GENE AUSTIN

 

Lemuel Eugene Lucas, better known as Gene Austin, was born June 24, 1900 in Gainesville, located in the Red River Valley of north Texas. He was the only child of Nova and Belle Lucas, both Missouri natives. Nova, the son of George Washington and Kate Lucas, would die in 1943, long after he and Belle were divorced. Belle, the daughter of Alva and Elmansa Hearrel, was a descendent of a famous Shoshone maiden, Sacajawea, her great, great grandmother. Sacajawea - known as the "Bird Woman" and celebrated for her courage, resourcefulness, and good humor - accompanied Lewis and Clark in their expedition from North Dakota to the Pacific Coast, 1800-1806. Belle would die August 3, 1956 and be buried alongside Nova in Gainesville.

 

In his autobiography, Gene would recall those early developmental years with considerable fondness.

My Texas childhood...was rich in the stuff that mattered most to a small boy

at the start of the twentieth century. Plenty of room to grow in, fresh air and

sunshine, nourishing simple food, friendly neighbors, pleasant climate, horses,

cattle, rabbits, chickens; and most of all, first-hand contact with the singing

cowboys. It was a typical Mark Twain childhood.

 

Gainesville was located in cattle country crossed by the Chisholm Trail, the fabled thoroughfare traveled by cowboys and steers on the way to the stockyards of the Upper Midwest. While still a toddler, Gene would wander off to the Trail while his mother was engaged in chores, drawn to the western trail songs sung by the cowboys during the cattle drives. His access to this music, however, was cut short by Belle - who upon hearing these songs re-enacted at home by Gene - denied him access to "at dreadful trail where any bolting steer could trample my child to death, or gore him!"

 

Restricted from enjoying one form of forbidden fruit, Gene substituted another in short order, gravitating to the parlour houses located on a few side streets of the town which presided over a thriving prostitution trade. Hearing the exotic improvisations of the piano-playing "professors," he inched his way up to the stoop, eventually being invited inside by the friendly occupants. This district became the new center of Gene’s life, and he curried favor by running errands for the professors and attractive ladies of the night. His mother’s suspicions were again aroused when he echoed this new music at home; despite his evasive responses to her inquiries, she soon discovered the source of his new material, and once again he was denied access to what he perceived to be an innocent pleasure.

 

Gene, however, had greater distractions to deal with at this time. His parents didn’t get along. The headstrong Belle, who longed for adventure and travel, had tired of life with Nova, a gentle soul who was unwilling to assert his preordained authority. Acquiring a divorce, Belle took Gene off for a prolonged visit with her relatives, an unruly lot given to extended bouts of arguing and fighting. She eventually returned to Gainesville and, in short order, decided to marry a blacksmith named Jim Austin. Jim insisted soon after the marriage that his young stepson adopt the Austin family name.

 

Although a county seat, Gainesville was small enough to afford daily encounters between Belle, Jim, and Nova. It appears that this circumstance played a large role in Jim’s decision to move his family to Louisiana and open his own "smithy". Gene would later relate that he instantly disliked his new home in the swampy village of Yellow Pine.

The air was heavy, the shadows thick and plentiful, the sky visible only in

patches, the rains frequent, the insects, heat and humidity unbearable; this

could never replace what I had left behind. What a change! Then and there

whatever feeling I could have had for Big Jim vanished. To me it seemed

my adventurous days were over, because the area was infested with snakes

and alligators, creatures I didn’t like; and there were bogs, quagmires and

quicksand. Also, I couldn’t understand the people, who spoke unlike us

Texans; and worst of all, I couldn’t hear any of my favorite music…All I

heard was Mother nagging me to go to school; and after school, Big Jim

ordering me to make myself useful around the shop.

 

To make matters worse, Jim began drinking heavily and "nice" families shunned the Austins due their humble working class background. As a result, Gene instinctively withdrew into a shell.

 

While loitering after my school in order to delay the inevitability of chores in the forge, Gene discovered the songs of cotton pickers working the nearby plantations. One of the workers, a kindly old black man named Esau, befriended Gene after hearing him singing along to the music. Over his parent’s protestations, Gene regularly visited Esau’s shanty in "The Quarter" for the next ten years. "Uncle Esau" provided the human dignity and understanding Gene required in the face of a steady stream of beatings and verbal abuse at home.

 

By his early teens, Gene had because big and strong enough to stand up to his step-father. When Jim came at him one day, threatening to beat the music out of him, his rebellious spirit surged to the fore. "You an’ that ol’ smithy can go to the devil! I’ve taken my last punishment from you," Gene snarled back. After an evening stopover with Uncle Esau, Gene went to the local railroad yard in order to catch the first freight train passing through Yellow Pine. His brief adventure as a runaway took him back to Gainesville where he became reacquainted with his natural father, Nova Lucas. A fracas with one of the town’s leading businessmen, a Colonel Mills, however, resulted in his father advising him to return to Jim and Belle.

 

But Gene’s inability to submit to his stepfather’s enforced regimen of physical labor without the pleasures of Uncle Esau’s company and plantation music caused him to leave home again shortly after his return. Hopping a train which carried him deep into the heart of Texas, he began fraternizing with the professors with the hope of adding to his repertoire of songs. He moved on to wide array of jobs, including selling balloons for a circus and playing a calliope for a traveling carnival. Gene would later provide the following assessment of this period of his life:

In my wildest imagination, I had never thought that the wanderlust of my

mother had rubbed off on me. But I soon developed a restlessness that kept

me on the go; fortunately for me I was always able to hustle some grub and a

place to sleep. I became good at my job, but not wanting to limit myself as a

parlour-house professor, I decided to try my luck in cabarets, which today would

be considered honky tonks, singing the songs of Uncle Esau’s people, as well as

songs I had picked up from the cowboys on the trail, and the parlour-house

"blues." I became an itinerant entertainer, and my wanderings took me all

over the country.

 

Gene eventually matriculated to New Orleans. Associates always seemed to be touting that city, arguing that if you could make it there as a singer, then you could succeed anywhere. He soon located the parlour-house district and, shortly thereafter, joined the army as one of General Pershing’s recruits for the ill-starred Mexican expedition. In pursuit of the elusive Pancho Villa, Gene’s army service—which largely consisted of inclement weather, treachery from civilians, and ambush from guerrillas—was abruptly terminated when fellow soldier Tom Mix, the future film cowboy star, instigated a check on his date of birth.

 

Discharged from the military and back in New Orleans, Gene picked up where he’d left off. Becoming a top entertainer in parlour houses, he moved on the cabaret circuit. On the eve of his seventeenth birthday, he received a special delivery letter from his mother indicating that she and Jim were coming to take him back home. In the face of this dilemma, Gene again enlisted in the army and was assigned to the 156th Infantry of the 39th Division. After four months of guard duty on the New Orleans docks, with most of his off-duty time spent performing in the parlour-houses, he was transferred to Camp Merritt, New Jersey, where he did stevedore work in the depot detail.

 

Wishing for more adventure, Gene—responsible for getting a company onto a troopship headed for France--absent-mindedly-on-purpose remained aboard until the boat had sailed out well beyond docking area. Following an obligatory reprimand by the commanding officer, he was rewarded with immediate assignment to a company scheduled to leave for the front. Surviving a year of battle in the trenches, Gene became a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. During his convalescence, he met a Medical Corps dentist, Lieutenant Knapp, who had admired his singing at the military "Y" hut. Knapp convinced him that becoming a dental assistant would be a good trade to learn, not only while in the army but as a civilian.

 

He stayed in Paris for a year after the signing of the Armistice, working as Lieutenant Knapp’s assistant. On the way home, Knapp offered to take Gene on as an associate if he would go to dental school. Following a stint in a preparatory school, Gene enrolled in the University of Maryland dental program. In addition to working in Knapp’s office, he continued performing in obscure night clubs, which helped in financing his education. By now familiar with the problems in getting some patients to pay their bills, Gene switched to law school, convinced he’d be of greater use if he could help Dr. Knapp collect outstanding accounts.

