Tex Ritter became one of country music’s most famous stars just as he was rising to national prominence. He became a beloved character in dozens of film, radio and TV appearances and released dozens of hit songs.
He was born Woodward Maurice Ritter in January 1905 on the family farm near Murvaul in Panola County, a few miles from the Louisiana border. When he was still young, the family moved to Beaumont where he attended school.
Along the way, music became an important part of his life. He was an exceptional student, graduating with honors. He enrolled at the University of Texas in 1922 with the goal of becoming a lawyer. He excelled in political science and economics courses.
He began touring with a musical group around the country in the mid-1920s. He briefly enrolled at Northwestern University Law School in Illinois before turning to a career in music. In 1928 he had a regular program on Houston’s KPRC radio. The success of the show inspired him to move to New York, where he performed on Broadway. He began singing and performing on East Coast radio stations in the early 1930s, including popular children’s programs. His charm and sweet humor have won him many fans over his long career.
In 1936, he signed a contract with Grand National Pictures and moved to California. He appeared as “Tex” in the 1936 low-budget western Song of the Gringo. He was paid $2,400 for his role or over $50,000 in modern dollars. His roles were usually that of the singing cowboy along the dusty trails of the Old West. He played a character named “Tex” in each of his films until 1942 and most of his films thereafter until 1950. He would continue to earn $2,400 per picture until Grand National folded in 1939. Ritter starred in more than two dozen films between 1936 and 1940.
He performed the title song from his 1942 film Deep in the Heart of Texas. Gene Autry, himself a famous Texas singer, also recorded a popular version of the song that year. In fact, five different versions of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by different singers appeared on the country charts in 1942.
Ritter met his wife Dorothy Fay, an actress, while making some of his early films. His wife would appear in 18 westerns between 1938 and 1941, sometimes appearing with him. The couple would have two sons, Tom, born in 1947, and John, born in 1948, who would become a popular sitcom star in the 1970s.
During World War II he continued to be a popular entertainer. He continued to appear in films and on the radio. In 1944 and 1945 he released some of the country’s most popular songs, including “I’m Wasting My Tears on You”, “Jealous Heart”, and “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often”. His songs continued to top the charts well into the 1950s.
In 1951, he sang the title song of Gary Cooper’s classic western, High Noon. The song itself, “High Noon” or “Don’t Forsake Me” reached number 12 on the country charts. Ritter was asked to sing the now famous title song for the first televised Academy Awards in 1952, where it won the Oscar for Best Song.
Ritter had another Top Five hit with “I Dreamed of a Hill-Billy Heaven” in 1961. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1964. In the 1960s, country music trends began to change, and only two of his singles for the rest of the decade made the Top 40, most notably “Just Beyond the Moon” in 1967. Nevertheless, his love of music continued; and he performed regularly on television programs, including The Porter Wagoner Show and The Johnny Cash Show. He also began working as a disc jockey on Nashville radio stations.
In 1970, he entered politics. He ran for the US Senate in Tennessee. However, he lost the primary by a wide margin. Sometime after his ill-fated Senate run, he was asked on The Dick Cavett Show if the nickname “Tex” cost him the election in Tennessee. Ritter joked, “Well, Tennessee is the mother of Texas. We never found out who the father was.
Ritter would record four more albums in the early 1970s and make guest appearances on various television and radio programs. His last film appearance dates back to 1973 in Sing a Country Song.
While visiting friends in Nashville over the New Years holidays, he suffered a severe heart attack and died on January 2, 1974, just days before his sixty-ninth birthday. His body was taken back to Texas and buried in Port Neches. Ritter still had many fans after his passing and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was among the first inductees in 1998 into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, just a few miles from his birthplace. His songs continue to be featured on TV and in movies.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.