Singer, film and television star
The great wellspring of American mythology suggested by the figure of the cowboy may have reached its high watermark with Roy Rogers. Singing cowboy films emanated rapidly from Hollywood between the mid-1930s and mid-1950s, and Roy Rogers was one of the most renowned of the performers that appeared in them. He inherited from Gene Autry the title of “King of the Cowboys” and kept it for what in Hollywood’s terms qualifies as eons.
Rogers made 91 films in all, went on to a successful television career after that, and released dozens of 78 rpm and LP recordings. In late 1991, at the age of 79, he ascended the country sales charts with a new album pairing him in duets with leading contemporary singers in the country genre. He achieved worldwide fame—Collier’s reported in 1948 that he had edged out Bing Crosby as England’s biggest box-office draw—and inspired the creation of thousands of fan clubs, whose members took to the Rogers legend wholeheartedly and churned out an unprecedented volume of fan mail.
It was not simply good looks and Hollywood promotion that generated and sustained Rogers’s popularity. His own musical activities helped to launch his film career: he founded the Sons of the Pioneers, the greatest of the Western musical acts that flourished along with the cowboy movie craze, and his energy kept the group together when its other members were ready to throw in the towel. Rogers’s musical accomplishments marked the beginning of a spectacular success story. But they took shape in the midst of a serious Depression-era struggle of the kind faced by so many Americans.
Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Andrew, worked in a shoe factory, and the family lived in a tenement near where the Cincinnati Reds’ Riverfront Stadium now stands. The Slye family, like many others in industrializing America, was restless, torn between farm life and steady but demoralizing urban wage-earning. They traveled up the Ohio River in a homemade houseboat when young Leonard was a year old, spent several years in the city of Portsmouth, and ended up on a farm in Duck Run, Ohio, 12 miles back in the hills. Andrew Slye continued to work in Portsmouth, and at times would go two weeks without returning home.
Both parents and all three of Leonard’s sisters were musical—his father had entertained professionally on a river steamer for a time—and before his voice changed Leonard began to participate fully in the musical life of a
For the Record…
Born Leonard Franklin Slye, November 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, OH; married Arlene Wilkins, 1936 (died, 1946); married Dale Evans, 1947; children: Roy, Jr., Robin Elizabeth (deceased), John (deceased), Cheryl, Linda Lou, Marion, Scottish Ward, Mary, Little Doe, Deborah Lee (deceased).
Recording artist, television performer, and star of 91 films. Founded western musical group the Sons of the Pioneers, 1930s; hired as singing-cowboy replacement for Gene Autry, 1936; first starring role, Under Western Stars, 1938; other films included Billy the Kid Returns, 1938, Red River Valley, 1941, Sons of the Pioneers, 1942, King of the Cowboys, 1943, The Cowboy and the Senorita, 1944, Hollywood Canteen, 1944, and Melody Time, 1948; recorded for Decca Records, late 1930s and 1940s; became top-grossing western star in Hollywood, 1943; starred in various network television series, 1951-65; recorded for Capitol and RCA Records, 1960s and 1970s; recorded Tribute album of duets, RCA, 1991.
Selected awards: Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1988; member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame; National Film Society’s Humanitarian Award; Kiwanis Decency Award.
Addresses: Record company —RCA/BMG Music, One Music Circle N., Nashville, TN 37203-4310.
rural community where most music had to be self-made. He played the guitar and mandolin, sang in a church choir, and called square dances. On the farm he learned to handle a horse, but to ride one at full tilt was a skill he acquired only in Hollywood. Much of his time was spent on farm chores; in school he recalled being “pretty good at sports, not bad at the clarinet, okay with my studies, and a galloping failure with the girls.” When Leonard was 17, the family moved back to Cincinnati. Leonard joined his father at the shoe factory and dropped out of high school shortly thereafter.
When the chance came to escape hard times and dead-end work by joining a relative in California, nobody in the family needed much persuading. In the spring of 1930 the Slyes embarked on the voyage made by many other American families. But at the end of the rainbow lay no pot of gold, only long months of driving a gravel truck for Leonard and migratory fruit picking for the whole clan. When the former gravel truck driver later read The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s classic tale of Dust Bowl migrants, his comment was this: “There are parts in that book that made me wonder if maybe Mr. Steinbeck wasn’t looking over the shoulders of the Slye family.”