 

One night another performer, Roy Bergere, who’d been impressed by Gene’s singing during a night club engagement, suggested that they work together in vaudeville. It didn’t take much persuasion for Gene to begin rehearsals for a piano-and-song act with his new partner after apologizing to Knapp that the entertainment business would always be his first love. A break-in date at a Philadelphia theatre, however, was so poorly received that the manager felt impelled to cancel the balance of the engagement. Undeterred, the duo headed to New York City, spending several lean months in an attempt to secure vaudeville bookings.

 

During his free hours, Gene began developing another dimension of his musical talent, that of songwriting. He relates that the inspiration behind his first successful song composition came about while sitting on a city park bench, watching people walk by as sparrows in the trees engaged in morning singing.

Before long, I became bothered by a tune in my subconscious mind that

seemed to be crying to be written. The unknown tune soon found its way

to the surface. The rhythmic sound of high heels fell into place with the

"tweet-tweets" of the sparrows. Without much knowledge of what I was

doing, I pulled out a pencil and some paper and wrote these words, "When

my sugar walks down the street, all the birdies go tweet-tweet-tweet." I

continued to write until I had completed the entire chorus and a verse.

 

Several days later, Gene came up with the idea for another song while riding the elevator up to his hotel room. When Gene absent-mindedly dropped the shells of the peanuts he was eating on the floor, the elevator operator groaned, "Mistuh Gene, how come you do me like you do?" Feeling that these words succinctly expressed his misgivings about the recent months of futility in New York, Gene quickly improvised a melody to complete the song.

 

"How Come You Do Me Like You Do" was not only accepted by the song publisher, Mills Music, Inc., but Austin and Bergere were engaged to help promote it. This work enabled the duo to make valuable contacts with both performers and cabaret owners. After the song became a big hit, they began a successful run playing at Lou Clayton’s Mahjong Club. When Bergere started working professionally with his new wife, Gene continued there as a single until prohibition agents found sufficient liquor on the premises to have it shut down.

 

Hoping to eventually break into the vaudeville circuit, Gene began working for the song publishers, Stark & Cowan, as a general demonstrator. (The firm would publish the Austin and Bergere composition, "Tell Me If You Want Somebody Else," in 1924.) During one appointment in April 1924, he met his future wife, a vaudeville dancer still in her teens named Kathryn Arnold. Despite the awkward arrangement of having to include her mother as a chaperone on all of their dates, the courtship proceeded smoothly and, on June 16, 1924, they were married.

 

The August 16, 1924 issue of Billboard would report that Austin was employed as a songwriter and contact man with the recording companies by Jack Mills, Inc., an up and coming music publisher. The first week on the job proved unproductive; Gene, who’d always subscribed to the conventional wisdom that "songs write themselves," found himself pressing in trying to come up with a decent song. He was rescued from his immediate dilemma when directed to demonstrate the Mills catalog to the Vocalion label. After listening to a few songs, the executive—recognizing Gene’s regional dialect--confided to him about a "southern problem" facing the company.

There’s a chain of music stores in Nashville that sent up a blind man

to record some hill-billy songs. They happen to be one of our largest

accounts and we can’t afford to offend them. But this George Reneau’s

voice sounds absolutely impossible.

 

Sympathetic about the plight of both Vocalion and the blind musician, who wanted nothing more than to return home, Gene agreed to try lending his voice to some recording sessions. The approach clicked, and Austin cut a series of records to Reneau’s guitar and harmonica accompaniment between April 1924 and February 1925, including "The Wreck on the Southern 97"/"Lonesome Road Blues" (#14809), "You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone"/"Life’s Railway To Heaven" (#14811), and "Turkey in the Straw"/"Little Brown Jug" (#14812). The label on these releases read as follows: "Sung & Played by George Reneau – The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains – Guitar and Mouth Harp." Although Austin professed no great affinity for country music, the credibility of his singing and yodeling reflected its close proximity during his youth combined with his natural skills for mimicry. The success of these releases spurred Edison to bring the duo into the studio to record many of the same songs during September 1924.

 

In the meantime, Reneau confided that he was on the "Oregon Short Line" (out of money). Gene suggested that Reneau play his guitar and harmonica on New York street corners while he kept a lookout for the cops. This ploy proved so successful that the blind musician had second thoughts about returning home; only Gene’s warnings that they would inevitably be apprehended by the law convinced Reneau to board a train headed back to Nashville.

 

Austin’s big break as a recording artist came when Mills asked him select some songs and demonstrate them to Victor’s star singer, Aileen Stanley. After being introduced to Miss Stanley and musical director Nat Shilkret at the Victor Company studios, he ran through his first selection, the self-penned "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street." He couldn’t believe his ears when Stanley responded, "Don’t bother with the others, this is just what I wanted. Thank you, young man." After listening to the song one more time, Shilkret then took him aside and said, "you’re going to sing on [Miss Stanley’s] record. You know, young man, I have a hunch if you cut some recordings alone, we may be able to start a new style of singing in popular records, I’m going to take a chance on you. I’ll give you a hundred dollars a record. If they sell, we can talk about a contact."

 

When asked what gave him the idea for his type of singing, Austin replied, "Well, Mister Shilkret, when I came to New York, all the singers were tryin’ to follow the great Al Jolson. I knew I could never sing as loud or perhaps as good as Mister Jolson, so since he was always talkin’ about how his mammy used to croon to him, I just croon like his mammy."

 

This conversation would appear to have Austin placing himself in the vanguard of the crooning tradition. While crooning didn’t become a full-fledged movement within the record industry until the introduction of electronic microphones by the major labels in mid-1925, Austin’s soft, laid-back style translated well using the acoustic process. However, he was not the only singer to achieve success employing this type of understated vocal technique prior to the advent of electronic recording. In 1924 Cliff Edwards, popularly known as "Ukelele Ike," enjoyed success with "It Had to Be You," "All Alone," and other releases for Pathe and the American Records conglomerate, as did Nick Lucas, "the Crooning Troubador," with the Brunswick label. Furthermore, Whispering Jack Smith, Johnny Marvin, and others possessing a crooning delivery were extremely popular with record buyers shortly after the electronic process became widely used. Nevertheless, Austin’s immense success--among singers, he was only rivaled in popularity by Al Jolson during the 1920s—made it inevitable that he would be viewed as the figurehead, if not the actual originator, of the crooning genre.

 

Austin accompanied Stanley on "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" in Victor’s New York City studio, January 30, 1925. On the strength of this performance, more sessions followed over the next three months, including a duet with country performer Carson Robison, comic sketches accompanied by Billy "Yuke" Carpenter, and "tenor with orchestra" fare. His first hit release of note, "Yearning," backed by "No Wonder" (Victor 19625), was recorded March 12, 1925.

 

Austin felt confident enough about his prospects to quit his job with Mills Music. While waiting for the public’s verdict on his first group of releases, he and his wife put together an act and hit the road. By the time they hit Columbus, Ohio, however, Nat Shilkret was on the phone, exclaiming, "For heaven’s sake, Gene, why did you run off without letting us know where you were going? I spent over a week trying to locate you. I have good news for you. All I’ve heard for the last month is, ‘More Gene Austin records!’ I want you to leave immediately and get back to New York as fast as you can."

