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Austin, Gene (real name Eugene Lucas)

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Austin, Gene (real name Eugene Lucas), easygoing American singer, songwriter, and pianist; b. Gainesville, Tex., June 24, 1900; d. Palm Springs, Calif., Jan. 24, 1972. Austin was second only to Al Jolson as the most successful singer on records in the U.S. in the 1920s, and his calm tenor, in striking contrast to Jolson’s sound, marked him as one of the earliest crooners to make use of the new electronic recording equipment of the mid-1920s to create a more intimate vocal style. Austin’s recording of “My Blue Heaven” was one of the best-selling records of the first half of the 20th century, and total sales of his hundreds of discs are estimated at 86 million copies.

Austin was the son of Nona and Belle Harrell Lucas. His father died when he was a child, and his mother remarried Jim Austin; when Austin turned to singing, he adopted his stepfather’s name to avoid confusion with singer Nick Lucas. Growing up in the northwest La. towns of Yellow Pine and Linden, Austin had no formal musical training, though he learned to sing blues songs and play the piano from local residents. At age 15 he ran away from home to join the circus, where he learned to play the calliope. He joined the U.S. Army and participated in the U.S. action against Pancho Villa in Mexico in March 1916. He was discharged when it was discovered that he was underage, but he reenlisted in April 1917 after the U.S. entered World War I and served in France as a bugler.

After leaving the army in 1919, Austin enrolled at the Univ. of Md. at Baltimore, initially as a pre-dentistry student, later switching to pre-law. But he also led a dance band, and by 1923 he had left college to become part of a vaudeville duo with Roy Bergere. Austin and Bergere made their recording debut with “A Thousand Miles from Home” on Vocalion in 1924. They also wrote songs together, and their “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” became a hit for Marion Harris in August.

The team split, and Austin began to work as a single. With music publisher Irving Mills and Jimmy McHugh, he wrote “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” which singer Aileen Stanley agreed to record for Victor if Austin would join her for a duet. The recording, made Jan. 30, 1925, became a hit in May, and Victor signed Austin to a recording contract. His first solo success came quickly, as “Yearning (Just for You)” (music by Joseph Burke, lyrics by Benny Davis) became a hit in June. But his most popular record for the year was “Yes Sir! That’s My Baby” (music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn), which became a best-seller in September.

Austin scored two more best-sellers in 1926, with “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Girl)” (music by Ray Henderson, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young) in May and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” (music by Henderson, lyrics by Mort Dixon) in September. His peak year, however, was 1927. “To-night You Belong to Me” (music by Lee David, lyrics by Billy Rose) became a best-seller in April, followed by “Forgive Me” (music by Milton Ager, lyrics by Jack Yellen) in August, and on Sept. 14 he recorded “My Blue Heaven” (music by Donaldson, lyrics by George Whiting), which became the biggest hit on records since Ben Selvin’s “Dardanella” in 1920; it is estimated to have sold near five million copies.

Two days after the recording of “My Blue Heaven,” Austin recorded “The Lonesome Road,” for which he had written the lyrics, with music by Nat Shilkret, who conducted the Victor Orch. that backed Austin on most of his recordings. The song became a hit for Austin in March 1928, after which it was interpolated into the first film version of Show Boat, released in April 1929.Shilkret then recorded it for a hit in August 1929, and it was given a third hit recording by Ted Lewis and His Band in May 1930.

Austin’s first best-seller of 1928, and the second biggest hit of his career, was the movie theme “Ramona” (music by Mabel Wayne, lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert), which he recorded on April 2 and which attained massive popularity in May, selling an estimated three million copies. Austin also scored a bestseller in September with another movie theme, “Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)” (music by Shilkret, lyrics by Gilbert).

Austin’s most popular record of 1929 was “Carolina Moon” (music by Joe Burke, lyrics by Davis), which became a best-seller in February. Though he continued to score hits through the end of the year (including “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” [lyrics by Rose, music also by Harry Link] and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” [lyrics by Andy Razaf], on which he was accompanied by their composer, Fats Waller), Austin went into rapid decline as a recording artist with the onset of the Depression. He had no hits in 1930 and only one, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (music by Sam H. Stept, lyrics by Sidney Clare)/”When Your Lover Has Gone” (music and lyrics by E. A. Swan), in 1931, after which he left RCA Victor and signed to ARC (its catalog now controlled by Sony Music).

Austin was the vocalist on the California Melodies radio series from 1932 to 1934, accompanied by bassist Candy Candido and guitarist Otto “Coco” Heimel, who were billed as Candy and Coco and with whom he worked extensively in the 1930s. He appeared with them in the Joan Crawford film Sadie McKee, released in May 1934, singing “After You’ve Gone” (music by Turner Layton, lyrics by Henry Creamer), his movie debut.

Austin collaborated with Carmen Lombardo on “Ri-din’ Around in the Rain,” which produced equally popular hit records for his crooning successor, Bing Crosby and Earl Burtnett and His Drake Hotel Orch. in May 1934. Austin himself also had a hit with it back on RCA Victor in July, his last popular record for 23 years.

Austin next appeared in the Mae West film Belle of the Nineties in September, and West sang his song “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans” (music by Arthur Johnston, lyrics by Austin and Sam Coslow). In October he and Candy and Coco were in the film Gift of Gab .

Austin wrote five songs for and appeared in Mae West’s film Klondike Annie in March 1936. He was the featured vocalist on the radio series The Joe Penner Show on CBS from early 1937 to late 1938. He sang and appeared in the Western film Songs and Saddles in 1938 and appeared with Candy and Coco in the Mae West/W. C. Fields film My Little Chickadee in February 1940. Austin’s final feature film appearances were in Moon Over Las Vegas and Follow the Leader, both in 1944; he also made many musical shorts and soundies.

Austin recorded and toured in the 1930s and 1940s, and owned and operated a series of clubs and gambling casinos called My Blue Heaven in various states. He re-signed to RCA Victor in 1954 and cut an LP, Blue Heaven . On April 20, 1957, NBC-TV aired The Gene Austin Story, a biography starring George Grizzard, with Austin dubbing the songs, including his newly written “Too Late,” which became a chart record for him in May, leading to a career resurgence.

Austin unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Nev. in 1962, after which he lived in Fla., where he ran another My Blue Heaven club. He later settled in Calif., where he continued to write songs and perform. He died of cancer at the age of 71, survived by his fifth wife, Maxine; two daughters from earlier marriages; and three grandchildren.

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