Lemuel Eugene Lucas was born in Gainesville, Texas, on June 24, 1900. Early on, his mother Belle, divorced Eugene’s father, Nova Lucas. She shortly thereafter married a blacksmith named Jim Austin, who insisted the boy take his last name.
Music was not encouraged in the Austin household, and Gene Austin instead learned songs from “professors” playing in the local houses of prostitution. Tired of working in the smithy with stepfather, in his teens he ran away from home. After a tour the Army during WWI, he studied dentistry but sang in local cabarets at night. Finally, he teamed up with another singer, Roy Bergere, to go into Vaudeville.
At first the team was unsuccessful, but Gene Austin had discovered a knack for writing catchy songs. “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?” was an early hit, and launched the pair as popular nightclub entertainers. After the act broke up, Austin sang uncredited on records made by guitarist George Reneau, “The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains,” whose own voice was deemed unacceptable.
Gene Austin recorded under his own name in January 1925 in a duet with Aileen Stanley on his song, “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.” The record launched a lucrative career as a Victor recording artist, particularly after the introduction of electrical recording later that year. His particular singing style—subtly crooning, rather than declaiming—was suited to the new technique and his electrical releases sold briskly.
In 1927 he recorded “My Blue Heaven,” which reportedly sold over eight million copies. “Ramona,” recorded the following year, did almost as well. As Victor’s star crooner, he had the leeway to choose the songs he recorded, including compositions by his friend, Thomas “Fats” Waller.
During the Depression, baritones such as Bing Crosby surpassed Gene Austin in popularity, though he kept working and his songwriting royalties kept him comfortably well-off. In the mid-1930s, he formed a jazz combo with bassist John “Candy” Candido and guitarist Otto “Coco” Heimal. Austin continued to perform the rest of his life, revisiting his old songs and writing new ones. His last live performance was on December 31, 1971.
Gene Austin died on January 24, 1972. A song he had written and recorded two years earlier, “There’s a New Blue Heaven in the Sky,” was played at his funeral.
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