Tex Ritter

America’s most beloved cowboy, Tex Ritter was one of the few singing cowboys of the 1940s, who was able to sustain a successful recording career long after the era of the Hollywood B-westerns had drawn to a close. He graduated from appearing on Broadway in the early 1930s to starring in more than sixty Hollywood westerns throughout the 1940s. Along the way he recorded prolifically, initially for ARC and Decca and in 1942 he was the first singer to sign with the new Capitol Records. He provided the label with a long string of hits, becoming one of country music’s biggest sellers of the 1940s. He did not have a great voice, but his unusual accent, odd slurs and phrasing allied to a strong feeling of genuine honesty, made his voice one of the most appealing in country music history. He presented a repertoire of diverse material from cowboy ballads, religious material, children’s songs, country and western swing tunes and recitations. His best-known hit came in 1952 with his rendition of the haunting High Noon, one of the most famous western movie themes of all time that won an Academy Award. A lifelong student of western history, he was instrumental in setting up The Country Music Foundation and The Country Music Hall Of Fame, to which he was elected in 1964.

Woodward Maurice ‘Tex’ Ritter was born January 12, 1905 near Marvaul, Panola County, Texas, and grew up on a ranch in Beaumont. After graduating high school, he majored in law at the University of Texas. During college, however, he was bitten by the acting bug, and moved to New York in 1928 to join a theatrical troupe. After a few years of struggling, he briefly returned to school, only to leave again to pursue stardom. He appeared in five Broadway plays in the early 1930s, including Green Grow The Lilacs. During his New York years he also appeared as a dramatic actor on radio’s popular Cowboy Tom’s Roundup and co-hosted the WHN Barn Dance with Ray Whitley making his first records with Art Satherley for ARC in 1934.

One of the 
first to follow Gene Autry into films as a singing cowboy, Tex moved to Hollywood in 1936, where he was to star in some sixty films for Grand National, Monogram, Columbia, Universal and PRC. Some of his early classics included Song Of The Gringo, Trouble In Texas (with a young Rita Hayworth), and Take Me Back To Oklahoma. Throughout this period he was recording regularly for Decca, without too much success. In 1942, he became the first country artist signed to Capitol Records, and within two years became a regular in the country top ten with hits like I’m Wastin’ My Tears Over You, Jealous Heart, You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often, Have I Told You Lately That I Love You and Deck Of Cards. The latter was a recitation, the first of many that he was to record over the years: Daddy’s Last Letter was the recitation of an actual letter from a soldier killed in the Korean War; The Pledge Of Allegiance and The Gettysburg Address were powerful readings of patriotic documents.

When his filming career declined, he turned to touring and concentrated on his recording career, alongside his two regular radio series. His last singing cowboy role was in 1945’s Flaming Bullets, though he did return to the silver screen in several cameo roles in the early 1950s. In 1947 he recorded the first of many children’s songs, and produced a surprise hit in Pecos Bill. Featured in the Walt Disney movie Melody Time, it provided him with a top twenty hit the following year. Though High Noon, proved to be a massive pop hit in 1952, and reputedly sold a million copies, it failed to make an impact on the country charts. In fact, he failed to make an impact on the country lists throughout the 1950s, though he did enjoy another pop hit with The Wayward Wind in 1956, a record that was also a UK top twenty hit.

From 1953 through to 1960 he co-hosted Town Hall Party, one of the most popular country music TV shows, with Johnny Bond. He continued to record prolifically, releasing several albums including SONGS FROM THE WESTERN SCREEN, PSALMS and BLOOD ON THE SADDLE. The latter was a dark collection of cowboy narrative songs, the title tune being a song that he had first recorded back in the 1930s. A return to the country charts came in 1961 with I Dreamed Of A Hill-Billy Heaven, a semi-spoken record that also made a big impact on the pop listings. Tex moved to Nashville in 1965, where he joined The Grand Ole Opry and took over a late-night radio programme on WSM. He continued to regularly make the country charts with Just Beyond The Moon, A Working Man’s Prayer and Growin’ Up. He acted on a long-standing desire to run for political office, when he stood unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1970. Tex Ritter died January 2, 1973 after a heart attack at the Metro Jail, Nashville, where he was arranging bail for one of his band members. His son John Ritter has carried on the family name as a popular actor in TV sitcoms and a handful of Hollywood movies.

Recommended Listening

An American Legend (Capitol 1973)
Hall Of Fame (MCA 1992)
Blood On the Saddle (Bear Family 1999)
High Noon (Bear Family 2000)