James Clarence (Jimmy) Wakely (1914–1982)
Jimmy Wakely, an American country and western singer and actor from the 1930s through the 1950s, made several recordings and appeared in B-western movies with most major studios as a “singing cowboy.” Wakely was one of the last singing cowboys after World War II and also appeared on radio and television; he even had his own series of comic books. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1680 Vine Street.
Jimmy Wakely was born James Clarence Wakeley on February 16, 1914, in Mineola (Howard County) to Major Anderson Wakeley, a farmer, and Caroline (or Carolin) “Cali” Burgess Wakeley. As a teenager, he changed “James” to “Jimmy” and dropped the second “e” in his last name, making it Wakely.
Wakely married Dora Inez Miser on December 13, 1935. They had four children.
In 1937 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Wakely formed a country singing group named the Bell Boys after their Bell Clothing sponsor. The group performed locally and made recordings and frequent radio broadcasts on Oklahoma City’s WKY. The name of the band changed over time, becoming the Jimmy Wakely Trio.
Wakely was discovered by western movie star Gene Autry while Autry was on a tour through Oklahoma. Autry invited Wakely to play on his new Melody Ranch radio show, which debuted on CBS in January 1940. The Jimmy Wakely Trio joined the show in mid-1940. After a couple of years, Wakely left to pursue movie work and a recording contract with Decca Records that ran from 1941 through 1947.
Wakely made his screen debut with the Jimmy Wakely Trio in a 1939 Roy Rogers western called Saga at Death Valley. In the 1940s, he provided songs and musical support for many B-westerns and appeared alongside many notable performers, including Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter. He appeared in one Autry film, Heart of the Rio Grande, in 1942. Wakely also appeared in non-westerns, including I’m from Arkansas (1944), a showcase for country performers. He also had his own comic book series from 1949 to 1952, published by DC Comics and titled Hollywood’s Sensational Cowboy Star!
Wakely was sometimes referred to as a “low-budget Gene Autry.” In response, he declared, “Everybody reminds somebody of someone else until they are somebody. And I had rather be compared to Gene Autry than anyone else. Through the grace of God and Gene Autry, I got a career.”
Wakely recorded several country and western albums throughout his career, but some crossed over to the pop charts, notably collaborations with singers Margaret Whiting and Karen Chandler, as well as the Christmas song “Silver Bells.”
In addition to appearing on Autry’s radio program, Wakely had his own radio show on CBS, The Jimmy Wakely Show (1952–1958), and he co-hosted others. He appeared on several television variety shows including hosting the NBC-TV program Five Star Jubilee. Wakely developed Shasta records in the 1960s and owned two music publishing companies. Working from a studio converted from part of his California ranch, he produced recordings for himself as well as for other notable country performers, including Tex Williams, Merle Travis, Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter, and Rex Allen.
In his later years, Wakely performed at the Grand Ole Opry and on the National Barn Dance. His nightclub act visited Las Vegas, Nevada; Reno, Nevada; and elsewhere. He did a Christmas USO tour with Bob Hope. He also made appearances at western film nostalgia conventions and continued with personal appearances and stage shows, often performing with his daughter Linda and son Johnny.
After contracting emphysema, Wakely died on September 23, 1982, in Mission Hills, California. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Western Music Association Hall of Fame in 1991.
For additional information:
“Jimmy Wakely.” B-Westerns. http://www.b-westerns.com/wakely0.htm (accessed November 12, 2020).
“Jimmy Wakely.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0906843/ (accessed November 12, 2020).
“The Jimmy Wakely Trio.” Western Music Association Hall of Fame. http://www.westernmusic.org/jimmy-wakely-trio (accessed November 12, 2020).
Kingsbury, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
C. L. Bledsoe
Last Updated: 11/12/2020