Leonard Slye was known among the migrant families he encountered as a fine impromptu guitarist, singer, and square dance caller. Soon he teamed with a cousin; the pair billed themselves as the Slye Brothers and began to play for parties and dances, earning what they could by passing the hat. Probably they believed that at the height of the Depression, music offered as reasonable a chance at a decent living as any other work did. The duo was short-lived, but soon Leonard, goaded on by his sister Mary, entered a talent contest presented on a small radio station in Inglewood, California. He did not win, but he did attract the attention of the promoter of a western music group, the Rocky Mountaineers, and was invited to join the group. This act was not especially successful, either—the performer later recalled that in the rainy spring its members would tour the canyons above Los Angeles, hoping to come upon cars stuck in the mud and be generously tipped for helping to push them out. But the group attracted two prolific and original songwriters, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, and the nucleus of what would become the Sons of the Pioneers was formed.
Before that group’s debut, though, Leonard embarked in 1933 on an ill-planned tour of the Southwest with the O-Bar-O Cowboys, a group that also included Tim Spencer. This group, subsisting at times on a diet of rabbit and hawk that they procured with a borrowed rifle, turned to a time-honored trick among destitute radio performers: mentioning food on the air in the hope that a musically impressed and kindhearted listener might take the hint. During an otherwise unprofitable radio appearance in Roswell, New Mexico, Leonard fulfilled a request for the “Swiss Yodel” in exchange for a lemon pie from a girl named Arlene Wilkins. The two were married in 1936; the singer has said it was “love at first sight.”
The O-Bar-0 Cowboys sputtered to their demise in Lubbock, Texas, “so broke,” Rogers later said, “we couldn’t pay attention.” Back in Hollywood, he worked briefly with another radio western outfit, the Texas Outlaws. But he continued to dream of breaking through to stardom. Sensing the talents of Nolan and Spencer, he persuaded them to give up their day jobs and join him in serious rehearsals for an act to be called the Pioneer Trio. The name was changed to the Sons of the Pioneers after a radio announcer botched an introduction. Historian Douglas Green (leader of the present day Sons of the Pioneers imitators Riders in the Sky) called Rogers the group’s “sparkplug.”
His part in creating the Sons of the Pioneers remains Rogers greatest purely musical accomplishment. With the addition to the group of two swing-playing Texas brothers, Hugh and Karl Farr, the Sons of the Pioneers offered a combination of beautifully wrought, poetic lyrics (Nolan was a serious student of the classics of English poetry), perfect trio and quartet harmonies, Rogers’s yodeling, and crack instrumental playing that set the standard for western music for years to come. The group, with various changes in personnel (Rogers left when he achieved film stardom), endured for more than half a century, and such pieces as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” remain country classics.
By 1935 the group was working steadily and often provided background music for western films. This work led to a series of bit parts for Rogers, who billed himself as Dick Weston for a time. The following year, Gene Autry became embroiled in a contract dispute with Republic Pictures, and Rogers, through a chance encounter in a hat shop, learned that Republic was auditioning replacements. He rushed to the scene, sneaked into the building, and became the studio’s new singing cowboy. His first starring role came in the 1938 film Under Western Stars. Studio executives gave Leonard Slye the name Roy Rogers, Rogers after the recently deceased humorist Will Rogers, and Roy for its alliterative quality. Rogers adopted his new name legally in 1942. The following year Rogers, by the luck of the lottery, escaped the military draft that claimed Autry and became the top-grossing cowboy star in Hollywood—the “King of the Cowboys.”
Studio publicity executives changed more of Rogers’s life than just his name. Life wrote of Rogers in 1943 that he “is playing a part not only during the hours he spends before the camera. He is under compulsion to play it almost 24 hours a day.” Rogers took naturally to his good-guy role. Collier’s reported that “there never are weeks in which some sobbing mother or pleading doctor doesn’t call Roy to come and see a desperately ill or dying child.” Rogers did his best to respond to such entreaties, and always set aside space for handicapped children at his personal appearances.
At the height of his career in the mid-1940s, Rogers was the object of unparalleled adulation among young people. Two thousand fan clubs were in operation in the United States, with more overseas. Western films have always attracted male audiences, but Rogers had many female followers as well; one fan magazine caused a momentary sensation when it queried its readers as to whether Rogers should break with cowboy-movie tradition and kiss his leading lady in his next screen outing. Traditionalists prevailed.