 

One hit record seemed to follow another during Austin’s early years as a Victor recording artist. He claims that royalties during the first three months for his first four records under the Victor contract totaled ninety-six thousand dollars; he carried the uncashed check around for a considerable period of time in order to impress skeptics. Nurtured by his wife, and—in view of the uniqueness of his singing style—given free rein by his label to select song material, Austin would look back on this period as the happiest of his life. He prided himself in his ability to find first-rate material that had often been ignored or rejected by established singers. Notable choices from that first year included "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby" (composed by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson), "The Flapper Wife" (Beatrice Burton-Carl Rupp), "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" (Young-Lewis-Henderson), "Sleepy Time Gal" (Alden-Egan-Lorenzo-Whiting), and "Sweet Child" (Whiting-Lewis-Simon). However, he remained uneasy over his inability to convince Victor officials of his need to interpret the soulful music he’d learned from Uncle Esau. But for the time being, he and Kathryn focused on adjusting to a significantly more lavish lifestyle punctuated by a beautiful new home, a large car, expensive clothes, and access to the best that New York night life could offer.

 

Eventually the pressures that are a natural by-product of success began to undercut his peace of mind. He became defensive when told that the Tin Pan Alley denizens were convinced he could turn any song into gold. Decades later, he would comment, "They were so wrong. I’d always told them hit songs don’t care who sings them. They wouldn’t take no for an answer; and when I refused to be pushed into a song I didn’t think suited me, I got the reputation of being high hat and hard to get along with."

 

Austin decided that automobile tour back to his hometown of Yellow Pine would be just the ticket for regaining a fresh perspective on a career that seemed to be rapidly spinning out of control. On the way down to Louisiana, he pointed out the milestones of his life to Kathryn. The visit with Jim and Belle, who had relocated to the nearby town of Minden, went smoothly; they both seemed to be deeply impressed by Gene’s newfound celebrity. As soon as he had finished an informal performance for houseguests on the first evening home with his parents, he slipped off the visit his beloved mentor, Uncle Esau. Esau, refusing Gene’s offer to buy him a new home, proved as kindly and helpful with his counsel as he had in the past. Austin’s chief regret was that he still hadn’t shared the secret of this special relationship with his wife.

 

The next morning, Austin was awoken from a deep sleep by a phone call from Nat Shilkret in New York. He exclaimed, "We are flooded with so many orders for new Gene Austin records, I want you to come back as fast as you can make it. Can you leave immediately?" Austin hastily made preparations to return back East, but not before arranging the purchase of a large farm house for his parents as well as providing funds for Esau’s immediate needs.

 

After meeting his recording obligations, Austin formed his own music publishing company with the aim of placing African American songs in a position to be recorded by Victor and the other major labels. He also began booking personal appearances as a means of funding his new venture as well as to popularize this music. Caught up in a whirlwind of conferences with songwriters, booking agents, theatrical managers, bankers, and record company executives, Austin agonized that Kathryn always seemed stuck with either "a moody husband or an absent one." He justified the situation to her by noting that in the uncertain world of show business, it was best to "get it while the getting’s good."

 

One day not long after Austin’s return from Louisiana, the latest batch of records he’d sent Esau was returned with the word "deceased" stamped crosswise across the package. Despite his outward success, Austin relates that his personal life fell into complete disarray.

For months to come, I tried to cling onto a form of communication with

Esau’s spirit. The practice of spiritualism left me shaken and lost in a

solitariness of forsaken gloom. This was the beginning of such gnawing

doubts and fears that I turned to another spirit, alcohol, to bolster my

imagination into believing that I was a complete individual and did have

the power and initiative to carry on without the help of the one I believed

had supreme authority and held the key or controlling influence over my

voice, deeds and person.

 

He added that heavy drinking, rather than numbing the pain, made him temperamental, arrogant, and belligerant. In the process, he disappointed, even hurt, those closest to him. Realization of the impact of his behavior led to further self-recrimination.

 

By mid-1925, his records were so popular in England that London’s prestigious Princess Club made Austin an offer to perform there. He eagerly accepted, in part to escape the stifling atmosphere of New York, but also to hopefully make contact with British scientists then investigating survival after death. The English reserve, combined with his own extreme shyness, dictated against Austin’s wishes to gain entry to a scientific séance. In his words, "The net result of my three months in London was that the supply of Gene Austin records was sold out in England as well as in America; and ‘Nipper’ was yelping for his star to hurry back; and I picked up some English songs for my music company’s catalog, which turned out to be hits."

 

Upon his return to the States, Austin, thirsting for the blues music of his youth, began frequenting the Harlem club scene. One of his new associates was pianist Fats Waller, who had first approached Austin with songs to publish while he was employed at Mills Music. He also was attracted by Harlem’s reputation for "conjur" activity, believing that it accounted for his career. Looking only for proof of the continuation of the bond between Esau and himself, he gave any "prince" or "princess" a fair trial, stipulating only that he be treated as any other client from downtown.

 

One of his recordings from this period, "Me Too" (Victor 20143)—coupled with "For My Sweetheart," has baffled more than one fan of early sound recording history. Recorded in New York on August 12, 1926, the song exhibits a considerable amount of rumbling noise, a feature one wouldn’t expect of a release from a major artist on the label then known for the highest quality sound reproduction. One researcher, Don Peak, consulted the August 13, 1926 issue of The New York Times for clues. The front page headlines read, "STORM TIES UP CITY TRAFFIC, FLOODS SUBWAYS, KILLS BOY" and "LIGHTNING STARTS 15 FIRES." Other records recorded on that day do not display similar background noise. However, Austin’s cut included a spare accompaniment (violin and piano, only), whereas some of the other releases featured a fuller band arrangement. Furthermore, the full impact of the storm may have been limited to the Austin session. Regarding the aesthetic judgment of the Victor brass in deciding to release the track, The New Amberola Graphic (Number 47, Winter 1984) observed that "most [sound reproduction] machines in use in 1926 were not sensitive enough to reproduce the low frequency of rumbling thunder, so it is safe to assume that the customers never even noticed it."

 

Following another stage tour, while his wife remained back home with her family in St. Louis expecting their first child, Austin entered the Victor studios resolved to record a song which had been in the files of a leading publishing for several years. As noted by David Ewen, in All the Years of American Popular Music,

"My Blue Heaven"…was written in 1924, three years before its publication;

{Walter} Donaldson wrote it one afternoon at the Friars Club in New York

while waiting for his turn at the billiard table. George Whiting, then appearing

in vaudeville, adapted the lyrics to the melody and used it in his act, but the

song failed to attract much attention. For three years it lay in discard until

Tommy Lyman, a radio singer, picked it up for use as his theme song.

 

By now, Austin’s arrangement with Victor regarding the choice of material to record had soured. He was convinced that the best material which he brought to the company’s attention was going to other artists. In view of his own family situation, he felt this was one song he had to commit to disc. He pleaded, and finally gave Nat Shilkret an ultimatum that he wouldn’t do another session unless his interpretation was commercially released. According to Austin, an agreement was reached for "My Blue Heaven" to be coupled with "Are You Thinking of Me Tonight?", the most highly regarded song among those he was planning to record at that time.

 

Austin relates that it was scheduled last on the September 14, 1927 recording agenda in order minimize potential conflicts with the Victor brass. However, as soon as satisfactory takes had been achieved for the other songs, the orchestra members put away their instruments and filed out of the studio. When Austin complained, Shilkret replied, "I’m sorry Gene. I didn’t know at the time I made you that promise that the musicians had another date and would have to leave. We can make it another day." H. Allen Smith, in A Short History of Fingers, documents the singer’s refusal to back down:

I grabbed an old guy with a cello and talked him into standing by. Then

I grabbed a song plugger who could play pretty fair piano. And the third

fellow I got was an agent who could whistle – bird calls and that sort of

thing. I made the record with those three.

 

When Austin proved intractable, Shilkret resigned himself to the possibility of Austin’s first major flop. To the contrary, however, it immediately struck a chord with the American public. Austin would later claim, in an interview published by the Los Angeles Times (March 8, 1959, Part V) that the record sold over eight million copies. The song would also have an unhappy postscript; ready to leave for St. Louis with a freshly pressed copy of "My Blue Heaven" to be united with his family, he received a telegram notifying him of the death of his newborn son.

