Biography

Smiley Burnette, said his longtime partner and boss Gene Autry, "couldn't read a note of music but wrote 350 songs and I never saw him take longer than an hour to compose one." Arguably the most beloved of all the B-Western sidekicks and certainly one of the more prolific and enduring, Burnette had been a disc jockey at a small radio station in Tuscola, IL, when discovered by Autry. The crooner prominently featured him both on tour and on Chicago's National Barn Dance broadcasts, making certain that Burnette was included in the contract he signed in 1934 with Mascot Pictures. As Autry became a major name in Hollywood, almost single-handedly establishing the long-lasting Singing Cowboy vogue, Burnette was right there next to him, first with Mascot and then, through a merger, with the newly formed Republic Pictures, where he remained through June 1944. The culmination of Burnette's popularity came in 1940, when he ranked second only to Autry in a Boxoffice Magazine popularity poll of Western stars, the lone sidekick among the Top Ten. Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea -- his style of cute novelty songs and tubby slapstick humor could, on occasion, become quite grating -- Burnette nevertheless put his very own spin on B-Westerns and became much imitated. In fact, by the 1940s, there were two major trends of sidekick comedy in B-Westerns: Burnette's style of slapstick prairie buffoonery, also practiced by the likes of Dub Taylor and Al St. John, and the more character-defined comedy of George "Gabby" Hayes, Andy Clyde, et al. Burnette, who would add such classic Western tunes as "Song of the Range" and "Call of the Canyon" to the Autry catalog, refined his naïve, but self-important, Frog Millhouse character through the years at Republic Pictures -- called "Frog," incidentally, from the way his vocals suddenly dropped into the lowest range possible. But the moniker belonged to the studio and he was plain Smiley Burnette thereafter. When Autry entered the service in 1942, Burnette supported Sunset Carson, Eddie Dew, and Robert Livingston before switching to Columbia Pictures' Durango Kid series starring Charles Starrett. But despite appearing in a total of 56 Durango Westerns, Burnette was never able to achieve the kind of chemistry he had enjoyed with Autry and it was only fitting that they should be reunited for the final six Western features Gene would make. Although his contribution to Autry's phenomenal success was sometimes questioned (minor cowboy star Jimmy Wakely opined that Autry had enough star power to have made it with any comic sidekick), Smiley Burnette remained extremely popular with young fans throughout his career, and although not universally beloved within the industry, he has gone down in history as the first truly popular B-Western comedy sidekick. Indeed, without his early success, there may never have been the demand for permanent sidekicks. When B-Westerns went out of style, Burnette spent most of his time in his backyard recording studio, returning for an appearance on television's Ranch Party (1958) and the recurring role of train engineer Charley Pratt on Petticoat Junction (1963-1967). He died of leukemia in 1967 at the age of 55. ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi