January 12, 1905
January 2, 1974
Panola County, Texas
Early Life and Musical Pursuits
Born Woodward Maurice Ritter in Panola County, Texas (where Jim Reeves was born), Tex Ritter was raised with a deep love of western music. When he entered the University of Texas at Austin in 1922, he met J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John Lomax—three of the most noted authorities on cowboy songs, who added further to his knowledge of western music. While studying law in college, Ritter had his own weekly radio program, singing cowboy songs on KPRC in Houston.
In 1928, Ritter went to New York, where he worked for a short time in a Broadway musical production. He then briefly attended Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. Short of funds, he soon returned to New York, where he worked in several Broadway productions, including Green Grow the Lilacs. (A decade later, Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted the play as Oklahoma!) While in New York, Ritter also worked regularly on a variety of radio programs and, in 1932, made his first commercial recordings, which went unissued at the time.
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Singing Cowboy Stardom
By mid-decade, the enormous success of Gene Autry’s westerns led other film studios to look for their own singing cowboys. One of the first producers to recognize Ritter’s potential was Edward Finney, who signed him and released his first starring film, Song of the Gringo, in 1936. Ritter was well suited to the role of singing cowboy. He looked and acted the part and was singing the type of songs he loved best. Unfortunately, most of his films were made for Grand National and Monogram, two of the so-called “Poverty Row” studios, which made their films on shoestring budgets. Although Ritter’s films never had the production values of those starring Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, he still enjoyed considerable box-office success.
In 1942, after a decade of recording with little success, Ritter became one of the first artists signed by the newly formed Capitol Records. He soon began scoring major hits with records such as “Jealous Heart,” “Rye Whiskey,” “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” and “You Will Have to Pay.” Ritter would remain with Capitol for the rest of his life.
A different type of film opportunity came to Ritter in 1952, when he was asked to sing the title song of the Gary Cooper–Grace Kelly western, High Noon. The song was used as a narrative throughout the film and became Ritter’s signature song. He went on to record several other western theme songs throughout the decade.
Ritter was among the first country&western artists to record concept albums built around a central theme.
Ritter was among the first country&western artists to record concept albums built around a central theme, as he recorded albums of cowboy songs, patriotic songs, hymns, and Mexican songs as well as albums of country music. In 1961, he recorded “(I Dreamed of a) Hillbilly Heaven,” which became another of his biggest hits and displayed the fine way he delivered recitations. Ritter became involved with the formation of the Country Music Association (CMA) and, in 1963, was elected its president. In this role, he helped oversee the building of the original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Nashville’s Music Row.
In 1965, Ritter’s growing involvement in country music led him to move to Nashville, where he co-hosted the late-night country music radio program on WSM with Ralph Emery and joined the Grand Ole Opry. In 1970, Ritter ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to the U. S. Senate. Ritter’s death on January 2, 1974, marked the passing of one of C&W music’s finest and most respected talents. —Laurence Zwisohn
—Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.