Singer and actor Rex Allen Sr. died Friday (Dec. 17) in Tucson, Ariz., after his caretaker accidentally ran over him with a car in his driveway. Allen was 78. Doug Green, a member of Riders in the Sky and a scholar of cowboy music, has called Allen “the last and arguably the best vocalist of the singing cowboys,” noting that he “possessed a voice of astonishing range and strength.”
Born Dec. 31, 1920, in Willcox, Ariz., Rex Elvie Allen began his career backing his fiddle-playing father on guitar. Soon after finishing high school, he took a job performing on a Phoenix radio station. Except for a short stint on the rodeo circuit, Allen stayed in radio for the next several years. In 1945 he joined the National Barn Dance at station WLS in Chicago, where he soon became one of its major attractions.
Allen signed with Mercury Records in 1946 and charted his first country hit, “Afraid,” three years later. It peaked at No. 14 on the charts. In 1950 Allen made Arizona Cowboy, the first of his 19 movies for Republic Pictures. He returned to the country charts in 1951 with the No. 10 “Sparrow In The Tree Top.” He then moved to Decca Records, where, in 1953, he had his biggest hit, “Crying In The Chapel.” It rose to No. 4 on the country charts and No. 10 on the pop. His other charting singles were “Marines, Let’s Go” (No. 21, 1961); “Don’t Go Near the Indians” (No. 4 country/No. 17 pop, 1962); “Tear After Tear” (No. 44, 1964); and “Tiny Bubbles” (No. 77, 1968).
In 1954 Allen did Phantom Stallion, his last movie for Republic and, according to Green, “the final singing cowboy film.” He subsequently starred in the television series Frontier Doctor, playing the role of Bill Baxter. Allen also narrated more than 50 films and television shows for Walt Disney, as well as lent his voice to hundreds of commercials. He was a founder of the Western Music Association.
Allen is survived by his four children, among them country singer Rex Allen Jr.