the Democratic primary election for Governor of Nevada, running against incumbent Gov. Grant Sawyer.  The campaign never really got off the ground and Austin suffered a great defeat.  Shortly after this loss, Austin left Las Vegas and relocated to Miami. 

During this period he was continuing to write songs but not performing publicly.  In 1966, on his birthday, Florida Governor Haydon Burns proclaimed Gene Austin Day in the state of Florida.  However, Austin was still not satisfied with life in the Sunshine State and moved back to Louisiana, settling in New Orleans.

While living in New Orleans Austin began a final attempt at a comeback, writing more and more songs in hopes of regaining his lost fame.  His final public appearance came in a February 1971 episode of the late night Merv Griffin Show on CBS.  Austin appeared on a show with other great composers of the 1920s.  By this time Austin had become ill with lung cancer.  For health reasons he relocated from New Orleans to Palm Springs, California.  He was residing in Palm Springs when death came at Desert Hospital on January 24, 1972.  Austin who had been married five times was survived by his widow, two daughters, and three grandchildren.   His obituary in the New York Times observed that although he had been largely forgotten, “his sweet tenor voice was a familiar sound on the hand-cranked phonographs and crackling radios of America in the 20s.”

Thus ended the saga of Gene Austin, the self-proclaimed “Voice of the Southland” who in his prime was more successful in selling his albums than any other singer — including Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra.  Even today, his signature song, “My Blue Heaven,” is still recognized by many Americans and is considered a landmark in American music.    Among his hit records were: “Sleepy Time Gal,” “Ramona,” “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “I Cried For You,” “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” “Star Dust,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Good Night, Sweetheart,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Who’s Sorry Now?,” “Mood Indigo,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.”  However, few recognize that this giant of the music industry was a native son of Northwest Louisiana, who always considered Minden home.  The wire service obituary carried in the Shreveport Times included a photograph and was displayed prominently at the top of the page — but contained no mention of Austin’s Louisiana roots.  Most listings of Louisiana musicians in reference books ignore the Austin, while seeming to mention the Louisiana ties of many musicians who spent brief periods of time in New Orleans.  Austin seems to have developed a large following in Europe even today.   When researching this article, I learned the man considered the leading Austin authority in the world is Swedish.  As public awareness of the musical legacy of Northwest Louisiana increases and plans are made for capitalizing on the tourism value of this heritage — we should not forget one of the significant Louisiana musicians – Minden’s Gene Austin. 

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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