Rogers never gave the girl an onscreen kiss, but would often kiss his horse, Trigger, who, like Rogers, received great volumes of fan mail. The horse, purchased by Rogers himself from a rental stable near Los Angeles, eventually acquired a repertoire of more than 50 tricks, including doing simple arithmetic and signing an “X” with a pencil. “The World’s Smartest Horse” was featured prominently at Rogers’s many stage shows and personal appearances, which included an annual visit to the giant World’s Championship Rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Artificial as the singing-cowboy genre might have been, Rogers seemed believable as a cowboy and often took on an almost personal presence in the lives of his fans. One reason for this kind of identification was that Rogers usually appeared on film “as himself”—as a character named Roy Rogers. In a 1992 interview with Country Music magazine, Rogers pointed to this scriptwriting innovation as a contributor to his success: “Other actors played different characters, but I didn’t. It put my name before the public with the whole picture, in the form of a story.” In 1945 the New York Times reported that the volume of fan mail Rogers received had eclipsed all previous records. He has since traded on his good name and image by endorsing a large variety of commercial products and in recent years lending his name to a chain fast-food venture of which he is part-owner.
Rogers’s films, like Autry’s, were called B-Westerns—they were quickly turned out, relied on formulas, and were aimed at the vast audience that went to the movies weekly (or more often) and wanted simple new installments of its heroes’ adventures on a regular basis, much as television audiences do today. Rogers made 87 films for Republic Pictures between 1938 and 1951. In most of them, his rescue of a ranch family or small town would conclude neatly at sunset, and Rogers and Trigger would ride away into that sunset.
At various plot junctures a song might be featured, with Rogers accompanying himself on the guitar while muted strings hummed in the background. Songs along the trail were addressed to Trigger or to longtime sidekick Gabby Hayes. Most of the songs were contributed by composers employed by the film studios, but Rogers wrote some songs himself and his films continued to employ the talents of the Sons of the Pioneers. Sometimes, Rogers told Country Music, the music generated the movie: “We’d take a song like ’Don’t Fence Me In’ and write a story around it. That way, we’d get a lot of good publicity from the song and from the people who recorded the song.”
The music always included a serenade directed at Rogers’s leading lady. From 1944 on, Rogers was paired with Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947 after the sudden death of his first wife. (It was Evans who composed “Happy Trails,” the tune with which Rogers is most closely associated. She wrote the song in 20 minutes as a theme song for a television program the pair inaugurated in 1951.) They have been professionally as well as personally teamed ever since. But tragedy continued to wind its dark counterpoint around Rogers’s success story. The only child born to Rogers and Evans, named Robin Elizabeth, died a victim of mongolism in 1953, and two children they adopted later died in freak accidents. Rogers and Evans sought solace in their Christian faith, and have gained some prominence as inspirational writers and lecturers.
In Rogers’s heyday, his recording career was always less important than his movie work. “Recording was my second or third priority,” he told Deborah Fruin of Country Fever. “Back in those days I was making seven or eight pictures a year. When I got a day off I’d do a personal appearance somewhere, Madison Square Garden or a state fair.” For a time, too, the best new musical material that Republic acquired was offered to Autry, a practice that caused some friction between the two men. Nevertheless, Newsweek reported in 1943 that Rogers’s 78 rpm singles on Decca Records were selling at the rate of 6,000 per week. His recordings alternated cowboy-movie fare with Texas-style vocal swing; he once offered a fine reading of Bob Wills’s “Time Changes Everything.” But Hollywood strings were heard more often in his music than Texas fiddles.
Rogers had carefully negotiated with Republic for the rights to his name, voice, and likeness, and when his second seven-year contract expired in 1951, he was able to make a lucrative move to television by preventing the studio (through a lengthy court battle) from distributing his previous films in edited versions for television presentation. Always in partnership with Evans, he was featured in a string of network western series and specials that were successful into the mid-1960s. Rogers also made a series of LP recordings for Capitol during the 1960s and early 1970s, but gradually his appearances in the spotlight dwindled to award presentations and occasional musical-program guest slots. He and Evans kept up a steady succession of evangelistic activities.
Rogers caught the public eye and ascended the country charts once more in late 1991, when RCA Records coaxed him out of retirement to record an album called Tribute. It featured Rogers singing duets with leading contemporary singers in the country field. Included were duets with such stars as Kathy Mattea, Randy Travis, K. T. Oslin, Alan Jackson, and Tanya Tucker. “I defy you to find any other 79-year-old man singing like that,” his producer said; Rogers even yodeled on several selections. The most successful collaboration was a duet with Clint Black called “Hold On Partner,” which was released as a single. Many people noticed the eerie physical resemblance between Rogers and the younger singer, and must have felt a sort of shock of recognition at how deeply Rogers’s image is implanted in the minds of most Americans. Some have noted that he seemed able, like some Hindu deity, to reincarnate himself.
