Gene Austin was an American singer and songwriter, one of the first “crooners”. His 1920s compositions “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street” and “The Lonesome Road” became pop and jazz standards.
Austin was born as Lemeul Eugene Lucas in Gainesville, Texas, to Nova Lucas and the former Serena Belle Harrell. He took the name “Gene Austin” from his stepfather, Jim Austin, a blacksmith. Austin grew up in Minden, the seat of Webster Parish in northwestern Louisiana, located east of Shreveport. There he learned to play piano and guitar. He ran away from home at 15 and attended a vaudeville act in Houston, Texas, where the audience was allowed to come to the stage and sing. On a dare from his friends, Austin took the stage and sang for the first time since singing as a Southern Baptist choir boy. The audience response was overwhelming, and the vaudeville company immediately offered him a billed spot on their ticket.
Austin joined the U.S. Army at the age of seventeen in hopes of being dispatched to Europe to fight in World War I. He was first stationed in New Orleans, where he played the piano at night in the city’s notorious vice district. His familiarity with horses from helping his stepfather in his blacksmithing business also prompted the Army to assign Austin to the cavalry and send him to Mexico with General John Pershing’s Pancho Villa expedition, for which he was awarded the Mexican Service Medal. Thereafter, he served in France in the Great War.
On returning to the United States in 1919, Austin settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where he intended to study dentistry. Soon, however, he was playing piano and singing in local taverns. He started writing songs and formed a vaudeville act with Roy Bergere, with whom he wrote “How Come You Do Me Like You Do.” The act ended when Bergere married. Austin worked briefly in a club owned by Lou Clayton, who later was a part of the famous vaudeville team Clayton, Jackson and Durante.