Rex Allen, believed to be the last of the singing cowboys from the early 1950s, who went on to fashion a strong career as a narrator for Walt Disney’s animated and nature films, has died.
Allen died Friday of injuries suffered when he was accidentally run over by a car his caretaker was driving, Tucson police reported. Allen was 78.
According to news reports from the Arizona city, police said his caretaker did not realize that Allen was behind the car when she began to back up in the driveway of his home. Investigators are trying to determine if Allen fell before the car hit him.
Unlike Roy Rogers, his more famous contemporary at Republic Pictures, Allen grew up on a Western ranch.
As a child in Willcox, Ariz., Allen began performing well before his teenage years, singing and playing guitar with his fiddle playing father at local dances.
Allen’s voice had an easy lilt to it and was immediately popular. His big break came just after World War II, when he became a featured performer on “The National Barn Dance,” which was then the most popular radio program in the nation.
Based on his radio performances in Chicago, he was signed to a contract with Mercury Records. He wrote nearly 300 songs in his long career, and some of his recorded hits included “Streets of Laredo,” “Crying in the Chapel” and “I Won’t Need My Six-Gun in Heaven.”
Hollywood, in the form of Republic Pictures, drew Allen to the West again. Starting in 1950, he made 19 films for the studio. His co-stars in these B movies often included Slim Pickens, who later rode the bomb to glory in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” or Buddy Ebsen, who struck gold as Jed Clampett on TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And there was Allen’s faithful stallion Ko-Ko, who was added in his second film, “The Hills of Oklahoma.”
Allen was the No. 1 box office Western star in 1953-54 and went on to become the No. 3 all-time moneymaker in this genre, behind Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. But Allen’s career started to decline in 1954 as rising production costs and the emergence of television rendered such titles no longer profitable.
He tried his hand at television, starring in “Frontier Doctor” in 1958, but the show lasted only one season. In 1961 he joined fellow country-Western singers Jimmy Wakely, Tex Ritter and Carl Smith on “Five Star Jubilee,” but the live television musical show lasted just a few months.
Allen went on to make appearances on country and Western variety shows over the next two decades and was once asked the difference between the two styles of music.
“Country is like when you go down to the jail to pick up your mother or your grandma or something because she was drunk and was throwin’ bottles at the pigs,” Allen told a television interviewer. “Western songs are about nature, cattle, ranching and that kind of thing--but there are no three-way love affairs in them.”
Most of Allen’s work after the early 1970s came in the form of narration or voice-overs.
He narrated the animated feature “Charlotte’s Web,” based on the E.B. White story, in 1972 and found steady employment with Walt Disney narrating more than 80 of the studio’s films. He is known to generations as the warm voice that described the activities of Charlie the lonesome cougar.
He also narrated and wrote the music for “Legend of Lobo,” the 1962 story of a wolf as he makes his way from birth through adulthood in the wilds of the West.
Allen retired some years ago to Willcox, where he started the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. His trusty Ko-Ko is buried in a park across the street from the museum. A bronze statue of Allen and Ko-Ko marks the site.
Allen, who would have turned 79 on New Year’s Eve, moved to Tucson from Willcox about three years ago.
He is survived by his three sons, one of whom is Rex Allen Jr., a country recording artist.
Funeral plans are pending.
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