Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter was born on January 12, 1905 to James Everett and Elizabeth Matthews Ritter of Murvaul, Texas, in Panola County about 10 miles south of Carthage. He was the youngest of about nine children. His first name is sometimes spelled “Woodard” but in one account it is related that he was named for Dr. S. A. Woodward, the doctor who delivered him. Tex was the grandson of Benjamin Franklin Ritter, who had been brought to Texas as a baby in the early to mid 1830s from Tennessee.
In some ways, Tex might have seemed to be an unlikely person to have had such a successful career in music and film. He grew up on the family farm in rural Texas. He began attending school in Murvaul, but when he was in the sixth grade, the school burned and Tex transferred to schools in nearby Carthage. Tex was apparently a good student while at Carthage High School where he attended and later at South Park High School in Beaumont, where he graduated, as he was accepted at the University of Texas.
He had an early desire to become a lawyer and attended college in Austin for his undergraduate work and and also for one year of law school. While he was there, he was introduced to author J. Frank Dobie who invited him to come along on some trips with him. One of Ritter’s early popular recordings, “Rye Whiskey,” supposedly was discovered on a research trip with Dobie. Also during his college years, he sang in a glee club, worked on the university radio station and also became acquainted with musical archivist and historian John Lomax. These experiences led to him doing a radio program in Houston around 1928 where he sang songs in the western/cowboy genre.
He continued taking some law classes at Northwestern but more and more he found himself being drawn to acting and musicals. Tex moved to New York and performed in some musicals in the early 1930s and also did more radio programs. He made his first music recordings in 1933 with a company that became Columbia Records. Tex would continue recording and performing country music for the rest of his career. He also co-founded a music publishing company, Vidor Publications.
(Image credit: Internet Movie Database)
When film opportunities came in the 1930s, he was ready and made his first film, Song of the Gringo, in 1936. This began a long career in westerns, including Song of the Buckaroo in 1938, in which he would play along side his future wife, Dorothy Fay (birth name Dorothy Fay Southworth). They were married in 1941 in a ceremony in Panola County, Texas where Tex was born.
When television came along, he began to work in that medium as well, but films and recorded music were always where he spent a great deal of his time. One of his first television appearances was for the Academy Awards ceremony in 1953, the first ever to be televised, in which he performed his title song from the popular film, “High Noon.” Tex did not appear in the film as an actor, he only sang the title song that opened with the familiar lyrics, “Do not forsake me oh my darling…”
Something that was common among leading actors in the western film genre was that they often rode, or at least appeared to ride, the same horse in each film. The horse would often essentially become a character of the film and would have a distinct identity similar to that of an actor. Roy Rogers rode Trigger, Jimmy Stewart rode Pie, Hopalong Cassidy rode Topper, The Lone Ranger’s horse was Silver, Tonto’s horse was Scout and Gene Autry’s horse was Champion. Tex followed the tradition with his big white horse, White Flash. At first the studios had used rental horses for Tex’s films, but Tex wanted his own personal mount. Ritter had bought White Flash the hills of Skull Valley, Arizona from a horseman named Jerome Eddy and employed a well known trainer named Glenn Randall to work with him. Randall had trained some of the famous film horses in the business. Not only would White Flash be involved in the films, Ritter would make personal appearances with him.
Tex was quite fond of White Flash and once did a tongue in cheek newspaper interview not about himself, but instead all about his horse. In it he implied that fame had gotten to the big mount. Tex blamed it on television and the horse’s affinity for spotlights and cameras. He closed by saying that he had just bought White Flash a brand new rhinestone studded blanket with an ostrich feather on top but opined that it probably would not be enough to satisfy the big horse. “Next, I suppose he’ll be wanting script approval,” Ritter quipped. White Flash appeared in twenty films with him until age caught up with the horse. After White Flash retired, the studios tried to find horses that looked like him and behaved like him. Ritter cared for his horse until White Flash was twenty-five years old and blind.
Tex and Dorothy had two sons, Tom and John. Tom was discovered to have cerebral palsy, leading to the family’s life long interest in United Cerebral Palsy, with Ritter also being one of its founders. Tom became a television producer. Tom’s younger brother John Ritter would go on to a long career primarily in television until his untimely death from a previously undiagnosed heart condition in 2003.
Tex received numerous honors during his lifetime, including having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and being inducted in the early days of the Country Music Hall of Fame, also serving as its president. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame, part of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He was a charter inductee into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, Texas which now incorporates the Tex Ritter Museum.
According to the Internet Movie Database, his songs appear in eighty-four productions in films and/or television programs from as early as 1936 to as recently as 2015. There are seventy-four credits listing him as an actor. Most were what are now referred to as “horse operas” because of the formulas of their plots in which there would be some kind of conflict that would be resolved by the star. As the story unfolded, there would be opportunities for the star to sing one or more songs. Concerning his character names, in his particular case, in each of the first three dozen of his films, Ritter’s character had the first name Tex, or was simply called “Tex” with no last name used.
His songs reached number one on the Billboard country charts at least five times. He was a life long promoter of country music and served with several organizations connected with the performance and recording of country music.
Tex passed away in January of 1974 in Nashville, Tennessee. His death was attributed to a heart attack. Earlier that day, he had been visiting a band member who had been jailed for failure to pay alimony. A few days later, a memorial service was held in Nashville, Tennessee. A final service was held at First United Methodist Church in Nederland, Texas after which Ritter was laid to rest in the Ritter family plot at Oak Bluff Memorial Park in Port Neches, Texas.
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