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Singing Cowboys - Star of the Month
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Tex Ritter
3 Films - Friday, July 15

Along with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter was one of the most popular of the singing movie cowboys. In his career, Ritter appeared on Broadway, radio, film, television, and the stage. His recordings sold millions of copies and his influence is still being felt in country music today. He was born Woodward Maurice Ritter on January 12, 1907 in Murvaul, Panola County, Texas on land his great-grandfather Frank settled in 1830. He was the youngest of six children born to James and Elizabeth Ritter, who operated a 400-acre farm, raising livestock and crops. Ritter, who was known as "Woody" or "Wood'ard" by his family, had an interest in politics at an early age, as there were politicians on both sides of his family.

Ritter wanted to be an attorney and went to the University of Texas in 1933 to study law and government. His was not a privileged upbringing, and so he worked his way through college washing dishes and working in the college library. He was known as both a highly intelligent man and a voracious reader.

While in school, he studied music history, trumpet, and guitar and joined the Glee Club, becoming the president in 1925. Studying under J. Frank Dobie (an authority on Western folklore), Oscar J. Fox (the director of the Glee Club and a composer), and John Lomax (a collector of folk ballads), Ritter learned all he could, not just about cowboy singers and the songs, but also the origins of the songs, making him a serious musicologist.

In 1928, having made a name for himself singing cowboy songs, he was hired (for no money) by KPRC in Houston to sing on a thirty-minute, Saturday morning show. In doing so, Tex Ritter became the first radio cowboy singer in the United States. The following year, the Schubert traveling company brought the play Maryland, My Maryland to Houston and Ritter was hired by the show to be a member of the chorus. He stayed with the show until it folded in New York, where he found himself broke. The occasional odd job of singing at parties or for radio commercials did not pay very well and Ritter had to resort to selling his treasured books one by one to pay for a meal. Eventually, he got a job singing in the chorus of New Moon and he went out on the road with the show. When the production stopped in Chicago, Ritter enrolled at Northwestern University. He would commute to the show at night from Chicago to the nearby towns in which it played. He finally left school when the show moved on to Indiana.

By 1931, he was understudying actor Franchot Tone and singing four cowboy songs on Broadway in Lynn Riggs' play Green Grow the Lilacs which later became the musical Oklahoma!. Around this time, he acquired the professional name of "Tex" when the producers heard cast members calling him by that name. Ritter also worked in network radio in Lone Star Rangers, the first cowboy program in New York, and got other acting gigs on the very popular Gang Busters. He would later have his own show, Tex Ritter's Roundup, and in 1933 he helped create and co-starred in a children's radio show, Cowboy Tom's Roundup. While appearing on WHN's Barn Dance he was discovered by film executive Edward Finney from Grand National Films. Finney had seen the success Gene Autry was having and learning that Ritter spent weekends at the Bar H Dude Ranch in New Jersey, went there for a few weekends and watched Ritter closely. Convinced that Ritter could be a star, Finney signed him to a five-year personal contract, paying him $2400 per film. Grand National announced that Ritter would make eight films as a series and he went to Hollywood in 1936. His first film was Song of the Gringo (1936).

By 1937, Ritter was named the sixth top Western star by Motion Picture Herald magazine's exhibitor's poll. Despite his popularity, the Great Depression affected Grand National's budget and Ritter only made four films in 1937-38. This had an adverse effect on Ritter's standing and he slipped to number nine. Finney sued to get Ritter out of his contract with Grand National and signed him with Monogram Pictures, who would provide financing and distribution. The output for 1938-1939 was back to eight films and Ritter had silent film comedy star Snub Pollard and Horace Murphy as his sidekicks for several films. Charles King and Karl Hackett usually played the villains. In 1938-39, Ritter had climbed back up to number eight on the exhibitor's poll.

The budgets under Monogram began to vary, as did the quality of the films, which again affected Ritter's standing in the industry. When Gene Autry had a dispute with Republic and refused to work, Ritter was offered a contract. He turned it down because it did not include Finney as producer. Republic then signed another singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, and the rest is history. Finney and Ritter's partnership was dissolved in 1941 and Ritter was signed by Columbia Pictures.

Ritter found himself co-starring with Wild Bill Elliott, which worked to both men's disadvantage, and Elliott left after only eight films. Ritter eventually went to Universal, where he was again working as a co-star, this time with Johnny Mack Brown. It would once more be to Ritter's disadvantage as his character was slightly tarnished, portraying him in a less than heroic light. Brown left Universal soon after and Ritter's films began to improve, but he was dropped, due to budget cuts, in 1944. Ritter had to go back down to the "poverty row" studios, this time signing with PRC, where he took over the Texas Rangers series, which lasted only another year before he was let go.

Although he had been recording as early as 1932, Tex Ritter's record career didn't take off until 1942 when he released "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle," which has become a classic. When he left films, Ritter continued his recording career for Capitol Records. A versatile singer, he recorded in a multitude of genres: Spanish language, children's, religious, patriotic, and even orchestral jazz. Later hits included "The Wayward Wind" (1953) and "I Dreamed of Hillbilly Heaven" (1961). Ritter also toured extensively for the rest of his life, often with his Tex Ritter's Western Revue.

Ritter had wanted to return to film work as his own producer but it was not to be. His career got a boost when he was asked to sing the title song from the Academy Award-winning film High Noon (1952). The film won four Oscars® and Ritter performed the song on the first televised broadcast of the awards. Ritter's film career now included singing narrations in films like The Marshal's Daughter (1953) and Trooper Hook (1957). He also worked in television beginning in 1953 on NBC's Town Hall Party, on which he appeared for seven years. Other programs included Five Star Jubilee and in 1959 he hosted Ranch Party, a television musical for Screen Gems which was broadcast throughout the world.

His influence and popularity led to the writing of a song that sold over a million copies. In 1957, Ritter and his band, The Western Ramblers, stopped off at an all-night diner on Bessemer Highway near Birmingham, Alabama. A 17-year-old boy from Birmingham named Henry Strzelecki saw Ritter in his western gear, recognized him, and immediately began to write a song. That song, Long, Tall Texan was later recorded by Murray Kellum.

Tex Ritter never seemed to slow down. When not recording or touring, he served two terms as President of the Country Music Association, beginning in 1963, and was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1964. He was given a lifetime contract to appear on The Grand Old Opry in 1965, and moved to Nashville, while his wife remained in California where their two sons, Tom and the future actor, John Ritter, were in college.

In 1970, he made an unsuccessful run for the Senate as the Republican candidate in Tennessee, competing against William Brock for that party's ticket. When Brock got the nomination, Ritter returned to performing. He had been approached by the producers of the film W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) about playing a role in the film and Ritter was very enthusiastic about returning to the movies.

On January 2, 1974, he found himself bailing one of his band members out of jail on a charge of non-support. Ritter had just taken a tour of the jail and was sitting in the sheriff's office, talking, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Tex Ritter was survived by his wife, actress Dorothy Fay and his sons.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
Cooper, Texas Jim "Tex Ritter's Going Strong", The Alcalde Jul 72
Dicaire, David, The First Generation of Country Music Stars: Biographies of 50 Artists Born Before 1940
Green, Douglas B. Classic Country Singers
The Internet Movie Database
Kramer, Gary Tex Ritter: America's Most Beloved Cowboy from Back in the Saddle: Essays on Western Film and Television Actors edited by Gary A. Yoggy.

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