Tribute (contains “Hold On Partner”), RCA, 1991.
Roy Rogers, MCA, 1992.
The Country Side of Roy Rogers, Capitol.
A Man From Duck Run, Capitol.
With the Sons of the Pioneers
Sons of the Pioneers (includes “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), Columbia, 1982.
Sons of the Pioneers, MCA, 1991.
Rogers, Roy, with Carlton Stowers, Happy Trails, Word Books, 1979.
Rothel, David, The Roy Rogers Book: A Reference-Trivia-Scrap-book, Empire, 1987.
Antiques & Collecting Hobbies, August 1992.
Billboard, September 21, 1991.
Collier’s, July 24, 1948.
Country Fever, August 1992.
Country Music, March/April 1992.
Journal of Country Music, May 1978.
Life, July 12, 1943.
Newsweek, March 8, 1943.
New York Times Magazine, November 4, 1945.
People, August 17, 1987.
Pulse!, November 1991.
Saturday Evening Post, June 9, 1945.
—James M. Manheim
Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, was the stage appellation and legal name of the former Leonard Slye, one of the most celebrated singing cowboy personalities in thehistory of Hollywood. In 1947he married his co-star, Dale Evans, and together the couple created an enduring legend of American, both through their professional and prívateves. The sound of Rogers and Evans crooning their popular theme song, “Happy Trails,” has brought a tear to the eyes of generations of Americans.
Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911 at 412 Second Street in Cincinnati, Ohio. Slye (Rogers) was the son of Andy and Mattie Slye and the only boy among the couple’s four children. He lived with his family on a houseboat in Portsmouth for several years, and eventually the Slye family moved to a farm in Duck Run. The boy who would become Roy Rogers had a great empathy for other people and their problems and a strong respect for life and a desire to help his fellow man. As a youngster he aspired to be a doctor, but he never did very well in school, in part because he was burdened with the unending chores of maintaining the Slye family farm, because his father worked in a shoe factory all day to make ends meet. Rogers, who never finished high school, was fully-grown when the family, along with cousin Stanley Slye, moved to California in search of better economic conditions. The frustrating endeavor proved fruitless, and the Slye family ended up working as migrant farm labor.
During that difficult time, the Slye family found solace in the evenings around a campfire, singing songs and strumming their instruments, a guitar and two mandolins, around a campfire. Eventually Rogers decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. He started by playing and singing with groups too numerous to mention, in general without pay, although he hoped to be heard by the right ears.
The first tangible glimmer of hope came in the mid-1930s when Rogers’ Pioneer Trio was heard on the rad io and labeled among the “Best Bets of the Day” by Los Angeles Exam/nercolumnist Bernie Milligan. That notation led to a steady job singing for a local radio station, and the Pioneer Trio eventually added more instruments and musicians, and renamed themselves Sons of the Pioneers. Rogers remembered in his memoir, Happy Trails, among his earliest “gigs” was a performance with the well-loved humorist Will Rogers in San Bernardino, California. The engagement turned out to be Will Rog-ers’s last before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1935. Although Leonard Slye adopted the stage name Dick Weston in 1937, it was from Will Rogers’s name that he derived the popular identity of Roy Rogers which
Born Leonard Franklin Slye, November 5, 1911 in Cincinnati, OH, (died July 6, 1998); son of Andy and Mattie; married Arlene Wilkins, June 14,1936 (died November of 1946); Dale Evans (born Frances Octavia Smith) at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, OK December 31, 1947; children:(with Arlene) Cheryl Darlene Barnett, Linda Lou Johnson, Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr., (with Dale Evans) Tom Fox, Robin Elizabeth, (died 1952), John David (Sandy) Rogers (died 1965), Dodie Sailors, Marion Fleming Swift, Debbie Rogers (died 1964); 15 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren; celebrated golden anniversary, 1997.
Sons of the Pioneers (originally Pioneer Trio), 1930s; Republic Pictures as Roy Rogers the singing cowboy, 1938-1954; Roy Rogers Show and Dale Evans Show, 1951-58.
Awards: Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, as a member of Sons of the Pioneers, 1980; Pioneer Award from Academy of Country Music, 1986; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, as solo aratisi, 1988; Hollywood Walk of Fame, 4 stars: for radio, music, films, and television.
ultimately brought him fame. The name of “Roy Rogers” was coined by studio executives at Republic Pictures Inc. in the late 1930s. The Roy Rogers name was derived as a combination of the late Will Rogers’s surname preceded by a Westernized version of “Roi,” the French word for king. The trademark, “King of the Cowboys” however came some time later. Along with the name change, Republic Pictures invented a legendary past for the singing cowboy character Roy Rogers.
