Me 'n' Gene - Fred Kirby welcomes film star Gene Autry to Charlotte in the 1940s, on tour with his horse Champion to promote his movies and his hit radio show, Melody Ranch.





Photos | Singing Cowboys

Jack Gillette Cecil Campbell

There was a bevy of "cowboys" around WBT in the '30s and '40s. Don White, Jack Gillette and Cecil Campbell, along with Claude Casey and many others worked together in different groups with various names. And Don, of course, was a member of the highly-popular Briarhoppers. We turned these pictures over to our crack photo analysis team, and he discovered that Jack and Cecil used the same horse! (Note the encircled identical markings.) A rental, no doubt. And all available evidence suggests its name was Vick.

From time to time a few of these vaqueros del piedmonto would venture out Hollywood-way to appear in "musical westerns," with titles like "Swing Your Partner" (1943) and "Kentucky Jubilee" (1951), in which Fred Kirby and Claude Casey appeared. The Tennessee Ramblers, of which Jack and Cecil were members, went out earlier, to sing in Gene Autry's "Ride Ranger Ride" (1936) (see page 3), in Tex Ritter's "Ridin' The Cherokee Trail" (1941), and a few others.

But mostly our caballeros de la Catawba hung their sombreros in the vicinity of Charlotte, doing 15-minute shows on WBT for such patent-medicines as Crazy Water Crystals, Peruna and Hadacol (remember those?), and performing in little auditoriums around the Carolinas.

Fred Kirby Don White

Equine plagiarism ran rampant around the old WBT corral. Here are two more singing "cowboys" wearing the same horse. This was in the pre-Calico era, when Fred's mount was named General, in keeping with the Victory Cowboy-War Bond theme. Of course, when Don rode him, General galloped under an assumed name.

The inscription on Fred's photo reads, "Smooth Ridin', Pardner! — Fred Kirby The Victory Cowboy and his horse General." On Don's it says, "Keep a little sunshine in your smile and a song in your heart," and, he went on, "The best of everything to you. Happy trails. Don White." At this point he ran out of ink.

Kirby and White photos courtesy Riley Callahan.

The Tennessee Ramblers in Hollywood - 1937

They learned cross-promotion early in radio. In this complicated deal, everybody got a plug: the Ramblers, WBT, RCA Victor radios, the movie, and Gene Autry, who also got a hefty fee—hence the broad grin.

Can't you imagine how thrilling it was for these good ol' Carolina boys, to get to play cowboy with one of the biggest stars in the movies? No doubt it was all smiles on the long ride home.

The trooper-fiddler in the top row, left, is our very own Hank Warren.

(Note the group's name is misspelled.)

Photos from the Jim Scancarelli collection.