 

Following an interlude of healing, which consisted primarily of "soaking up the blues and booze" with Waller and other musicians in Harlem, Austin was able to return to his apartment and once again deal with responsibilities of both his career and everyday life. Kathryn finally agreed to return from St. Louis provided he maintained certain standards of sober behavior. Gratified at his improvement, she agreed accompany him to activities involving New York’s social elite. Since Kathryn seemed to particularly enjoy weekend excursions on their stockbroker’s yacht, Gene suggested they purchase one of their own. The process of gathering information on boats and navigation helped bring the couple closer together. They submitted blueprints to a custom boat builder in Maryland who’d come highly recommended. The yacht, paid in full by a certified check for seventy-five thousand dollars, was delivered to a Hudson Rover mooring directly alongside the couple’s apartment. Christened My Blue Heaven, Austin convinced his wife that a whopping party was needed to launch it in style. He would recall,

What people came to see us off! Songwriters and music publishers,

vaudeville and night club headliners, agents, stockbrokers, newspaper

columnists. Walter Donaldson, Benny Davis, composer of my first big

hit record, "Yearning," Harry Warren and I took turns at the little piano

rolled out on the deck. Aileen Stanley and I re-created our duet of "All

the birdies go tweet-tweet-tweet." The fun was endless, there was a

spirit of friendship; and even Jimmy Walker, popular mayor of New

York, dropped in for a couple of choruses of his famous song, "Will

You Love Me in December as You Do in May"!

 

The Austin’s planned itinerary - sailing to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi, across the Great Lakes and the St. Laurence, and completing the voyage down the North Atlantic back to New York – was widely covered by the media. With the boat setting sail in a southerly direction, the first few days were spent touring the Atlantic coast. Night were spent in ports along the way. Upon reaching Southport, North Carolina, Captain Ott told Austin that a storm warning had been issued on the receiving radio; the Coast Guard was advising those in the vicinity that the winds could reach hurricane force. Due to the danger of floundering in shallow waters if they stuck to the inland route, Ott recommended that they head out to sea and ride out the bad weather.

 

The storm hit with intense fury almost immediately after the boat had left the harbor. With no sending equipment on their radio, the captain focused his efforts on locating one of the small islands in the area in order to beach the vessel. With Kathryn in virtual hysterics, Austin retreated to his liquor cabinet and poured out his troubles to the steward inside the galley.

 

When calm weather finally appeared, it came with astonishing suddenness. Surrounded by heavy blankets of fog and unsure of their location, the crew retreated to the cabinet radio set. Out of the static they heard a voice say,

Those were three more songs introduced and made famous by Gene Austin.

Once again, we repeat, the Coast Guard had abandoned the search for the

famous crooner’s boat, My Blue Heaven, and all the hands aboard must be

presumed to be drowned….

 

Captain Ott turned off the radio in disgust. Austin, however, was probably not as surprised over hearing his own obituary. Earlier in the year, Variety (February 22, 1928) had included a news note stating, "Austin was last week reported killed in a Milwaukee automobile smash-up, the Boston "Transcript" carrying a report to that effect. It is merely one of the recurring popular pastimes of killing off recording artists." Perhaps this is why Austin turned the radio back on. The voice was now telling listeners that a storm-battered cruiser – its crew evidently washed overboard – had been found on a Carolina beach. It went on,

The wrecked boat is believed to be the Blue Heaven. Coast Guard headquarters

give little hope that the man who sang his way into America’s heart could have

survived the terrible hurricane. Will each of you just tuning in, join me as we

continue our memorial program for Gene Austin. The beloved singing star lives

in our hearts as we take a musical tour back through the years, back over the

career that brought fame, success and wealth. Only five short years ago, Austin

came out of the relative obscurity of vaudeville and music publishing to become

the brightest tar of the new phonograph record business. Here is one of his

most recent hits and the song his yacht was named for, "My Blue Heaven."

 

The crew’s reverie was interrupted by the captain’s announcement that the fog had lifted. A Coast Guard cutter was spotted on the way back to the mainland. The Austins were given a lift ashore, wishing to return to New York as soon as possible, they had obtained a ride to the railroad station before their identity was public knowledge.

 

Back in New York, Austin had to contend "questions, wisecracks and comments" from the public, the fear of losing his voice (perhaps not unwarranted considering the abuse – heavy drinking, irregular hours, and inclement weather – it had taken), and Kathryn’s worries over their expected child. Nevertheless, he had much to be thankful about. The February 22, 1928 issue of Variety had reported, "The biggest selling popular vocal artist on all records now is Gene Austin, exclusive Victor artist whose ‘Forgive Me’ recording went over 500,000 disks and ‘My Blue Heaven’ will exceed that. Austin’s records sell 100,000 blind to the dealers without [being] previously heard." The September 14-16, 1927 recording sessions for Victor had yielded a bumper crop of hits; besides "My Blue Heaven," "There’s a Cradle in Carolina" (#21015-A), "My Melancholy Baby" (#21015-B), "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi" (#20977-B), and "The Lonesome Road" (#21098-A) all qualified as bestsellers. (The latter song would be the only composition not written by Hammerstein and Kern to be included in the 1929 Universal Pictures production of the immensely successful musical, Show Boat.)

 

Furthermore, the latest series of Victor releases – culled from sessions spread over the March-May 1928 period – seemed likely to keep Austin at the forefront of contemporary popular music. "Ramona," backed by "Girl of My Dreams" (#21334), would prove to be his strongest coupling ever. "Ramona," the theme song of a successful motion picture bearing the same name, would eventually sell nearly as many copies as "My Blue Heaven." Around this time, Austin’s accountant allegedly informed him that Victor had thus far paid him royalties representing the sale of more than seventy-five million records. While he may have been tormented by feelings that his success was undeserved, there seemed little doubt that his popularity would continue undiminished for some time into the future.

 

Victor’s willingness to allow Austin to selectively record blues-flavored material represented yet another positive development in his life. He was particularly attracted to Fats Waller’s compositions; in 1929 alone he recorded his old friend’s "I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling" (Victor 22033-B), "Ain’t Misbehavin’" (Victor 22068-A), and "My Fate Is in Your Hands" (Victor 22223-A). The recording of the latter song, which included Waller on piano, has been the subject of a number of widely told anecdotes.

 

Shortly after his harrowing experience on the high seas, Austin received a special delivery letter with the news that Waller had been incarcerated for failing to pay his back alimony. As related by Ed Kirkeby, in his Waller biography, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Austin rushed to court with the necessary bail money. The judge, pointing to Waller in the dock, noted sternly, "This man has been before this court too many times for failure to pay his alimony dues – this cannot go on any longer. Is there any special reason why I should release this man on bail?" Austin, seemingly taken aback by the question, nimbly responded, "Well, your honor, I do have a record session this afternoon, and if this man is not there to play the piano for me, it will put quite a few other musicians out of a job – and jobs are hard to come by these days." According to Austin’s own biography, the judge replied, "Gene, I doubt your incredible story. However, I’ve give Waller a reprieve on these conditions, that you be responsible to see he pays up his alimony…and I want those records as soon as they are available and YOU are to be the presenter." Waller and his benefactor then stopped off at a nearby speakeasy where he demonstrated two songs he claimed to have just written in the "Hotel Alimony," "My Fate Is in Your Hands" and "Ain’t Misbehavin’." Upon hearing them, Austin exclaimed, "You’ve got yourself a couple of hits there, boy. I knew some day you would do it. I’m glad you forgot to pay that back alimony. You just keep runnin’ outa dough so you get thrown back in the pokey, if that’s where you can write these kind of songs. I’m recordin’ tomorrow, so let’s go to my boat where we won’t be disturbed." There, with the help of a bottle, Waller spent most of the night orchestrating the songs.

