|David M. McKee|
27th Jun 2011
| ||Lester Alvin Burnette, perhaps better known for his film roles in westerns, turns up here with a strong country number.|
Smiley was born on March 18, 1911 in Summun, Illinois and achieved his fame from the 1930s to the 1950s as a sidekick to Roy Rogers, Charles Starrett and Gene Autry. During his career, he made some 350 films and wrote over 400 songs. Both of his parents were ministers in the Church of Christ.
At the age of 9, he made his debut playing ‘The Glow Worm’ at a YMCA banquet in Carthage, Illinois, playing the musical saw, for which he received the sum of $3. While at high school, he had his own band and on leaving school he had a variety of jobs, finally ending up as entertainer, announcer and handyman on WDZ Tuscola, Illinois.
On Christmas Eve, 1933 Smiley was hired to appear on the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago by Gene Autry. This was the push his career needed. He made some duet recordings for Sears Roebuck’s Conqueror Records and appeared with Autry and Ken Maynard in the Mascot movie In Old Santa Fe. From 1935 to 1942 he appeared with Autry in around 55 musical westerns for Republic Pictures under the guise of “Frog Millhouse” (who always wore a floppy black hat). For the same company, Smiley featured in his own John Paul Revere westerns from 1942 to 1945.
He also appeared in the early Roy Rogers movies at Republic (Smiley named Roy’s horse Trigger) and alongside Charles Starrett in around 100 of the Durango Kid westerns up to 1953. During the 1950s he acted in westerns with Gene Autry for Columbia.
In 1936, Smiley married a newspaper columnist, Dallas McConnell and they adopted four children. Together, they later produced a cookbook.
Smiley’s songs have been recorded by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Red Foley, the Riders of the Purple Sage, Vaughn Monroe, Ferlin Husky and George Morgan.
Smiley’s recording career covered releases on Abbott, Capitol, Bullet and Cricket. He made appearances on the Ozark Jubilee, Jubilee USA, the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. He was very active, making live appearances around the US including children’s rodeos, which he dubbed “Buckarodeos”.
When B-Westerns went out of style, Burnette spent most of his time in his back yard recording studio, returning for an appearance on television’s Ranch Party (1958) and the recurring role of train engineer Charley Pratt on Petticoat Junction (1963-1967).
Smiley died on February 17, 1967 of acute leukaemia. In 1971, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame