Lester Alvin Burnett, better known as Smiley Burnette, was a popular American country music performer and a comedic actor in Western films, playing sidekick to Gene Autry and other B-movie cowboys, and on radio and TV. He was also a prolific singer-songwriter who could play as many as 100 musical instruments, some simultaneously. His career beginning in 1934 spanned four decades, including a regular role on CBS-TV's Petticoat Junction in the 1960s.
Lester A. Burnett was born in Summum, Illinois, on March 18, 1911. He grew up in Ravenwood, Missouri. He began singing as a child and learned to play a wide variety of instruments by ear; yet never learned to read or write music. In his teens he worked in vaudeville, and starting in 1929, at the state's first commercial radio station, WDZ-AM in Tuscola, Illinois.
Burnette came by his nickname while creating a character for a WDZ children's program. He was reading Mark Twain?s "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" at the time, which included a character named Jim Smiley. He named the radio character Mr. Smiley, but Burnette soon adopted the moniker as his own and dropped the salutation.
His break came in December 1933 when he was hired by Gene Autry to play accordion on National Barn Dance on Chicago's WLS-AM, where Autry was the major star. As sound films became popular, Hollywood sought musical talent for Western films; and in 1934, producer Nat Levine cast the duo in their film debut as part of a bluegrass band in Mascot Pictures' In Old Santa Fe, starring Ken Maynard. Burnette sang and played accordion and the film included two of his compositions.