 

Although in close agreement with Kirkeby regarding the events in this episode, Austin’s recollection of he matter is flawed in at least one respect. According to Victor session ledgers, Waller’s signature work, "Ain’t Misbehavin’," was recorded in three takes by Austin on July 30, 1929. "My Fate Is In Your Hands" was the next Waller song to be recorded by Austin, on November 25, 1929. According to the ledger, the session consisted of only this song because a fuse blowing in the studio switch box; Austin had to leave before the electrician could correct the problem. In that Austin did not record another Waller song until June 9, 1930 (i.e., "Rollin’ Down the River"), it appears his friend had nothing else of sufficient merit to interest him in late November 1929.

 

During the November 25 session, an argument started when the musicians learned that Austin planned to have Waller play the piano part. Austin recalled,

When they found out that Fats didn’t belong to the musicians’ union, there was

an uproar. I assured the musicians that before the day out out, he’d become a

member. More and more objections were fired at me, till I finally insisted,

"Dammit! He’s gonna play! These are his songs, an’ he’s the only one who

can improvise on the piano like I want them played."

 

Kirkeby states that racial considerations were behind the initial refusal of the session musicians to work with Waller. He adds, "The record was eventually made with with the accompanying orchestra grouped around one microphone, while Fats was placed at the opposite end of the studio by himself." Austin’s account of the session portrayed both himself and the studio accompanists in a more favorable light.

All else failing, I announced I refused to go through with the date. Fats

seemed to be embarrassed by all this, and suggested for me to go ahead

without him, that he would sit down and show the piano player what he

had in mind. After the musicians heard his first run-through, each one

stood up and applauded, and I could see their heads nodding to the leader

that they would take a chance and play with a non-union musician, making

me the guarantor that it would be taken care of.

 

Whatever actually took place, Austin could rightly take credit for having helped Waller join the Victor family of recording artists. The two would remain close friends for the rest of their lives.

 

In the meantime, Austin’s voice did not improve sufficiently during the several months beginning in December 1928 to enable him to go back into the studio. He became heavily involved in the stock market as a means of keeping his mind occupied. When his daughter, Anne, was born in December, he used this happy event to justify a new round of heavy drinking. Thoroughly disgusted by his behavior, Kathryn took Anne to St. Louis to live with her parents.

 

Austin engaged a nose, ear and throat specialist, who told him, "Gene, it could be…cancer. We in the medical field know so little about this dread disease. Your throat looks very angry. I suggest you give it a long rest. Quit smoking and drinking. Stay out of the night air for awhile. I can only recommend just what I told you."

 

With both his life and career at risk, Austin traveled back to Louisiana to visit his mother. His mother’s eccentricities, however, ruined whatever hopes he might have had about finding a haven for relaxation. Annoyed at what she perceived to be price gouging by the utilities, Belle had adopted tactics that left her without oil and gas service. Austin later recalled his frustration this situation:

I never felt so da’gone weary in my entire twenty-nine years. "Why can’t

things be easy an’ nice once in a while?" I moaned to myself. The money

I sent and the bills I paid each month could keep them in luxury. I was so

disgusted over her not paying the measly light bill. Why, those dozen [oil]

lanterns cost more than three times the amount of the bill! I had always

hoped that some day my little mother would conquer her wild spirit so she

could acquire the normalcy of average intelligence and pride that could

rule out forever her gift of creating scenes and the crafty scheming that

brought trouble to her and those around her.

 

After sorting out what problems he could, Austin paid his respects at Esau’s grave and pointed his automobile back to New York.

 

Upon his return, he found a letter from his wife’s attorney finalizing their divorce. Unable to live in the apartment which held so many memories of better days with his family, Austin moved to a suite in a mid-Manhattan hotel. He adopted a routine of drinking and listening to music on the radio alone in these new surroundings.

 

One morning in October 1929 Austin awoke to the sound of loud rapping at his door. Four unidentified men entered his suite, begging for a drink. As they downed a bottle of whiskey, Gene was informed of the recent stock market crash. Although his losses were great, he was far from destitute. He would later reflect,

I had certain assets, thanks to the foresight of Victor Herbert, Gene Buck

and that wonderful attorney, Nathan Burkan, along with Silvio MacDonough,

George Maxwell and Jay Witmark, who had organized the American Society

of Composers, Authors and Publishers, to assure that no member need ever

meet the fate of unfortunate Stephen Foster.

 

Although his recording and music publishing activities proved far less lucrative in the 1930s, Austin found some measure of success through radio and film work as well as concert performing. In 1934 alone he performed in film short, Ferry-Go-Round (RKO) as well as the features Sadie McKee (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Gift of Gab (Universal). While Austin performed on many of the leading radio shows—including Hollywood on the Air and The Magic Key Show—he professed not to have cared much for the medium during its infancy. However, he took credit for pioneering the use microphones in concert venues.

I had heard presidential candidate Warren G. Harding speak over an

apparatus in an auditorium, which gave me the idea of using a sound

amplifying system in my personal appearances. I had the Victor

engineers develop a portable compact model for me to take along on

tours, thus becoming, I think, the first performer to use such a set-up.

Rudy Vallee, who had become very popular, asked me about it, and

I made him a present of the duplicate emergency set I always had taken

with me on tour.

 

One of Austin’s more interesting live appearances resulted from a Long Island socialite's offer relayed through a prominent society orchestra leader, Meyer Davis. According to the terms, he was to receive one thousand dollars for a brief fifteen-minute performance at a party in the man’s mansion. After a brief altercation with a male heckler, Austin was led back to the music room by an apologetic host, who stated, "The hell with them. I’ve been a great admirer of yours, Gene, and I invited you here for my own entertainment." Austin was happy to perform in that setting solely for his host.

 

One of Austin’s chief activities during tours consisted of making appearances at local stores to autograph records. During one such session, he smugly told the clerk, "Looks like they still come out for me, eh, ol’ buddy." He received his comeuppance when the young man hesitantly replied, "I play your records all the time, Mistuh Austin, and love them, and recommend them to my customers. But when Saturday comes, people crowd in here from farms miles around to get the latest Vernon Dalhart records. They say that’s the kind of music they understand."

 

At the height of the Depression, Austin decided to settle in Chicago. The Windy City, then famous as a haven for gangsters such as Al Capone and Jack Dillinger, featured a diversified night scene which attracted musicians of every stripe. He was able to rent a large home, lavishly furnished and located in the fashionable part of town, for a very reasonable price. In addition to performing in Syndicate-controlled clubs, he again opened his house to "wine, women and jam sessions." During this period, Gene met his second wife, Agnes Antelline, as part of a blind date.

 

Wishing to share his Southern homeland with Agnes, Austin combined their honeymoon with a concert tour. While on tour, he learned that the Surburban Gardens in New Orleans was available for leasing. He asked his manager at the time, Bob Kerr, to make arrangements for taking over the club. He then hired jazz musician, Wingy Manone, a New Orleans native then active in Chicago, to organize a house band. One of these musicians, bass player Johnny Candido, caught Austin’s fancy and they began performing together live. After a few weeks at the club, Candido coaxed Gene out into the streets to audition a talented, but bashful, guitarist. Austin later recalled,

I knew guitar players were a dime a dozen, and at the same time had

enough respect for Johnny, who wouldn’t waste time with ordinary

musicians, so we went outside. I watched Otto Heimel pick up his guitar

and, holding it in his left hand, set off at a run across the strings with an

art and knowledge of this instrument denied any other man at that time.

It was this man from whom, in my opinion, all the great guitar players

of today learned. I hired him that night, and formed an act, Gene Austin

and his Candy and Coco.

 

The group proved extremely successful with Candy and Coco developing a unique sense of comedy that audiences loved. Their popularity, which led to many tempting offers for out-of-town live performances, helped re-ignite Austin’s wanderlust. Receiving a good offer for the club, Gene sold out and relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, which was closely situated to many of the venues interested in securing his services. Shortly thereafter, Agnes gave birth to daughter who was named Charlotte after their place of residence. Charlotte would later make a name for herself as an actress under contract with 20th Century-Fox.

