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237 A Friend in Las Vegas —H. Allen Smith The local and national importance of singer, composer, and influential recording artist Gene Austin often goes unremarked. Yet, along with Vernon Dalhart from Jefferson, Texas, within the Ark-La-Tex, Austin emerged as one of media history’s earliest stars with strong ties to the Shreveport metropolitan area. His career really took off with his 1927 version of “My Blue Heaven,” which sold hundreds of thousands of copies for Victor. During the late 1920s Austin was in great demand across the United States as a live performer. From the mid-1920s into the early 1930s he was a popular recording artist on a par with Paul Whiteman and the young Bing Crosby. His radio appearances began during this same era and continued into the 1940s. Austin debuted in Hollywood movies in 1932 and ultimately appeared in Sadie McKee, Gift of Gab, and Melody Cruise. Nightclub entertainment became his main employment during the 1930s, after recordings slowed down. In many instances, Austin transformed the music that bespoke his southern roots into popular music with wide appeal. Over the course of his lengthy career he composed nearly one hundred songs, most notably “When My Sugar Walks down the Street,”“How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” and “Lonesome Road.” Born Eugene Lucas on June 24, 1900, in Gainesville, Texas, (some sixty-five miles north of Fort Worth), he grew up in small northwestern Louisiana towns. His biography includes several fascinating episodes: for example, after joining the United States Army at age fifteen, Austin helped pursue Francisco (Pancho) Villa in 1916 and served in France during World War I. He studied both dentistry and law in Baltimore, but decided on a singing career. Austin was married five times and lived in Las Vegas following the close of World War II. He even mounted an unsuccessful run for governor of Nevada during the 1962 elections. Sparked by a television dramatization of his biography in 1958, Austin picked up his nightclub appearances and continued to write songs until the last ten months of his H. ALLEN SMITH 238 life, when his ultimately unsuccessful battle with lung cancer became too onerous. This article was first published in the Saturday Evening Post during the late 1950s, coinciding with the resurgence of interest in Austin’s career sparked by the TV special. It was later reprinted with slight modification in a collection of essays by its author, H. Allen Smith, brought together as a book with a title from one of its humorous essays, A Short History of Fingers.1 Smith’s perspective in itself is of historical interest, speaking for a generation for whom rock-and-roll was an unwelcome musical revolution, and he writes with sympathy, nostalgia, and humor about the singer who, for Smith, represents a gentler musical age. Note 1. H. Allen Smith,“A Friend in Las Vegas,” in A Short History of Fingers (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963); this is the version reprinted here. In the developing folklore of contemporary America there is a story about a newlywed couple holding hands late in the evening on the front stoop of their home. Down the street a cat manages to claw the lid off a large garbage can. The lid hits the pavement with a crash and a clatter, the garbage can falls over, the cat lets out a few frightening shrieks and yowls, and the young woman says softly to the young man,“Oh, darling, our song!” There must be fogey blood in me because I enjoy that story. I enjoy it because I think that much of the stuff that passes for popular music today is somewhat less melodic than the grunting of hogs in flytime. I happen to hold membership in a generation which grew up on sweet music and a sweet singer named Gene Austin. Along with almost every other boy and girl of my time I romanced and courted to the music of his records. Those were the days when we cranked up the machine between numbers, and if we ran out of needles we used a straight pin, and if we ran out of anything else to say, we said, “You tell ’em, I stutter.” I’ve known Gene Austin for thirty-five years. I first met him in Tulsa in the summer of 1927, when he was at the peak of his celebrity. I was a young reporter just barely sapient enough to pour lemonade out of a...


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