James Clarence Wakeley was born in Howard County, Arkansas but his family moved to Rosedale, Oklahoma by 1920. As a teenager, he changed his surname to Wakely, dropping the second "e".
In 1937 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma he formed The Bell Boys, a country Western singing group named after their Bell Clothing sponsor. The group performed locally, made some recordings, and did frequent radio broadcasts over Oklahoma City's WKY. Johnny Bond, Dick Reinhart, Scotty Harrell and Jack Cheney were members of the Bell Boys and later groups. Over time, Wakely's groups were known as The Jimmy Wakely Trio, Jimmy Wakely and His Saddle Pals, Jimmy Wakely Trio and James Wakely.
During a tour through Oklahoma, Western movie star Gene Autry invited Wakely to come to California. Autry felt the group might be a good addition to his new Melody Ranch radio show which debuted on CBS in January 1940. The Wakely Trio joined the show in mid-1940. He stayed for a couple of years, then left because of movie commitments and a recording contract with Decca Records that ran from 1941–1942 through 1947. Johnny Bond stayed with the show for most of its run (the show left the air in 1956).
Wakely married Dora Inez Miser on Friday the 13th, December 13, 1935. They had four children: Deanna, Carol, Linda and son Johnny. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1982.
In 1939, Wakely made his screen debut (with the Jimmy Wakely Trio) in a Roy Rogers Western, Saga of Death Valley. In the 1940s, Wakely groups provided songs and musical support for several B-western movies, including appearances with:the Range Busters at Monogram Pictures
Don "Red" Barry at Republic Pictures
Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter at Universal Pictures
Charles Starrett at Columbia Pictures
Hopalong Cassidy at Paramount Pictures
Wakely made only one film with Autry, Heart of the Rio Grande, at Republic in 1942. He was sometimes referred to as a low-budget Autry in films. His response was, "Everybody reminds somebody of someone else until they are somebody. And I had rather be compared to Gene Autry than anyone else. Through the grace of God and Gene Autry, I got a career." He appeared in 28 Westerns at Monogram between 1944 and 1949.
Wakely also appeared in some non-Westerns, including I'm from Arkansas in 1944, a showcase for country and hillbilly performers who bring their comedy, tunes and yodeling to Pitchfork, Arkansas.
About 1941–1942, Decca gave Wakely a recording contract that ran until 1947. After leaving films, he continued to record, switching to the Capitol label. Though most of his songs were country Western, some crossed over to the pop charts, including collaborations with singer Margaret Whiting and Karen Chandler, and for the Christmas song "Silver Bells". He had a number one country hit with "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)", a song originally released by Western singer Eddie Dean.
Like other Western film stars of the era, Wakely had his own comic book series. DC Comics published 18 issues from Sept/Oct 1949–July/Aug 1952, billing him as "HOLLYWOOD'S SENSATIONAL COWBOY STAR!"
In addition to Autry's Melody Ranch, Wakely had his own CBS Radio show and co-hosted other programs. He also made several appearances on television variety shows; and in 1961 he was one of five rotating hosts on the NBC-TV program Five Star Jubilee.
He also had one of the last live network radio programs at the NBC radio studios at the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, California in 1958. Excerpts of the program appear on Wakely's albums and CDs.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wakely developed Shasta Records and owned two music publishing companies. He converted part of his California ranch into a recording studio, producing recordings for himself as well as for other country Western performers, including Tex Williams, Merle Travis, Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter and Rex Allen. For his recording work, Wakely has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street.
Later in life, Wakely performed at the Grand Ole Opry and National Barn Dance. His nightclub act visited Las Vegas, Reno and other venues. He did a Christmas USO Tour with Bob Hope. He made a few recordings on the Coral, Decca/Vocalion and Dot labels. He made appearances at Western film nostalgia conventions and continued personal appearances and stage shows, often with his daughter Linda and son Johnny in the act.
After contracting emphysema, Wakely died of heart failure at Mission Hills, California on September 23, 1982. He and his wife, who died in 1997, are interred next to each other in the Court of Remembrance at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California.
Wakely was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Western Music Association Hall of Fame in 1991.
This is a partial list of his movie credits, most of them are Westerns:The Jimmy Wakely Show (1952–1958)
Melody Ranch (1940–1942)
CBS Hollywood Barn Dance (1945–1947)
Wakely appeared as himself on several TV shows including:The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950)
Toast of the Town (1951)
Ozark Jubilee (ABC, 1956–58, 60)
Country Hoedown (late 1950s, syndicated) sponsored by US Navy Recruiting
Five Star Jubilee (NBC, 1961)
Here's Hollywood (1961)