 

Austin’s luck soured a few months later when he collapsed from exhaustion while performing onstage. The theatre owner, undoubtedly aware of Austin’s past reputation for carousing and noting the bottle of booze standing on the singer’s dressing table (which Austin claims to have kept around as a gesture of hospitality to guests), immediately fired him and issued the edict, "I’m goin’ to blast you to every theatre owner all over the country. You’ll never play another date! I’ll see to that! You’re through!"

 

With a potential blacklist by clubs facing him, Austin took his wife’s advice and moved to Hollywood in hopes of finding steady work in motion pictures. Considering the area a perfect place to raise a family, Gene succeeded in getting his mother—by then married a third time and possessing a daughter, Irene—to settle nearby. He offered the owner of the failing Clover Club on Sunset Strip his services along with those of Candy and Coco free of charge for a couple of weeks, banking on the likelihood that the act would prove good for business. His hunch proved correct, with the clientele including many movie stars, directors, writers and producers, some of whom made offers for the act to appear in films.

 

When Austin refused to accede to the club owner’s demand that his group perform in a smaller area in order to accommodate more customers, he was fired. The act was immediately signed by the renown Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel and went on to even greater success. Wishing to keep both his career and second marriage together, Austin abandoned his former drinking habits, earning that sobriquet "the sarsaparilla kid" in the process.

 

Although the money associated with film offers proved hard to resist, Austin soon decided that this medium was not his "cup of tea." Lacking the dark handsome looks in the Valentino mold required of matinee idols as well as the patience and discipline to become a good dramatic actor, he focused on the songwriting and performing side of movie production.

 

A major break came Austin’s way in the summer of 1935 when close friend Mae West—aware that he had composed songs tailored to performers with a diversified array of styles, from Broadway belter Sophie Tucker to dance-oriented bandleader Ted Lewis—asked him to provide a sexy Oriental blues number for her upcoming film, Klondike Annie. Having been told that it was needed by the following afternoon, he immediately sat down and wrote "I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love." When West and producer William LeBaron heard the piece, Austin was given the assignment of writing the rest of the songs for the picture. By the time the film went into production on September 16, 1935, he was also penciled in as a performer, playing the organ and singing in a scene depicting a Nome, Alaska settlement house. The role seemed tailor-made in that it reminded him of his early days as a parlor-house professor.

 

Despite numerous offers to tour with Candy and Coco, Austin took over a defunct night club on Vine Street in order to have the semblance of a normal family life. Named My Blue Heaven, the club became a popular hangout for both tourists and Hollywood stars.

 

This success led to a series of guest appearances on the Joe Penner Show beginning in the fall of 1936. The radio program was broadcast on WABC at 6 p.m. each Sunday for network distribution. The popularity of these spots resulted in his being billed as a regular artist for two full seasons beginning January 17, 1937. Each program usually featured Austin for one song along with Candy (now Russell Hall on string bass) & Coco. The duo was now billed as "Coco & Malt" because show sponsor, Coco-Malt, didn’t want to give listeners the impression that they were marketing a candy product.

 

Dividing his time and energy between the club and radio program (which alone entailed three or four days of rehearsals) soon proved overtaxing to Austin in addition to severely disrupting life at home. This dilemma was solved when jazz singer Louis Prima, an old friend who—like Austin—had spent much of his early career in New Orleans, agreed to take over the club. This venue, renamed The Famous Door, would play a significant part in launching Prima’s successful career as a live performer and recording artist.

 

When the second season with the Penner show proved less taxing (one day for rehearsal and one for the broadcast), Austin purchased another defunct night club, this one located on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood. The second My Blue Heaven was also a commercial success, attracting many patrons who fondly recalled their courtship rituals in the parlor with his classic recordings playing in the background.

 

The film vogue for singing cowboys provided Austin with his next challenge. Given his background—listening to authentic western songs and observing the range riders as they passed by on the Chisolm Trail combined with his years as an assistant to Big Jim at the forge—Gene was captivated when offered a chance to star in this type of picture. Selling his club for a solid profit, he went on a crash diet in order to properly fit the seat of a saddle and immersed himself in the technical details of shooting westerns. The resulting film, Songs and Saddles, was made by Road Show Pictures as an independent venture, with Austin contracted to receive a portion of the profits.

 

Austin’s deep involvement with the project assured his receptiveness to producer requests that he stimulate business by making personal appearances at theaters showing the picture. The tour was continually on the go, some days taking in as many as three or four cities. Despite its commercial viability, the stress and exhaustion ensuing from these appearances caused Agnes to return to Hollywood with Charlotte.

 

During the tour Austin met Billy Wehle, the owner of a traveling tent show. Wehle tried to talk Austin into joining him in this enterprise, promising to deliver vast audiences for his performances. Austin would later recall, "With my gullible nature, Waley’s [sic] con hit me in my vulnerable spot, memories of Uncle Esau’s prophecy that people would come from far and near to hear me. I told him to let me think it over, and if he’d come back the next day I’d give him my answer."

 

Austin’s manager, Bob Kerr, was not in the least bit intrigued by Wehle’s proposition, preferring to quit rather than get involved with a tent show. Austin, however, decided to become a part of the venture, promising to meet up with Wehle in Albany, Georgia after finishing his film tour commitments. The March 4, 1939 issue of Billboard, which carried the dateline February 25, Valdista, Georgia, reported that Wehle had signed Austin and Candy & Coco to appear in his show. The April 15, 1939 issue of Billboard (dateline April 8) indicated that the show, entitled "Star-0-Rama of 1939" and featuring Gene Austin, had opened in Moultrie, Georgia. Further news briefs from the publication between May 6-June 17 noted Austin’s involvement with the show at stops in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Staunton, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida.

 

After several months on the road with the tent show, Wehle asked Austin to consider taking over the enterprise. The July 8, 1939 issue of Billboard reported that the singer would be taking over on July 10; three weeks later, the publication referred to the show, then playing in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the "Ball of Fire Revue." The show’s continual name changes—the September 9, 1939 issue of Billboard referred to it as "Models and Melodies"—would seem to indicate that Austin was struggling with marketing considerations. Remembering his positive impressions of a young press agent and manager in Tampa, Florida he’d met while plugging Songs and Saddles, Austin now asked Tom Parker to come aboard as manager of the show. He remembered, "It was obvious Tom knew his business by the way he went about things. In a short while he had the show going full blast, attendance was great, and it looked like we would never know anything but success and money. Bookings poured in."

 

Despite the generally good turnouts, the tent show was embroiled in controversy by the end of the season. According to Austin, most of the ample profits were attached for back taxes owed by Wehle. While Austin hadn’t been aware of this liability, the federal government insisted that he was responsible for the bill. Billboard’s pages, however, told a different story; the September 23, 1939 issue indicated that Wehle had filed an attachment suit against the enterprise for alleged back payments due. The trial was scheduled to begin in Mobile, Alabama on February 1, 1940.

 

As a result, Austin found it necessary to head back to Hollywood with Candy and Coco to earn the money needed both for his trial defense and to reopen the show following season, while Parker and a skeleton crew managed to scrape by in winter quarters in Gainesville, Texas. The act headlined at Sardi’s while also participating in the film, My Little Chickadee, beginning November 12. He began assembling a company of performers early in 1940 for the upcoming tent show season. In the meantime, the performers warmed up for the tour with engagements at Spokane, Portland, Denver, and elsewhere.

 

The bad luck returned once Austin reunited with Parker in his old hometown in early May 1940. He recalled,

The second season barely started before the threats of war began to slow

down attendance. We were saddled with the obligation of paying back

taxes, which had to be met on time; this caused me to fall behind in meeting

the weekly payroll. When some of the hands became unmanageable and

insisted on their money to satisfy their imbibing habits, hell broke loose.

It was only Tom’s knack of handling people that kept them from coming

after me, by telling them I was an open-handed guy and they’ all get bonuses

when the money started rolling in. Other shattering misfortunes like storms,

tornadoes and hurricanes contributed to out hard times.