Over and over Rogers was cast in movie scripts as a cow hand named Roy Rogers. A fictional biography issued by the movie studio maintained that Roy Rogers was born on a cattle ranch in Wyoming and worked as a ranch hand before he was discovered by movie producers in California. The concept was a new approach by Hollywood, in that the actor/singer Roy Rogers always played “himself” in the form of the legendary character conceived by the studio. Leonard Slye changed his name legally to Roy Rogers in 1942. A movie called “King of the Cowboys” and starring Roy Rogers was released in 1943, which sealed his new title and reputation. Roy Rogers, according to studio legend, rode a magnificent palomino horse named Trigger, and the studio rented such an animal from a nearby stable. Roy Rogers the actor purchased the horse Trigger from the stable in order to work more closely with the magnificent steed. The famous horse was a lifelong friend to Rogers.
In 1944 the studio teamed Rogers with a new heroine and co-star named Frances Octavia Smith, who became known as Dale. His first wife, Arlene Wilkins, whom he married in 1936, died from complications following the birth of their son, Roy Rogers Jr., in 1946. In all, the couple made 35 films together and eventually married in in 1947. Their partnership on and off the screen is a legend of Hollywood history. The couple’s theme song, “Happy Trails,” excites great nostalgia among generations of Roy Rogers’s fans.
The Roy Rogers screen image evoked a classic American hero. Between 1943-54, Rogers was the foremost cowboy movie star in terms of box office draw. Rogers, the man, contributed to the persona of the on-screen fictional character as the quintessential “good guy,” a true humanitarian. Rogers and Dale Evans along with their assorted sidekicks, Gabby Hayes and later Pat Brady (on the television show) spent all of their time righting wrongs. In a gun battle Rogers never killed his opponent, instead he would shoot the weapon from an assailant’s hand.
Together Roy Rogers and Dale Evans raised the three children from hisformer marriage, plus Dale Evans’ own son, and four children adopted after their marriage. The couple also had achild of their own, who died in infancy. Their children, as much as possible, were raised on ranches away from public view. Ultimately the family settled on a ranch in Apple Valley. Two of the Rogers children were killed in tragic accidents.
Rogers and Evans established the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in 1965. The museum, a non-profit organization, is located in Victorville, California and houses the memorabilia of the many years of their professional liaison. When Rogers’s palomino, Trigger, died in 1965 at age 33, the horse’s body was preserved by a taxidermist and placed on display at the museum. “Trigger” is kept saddled and receives a vacuum cleaning regularly.
Off screen Roy Rogers easily earned a reputation as one of the most caring celebrities of his time. Altogether Rogers adopted six children. Some of the children suffered emotional or developmental disabilities including Robin Rogers, who was born with Down’s syndrome in 1950 and died days before her second birthday. She was the natural daughter of Roy Rogersand Dale Evans. Rogers was conscientious to afault about answering his overwhelming abundance of fan mail which flowed in from all over the world. In order to show his gratitude to the paying public, who held him in high esteem, hetook personal responsibility to see that every piece of mail was answered. The studio refusedto assist Rogerswith the cost of postage for answering the fan mail, so Rogers footedthe bill himself. The postage bills were over whelming, given the immense popularity enjoyed by Roy Rogers.
After he retired from his movie career, Rogers spent a great deal of his time on his ranch and at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum where he habitually welcomed the public in appreciation oftheir support. It was said that tourists were frequently brought to tears at the nostalgia of Rogers’s warm welcome at the museum. In 1991, Rogers recorded the Roy Rogers Tribute album with Emmylou Harris, Clint Black, Willie Nelson, and others. In 1994 he reunited briefly with the current Sons of the Pioneers in Tucson Arizona and sang together with them.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans celebrated their 50th (golden) wedding anniversary on December 31,1947.
Barely six months later, on July 6, 1998, Roy Rogers died in sleep at his home in Apple Valley.
Roy Rogers Tribute, 1991.
The Country Side of Roy Rogers, Capitol.
A Man From Duck Run, Capitol.
With Carlton Stowers, The Story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans: happy trails, Word Books, Waco, 1979.
Artists and music, 18 July 1998.
People, August 27, 1987, p. 66; July, 20 1998.