Most of of us consider Rudy Vallée to be the first true crooner, with Bing Crosby closely following as the first modern version. But if you dig into the early years, you’ll find that a guy named Gene Austin just might have been the original crooner. And whether that’s true or not, the fact remains that he led a fascinating and eventful life that included singing stardom.
Born in Texas in 1900, Lemeul Eugene Lucas was raised in Louisiana where he took his stepfather’s surname, becoming Gene Austin. Although he had some musical experience while growing up, he joined the Army as a teenager and soon found himself part of the force sent to capture Pancho Villa. He was then stationed in New Orleans, where he occasionally took part in the city’s music scene, but before long he was on his way to combat in World War I France.
In the post-war years Austin spent some time in Baltimore pursuing studies for a possible career as a dentist, but soon dropped out to follow his muse. He began by playing and singing in piano bars while writing music on the side. (Even though he was a little iffy on the fundamentals he would end up publishing over a hundred songs.) He also built his experience by being part of a vaudeville act for a while, and in the early 1920s turned to radio and the making of records.
The decade of the 1920s would see Austin become a true star, with best-selling records on songs like “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “Carolina Moon,” and “Sleepy Time Gal.” His biggest hits would be on “Ramona” and the song that would become his signature tune, “My Blue Heaven,” which is considered to be the gold standard. His success continued into the 1930s with the addition of occasional movie spots and tour appearances, but even though he did well his momentum began to slow by the post-war years. He had a brief resurgence in the 1950s, fueled by TV appearances like the video below (with Red Skelton) but it didn’t really last. He died in 1972, still writing music almost to the end.