 

Austin’s troubles were compounded when Wehle won a judgment against the show in early July. Matters became so desperate that Austin found it necessary to close the show July 30 in Newport News, Virginia. Wehle appears to have gained little satisfaction from these developments. The August 17, 1940 issue of Billboard reported that he had been unable thus far to collect any judgment money from Austin. On September 7, 1940, the periodical noted that the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue planned to auction the physical property associated with the Models and Melodies show. This decision was necessitated by non-payment of assessed taxes due from both Wehle and Austin.

 

Before heading for New York City, where he planned to renew his professional contacts, Austin’s wife informed him of her plans to obtain a divorce in Las Vegas on grounds of non-support. The split became official October 12, 1940 with Agnes being awarded custody of their seven-year-old daughter.

 

Taking a train back East, he became more closely acquainted with Doris Sherrell, a sixteen-year-old who had performed the second season with his tent show. Before disembarking, he offered to provide her with singing lessons free of charge. While making the rounds in New York, Austin made a point of visiting the Sherrell home in New Jersey. After providing Doris with some vocal pointers, the family issued him a standing invitation. Although there was a twenty-four year difference in age, the two were shortly head over heels in love. However, two obstacles—the likelihood that her parents would be against marriage at such a tender age, and the opposition of her church to such a relationship with a divorced man—kept the couple apart for the time being.

 

While co-headlining with vaudevillian showman Ken Murray at the Earle Theatre in Washington, D.C., the two developed the concept for a show to be entitled "Blackouts." At the close of the Washington engagement, Murray left for Hollywood to secure financial backing and Austin returned to New York with a double proposition for Doris: a secret marriage and a spot in the show teamed with her sister Grace.

 

They worked with the show until Austin again felt the urge to take on new challenges. He assembled a troupe consisting of the Whippoorwills—four musicians he’d first hired for the 1940 tent show tour when Candy and Coco left after a dispute over wages—and the Sherrells, and toured the country. He also found time in the early 1940s to perform in a series of three-minute music clips for the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America and Murray Hollywood Productions; several of these featured Doris.

 

Following a year of secrecy, Austin informed the Sherrells that he was their son-in-law. Thus liberated, the couple headed for a brief vacation in Las Vegas prior to returning to Hollywood. After winning a considerable sum of money at the gaming tables, however, Austin decided to open a new Blue Heaven club on the strip. This time, however, his venture was compromised by the war effort, which had created many problems in acquiring food, liquor, and other necessities associated with running a successful club and gaming facility. Furthermore, on one particular night a patron won big at the dice tables; Austin suspected foul play, but couldn’t substantiate his suspicions. As a result, he was forced to accept concert bookings in order to keep the club afloat. Bad publicity proved to be last straw leading to the closing of the club. While en route to one of his performance venues, Austin noticed the following headline on a newspaper resting on a train seat: "GAMBLER’S WIFE SHOT AT HIM OUTSIDE GENE AUSTIN’S BLUE HEAVEN CLUB IN LAS VEGAS."

 

Due to her own career aspirations, Austin saw little of his wife for the next couple of years. He spent the time touring and carousing in much the same fashion as before. While performing in St. Louis, he met the woman who would eventually become his fourth wife. Austin had always made it a point to wander around a club where he was playing, asking guests if they had any special requests. An extremely attractive woman wearing a pink outfit asked to hear one of his early recordings, "I Wish I Had Died in My Cradle." After the show, the woman—by now he’d learned her name was LouCeil Hudson—explained to him why the song had a special meaning:

My dearest girl friend was working in a record shop and I used to drop

in after school and listen to your records. As I had used up most of my

allowance, she promised to buy this one. We would visit each other many

a night and have us a Gene Austin concert. I never dreamed I’d have the

experience of the artist in person singing the song for me.

 

The couple were married in 1949 following a whirlwind three-month courtship. The record LouCeil’s girl friend had saved many years before was presented to them as a memento. Regarding the marriage, Austin would later reflect, "Perhaps it was because I was more mature or I had a constant companion; or rather because I had a feeling of being understood. Whatever the secret, it built a solid relationship between us that formed a strong foundation to our marriage as the years went by."

 

Since both of them found Las Vegas to their liking when Austin played there, they decided to settle there in the early 1950s. Gene continued to tour on a regular basis. His only recording activity between 1948 and 1957 took place in New York City on November 23-24, 1953. During the sessions, he re-cut twelve of his vintage hits for RCA Victor. Austin was featured on vocals and piano; further accompaniment was provided by George Barnes, electric guitar, and Frank Carroll, string bass.

 

Austin’s career underwent a significant revival when NBC-TV broadcast "The Gene Austin Story" on The Goodyear Television Playhouse, Sunday, April 21, 1957. The program featured George Grizzard in the title role with Austin dubbing the vocals. At the end of the hour show Austin made an appearance singing his latest composition, "Too Late." The RCA release of the song (#20-6880) became his first hit—reaching number 75 on the Billboard pop singles chart in early June 1957—since "Ridin’ Around in the Rain" (Victor 24663) in July 1934. He was also in demand on network television, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show (NBC), The Jimmy Dean Show (CBS), The Red Skelton Show (CBS), The Today Show (with Dave Garroway; NBC), The Jack Payne Show (BBC), The Woolworth Hour, and Patti Page’s The Big Record (CBS).

 

Austin continued performing around in clubs, hotels, and other venues throughout the 1960s. He also purchased another club, The Chalet, located in a Dallas shopping center, in December 1961. According to longtime friend, John Dunagan, an Anheuser-Busch distributor based in the Missouri area, the royalties from songs he wrote and recorded proved to be his main source of income during this period. He began taking a special interest in the careers of two successful country singers, godson David Houston and cousin Tommy Overstreet.

 

Austin entered politics briefly in 1962, opposing incumbent Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer in the Democratic primary. An article appearing in the May 17, 1962 issue of the New York Post, offering the following take from the singer regarding his campaign prospects: "Campaigning is nothing new to me. After all, it’s just like show business." The ticket, which included Eddie Jackson (of Clayton-Jackson-Durante fame), lost to Sawyer and his running mate, former film star Rex Bell.

 

Austin and LouCeil were divorced in June 1966. Shortly thereafter, in early 1967, he married Gigi Theodora, a woman decades his junior who reportedly was born in Greece and attended Cambridge University in Great Britain. By this time, Austin had relocated to the Miami area. Florida Governor Haydon Burns proclaimed June 24, 1966, his sixty-sixth birthday, "Gene Austin Day" in recognition of his "distinguished career."

 

Other honors followed. In February 1971 he appeared on Merv Griffin’s CBS-TV tribute to popular music composers and later in the year he stated in an published interview that he’d assisted in establishing the Museum of Jazz, based in New Orleans, sometime around 1956. His final live performance took place at the Jack London Club in Palm Springs, California, where he ushered in 1972 singing his old hits.

 

Austin died on January 24, 1972, at the age of seventy-one, in Palm Springs’ Desert Hospital. He had been suffering from cancer for ten months. Five of his recordings comprised the music at the funeral, including "My Blue Heaven" and a song written by him especially for this event and recorded two years earlier, "There’s a New Blue Heaven in the Sky." The pallbearers included Dunagan, Bill Putnam, Rick Adams, Jon Antelline, Dave Covey, Harry Segal, Phillip Moody, Jack Pepper, Hartley Cassidy, and fellow recording artist Nick Lucas.

 

________________________________________________________________________

Table 1: Music And Lyrics Composed - And Copyrighted - By Gene Austin

________________________________________________________________________

How Come You Do Me Like You Do (1924)

Tell Me If You Want Somebody Else, 'Cause Somebody Else Wants Me (1924)

A Thousand Miles From Here (1924)

Just About Sundown (1924)

I Had A Good Gal But The Fool Laid Down And Died (1924)

I'm Going Where The Climate Fits My Clothes (1924)

Wanted, Someone To Love (1924)

Charleston Charley (1924)

When My Sugar Walks Down The Street, All The Little Birdies Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet

(1924)

What Makes Me Love You Like I Do (1925)

I Had A Sweet Mama, But She's Turned Sour Now (1925)

Abie's Irish Nose (1925)

I Wonder Why I Love You (1925)

What Makes Me Love You Like I Do (1925)

The Gambler's Sweetheart (1926)

When The Moon Shines Down Upon The Mountain (1926)

All That You Left Me Were Two Empty Arms (1926)

Why Do You Tell Me, You Love Me (1927)

The Voice Of The Southland (1927)

'Til I Found You (1928)

Old Pals Are The Best Pals After All (1928)

I've Changed My Mind (1928)

The Lonesome Road (1928)

Please Come Back To Me (1929)

Trying, To Love You (1930)

Whipporwill, Go Tell My Honey That I Love Her (1931)

My Success (1931)

When The Roll Is Called By The Fireside (1931)

Git Along (1933)

When A St. Louis Woman Comes Down To New Orleans (1934)

Ridin' Around In The Rain (1934)

Out Of The Blue (1935)

Mister Deep Blue Sea (1935)

It's Never Too Late To Say No (1935)

That May Not Be Love, But It's Wonderful (1935)

I Hear You Knockin' But You Can't Come In (1935)

Open Up Your Heart And Let The Sunshine In (1935)

I'm An Occidental Woman In An Oriental Mood For Love (1935)

It's Better To Give Than To Receive (1935)

Little Bar-Butterfly (1935)

Cheer Up Little Sister (1935)

Occidental Woman (1936)

Under The Spell Of A Voodoo Drum (1936)

I'm In A Mellow Mood (1938)

Take Your Shoes Off, Baby, And Start Runnin' Through My Mind (1942)

Oh, What A Mess I'm In (1943)

I've Given My Life To The Business (1944)

I'm A Rootin', Shootin', Tootin' Man From Texas (1944) First recorded in 1936 as

"Rootin’, Shootin’, Tootin’ Man From Texas"

Nothin' Doin' (1944)

Crazy Song (1944) Also known as "But I’m Alright"

Keep A-Knockin', But You Can't Come In (1948)

(Bad Boy) Dream On, Little Plowboy (1949)

Oh, These Lonely Nights (1953)

Too Late (1957)

Please (1957)

The More I See Of Somebody Else (1957)

Sounds In The Night (1957)

Wise Guy (1957)

My Restless Heart (1957)

I'm Not The Braggin' Kind (1957)

My Rosita, My Own (1957)

If You Only Had A Heart For Me (1957)

Wonder (1957)

There's A New Blue Heaven (1957)

Goofin' (1958)

Sweetheart Of Demolay (1958)

The Jass Story; an original musical play by Gene Austin [text only] (1958)

Lovely Lou'siana Moon (1963)

Here's To You (1964)

This Life Of Mine (1965)

I Don't Want Nobody (1965)

Miami In The Morning (1968)

Let Me Lean Against Your Shoulder (1968)

The Trip (1968)

Dora (1968)

Golden Wedding Waltz (1968)

Texas (1968)

That Fatal Day In Dallas (1968)

What Happens To My Friends On Sunday? (1968)

Somebody Lied (1968)

I'm All In, Out, And Down (1968)

On A Rainy Afternoon (1968)

Back Street (1968)

I Know Why (1968)

The Moment I Found You (1968)

Lonesome Train (1968)

Springtime, Ringtime, And You (1968)

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Table 2: Songs Published By Gene Austin, Inc.

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Someday You'll Pass This Way Again (1928)

Then Came The Down (1928)

Down By The Old Front Gate (1928)

Divine Lady (1928)

Wear A Hat With A Silver Lining (1928)

Anyone Can See With Half-An-Eye, I'm Crazy Over You (1928)

Blowing Kisses Over The Moon (1928)

On Riverside Drive (1928)

She's Got A Great Big Army Of Friends (1928)

Long, Long Ago (1928)

Daddy O'Mine (1929)

A Garden In The Rain (1929)

Peace Of Mind (1929)

I Gotta Have You (1929)

At Twilight (1929)

I Knew We Two Were One (1929)

Blue Morning (1929)

Keep Your Overcoat Open (1929)

Who's The Who (1929)

Maybe I'm Wrong (1929)

What Do I Care (1929)

Please Come Back To Me (1929)

Dreary Night (1929)

Trying (1929)

When You Dance With An Old Sweetheart (1929)

With Love And Kisses (1930)

You're Flying High - But You'll Do A Tail-Spin For Me (1930)

Be Careful With Those Eyes (1930)

Would You Care (1930)

Lonely Stowaway (1930)

To-Night Or Never (1931)

I Wish I Knew A Bigger Word Than Love (1931)

My Success (1931)

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Table 3: Sheet Music Featuring A Picture Of Austin On The Front Page

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Carolina Mammy (Leo. Feist Inc., 1922)

It’s Not The First Time You Left Me (But It’s The Last Time You’ll Come Back)

(Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co., 1923)

Montmartre Rose (Edw. B. Marks Music Co., 1925)

I Wish I Had Died In My Cradle (Before I Grew Up To Love You) (Shapiro, Bernstein

& Co., 1926)

Since I Found You (Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1926)

Yesterday (Ted Browne Music Co., 1926)

I’m Still In Love With You (Austin, Bloom & Koelher, Inc., 1927)

My Melancholy Baby (Joe Morris Music Co., 1927)

My Blue Heaven (Leo. Feist Inc., 1927)

So Tired (Harold Rossiter Music CO., 1927)

Tomorrow (Forster Music Pub. Inc., 1927)

The Voice Of The Southland Keeps Callin’ Me Home (Austin, Bloom & Koelher, Inc.,

1927)

Why Do You Tell Me, You Love Me (When You Don't Mean A Word You Say) (Ted

Browne Music Co., 1927)

After My Laughter Came Tears (Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1928)

Ashes Of Love (M. Whitmark & Sons, 1928)

Bluebird Why Don't You Call On Me? (J.W. Jenkins Son's Music Co., 1928)

Carolina Moon (Joe Morris Music Co., 1928)

Dream River (Joe Morris Music Co., 1928)

Old Pals Are The Best Pals After All (Irving Berlin, Inc., 1928)

The Saint Louis Blues (Revised Edition) (Handy Bros. Music Co., Inc., 1928)

I Got A Woman, Crazy For Me: She's Funny That Way (Villa Moret Inc., 1928)

Then Came The Dawn (Gene Austin, Inc., 1928)

You Wanted Someone To Play With (I Wanted Someone To Love) (Empire Music Co.,

1928)

All That I'm Asking Is Sympathy (Joe Morris Music Co., 1929)

Dream Mother (Joe Morris Music Co., 1929)

I Ain't Got Nothin' For Nobody But You (Empire Music Co., 1929)

My Fate Is In Your Hands (Santly Bros., Inc., 1929)

On Riverside Drive (Gene Austin Inc., 1929)

Please Come Back To Me (Gene Austin Inc., 1929)

Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine) (Watterson, Berlin & Snyder

Co., 1929)

I Have A Sweetheart (And Mother Is Her Name) (Red Star Music Co., Inc., 1930)

Moonlight (Frank Capano & Co., Inc., 1930)

You Cried Your Way Into My Heart (But Laughed Yourself Right Out Again) (Frank

Capano & Co., Inc., 1930)

Building A Home For You (Santly Bros., Inc., 1931)

Me Minus You (Leo. Feist, Inc., 1932)

The Night When Love Was Born (Leo. Feist, Inc., 1932)

To-ward Morning (Dancing With You) (Bibo-Lang, Inc., 1933)

Blue Sky Avenue (Harms Inc., 1934)

Talkin’ To Myself (Harms, Inc., 1934)

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