Roy Rogers - Biography

Roy Rogers was the King of Cowboys, one of the biggest movie, radio and television stars in the world, but he was also a gifted—and greatly under-appreciated—singer. With his rugged good looks, trademark hero’s white Stetson hat, elaborate Western wardrobe and two ever-present four-legged sidekicks—the famed Palomino Trigger and his faithful hound, Bullet—Rogers thundered across the silver screen to become an international sensation. It was Rogers, along with Gene Autry, who codified the romanticized, modern archetype of Singing Cowboy, a figure who took America pop culture by storm in the 1930s and instilled a mythical fascination that endured for a quarter century.


Born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911 in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised on a farm near Duck Run, Rogers enjoyed early musical influences from his guitar-playing father and cousin Stanley Slye, with whom he began appearing as the Slye Brothers at local dances and social events in the 1920s. Discouraged by the hard times in Ohio, the family loaded up their ’23 Dodge and traveled to California. It was 1929, the dawn of the Great Depression, and while the teenager toiled picking peaches and driving trucks, music was an unquenchable passion. He and Stanley Slye got a radio job in 1931, but after being swindled by a crooked manager and reduced to working in crummy dumps where they passed the hat for tips, Rogers almost gave up. It was only after Rogers was offered a job singing at Long Beach, California’s KGJF with The Rocky Mountaineers that things began to look up.


Not long after that, another up-and-comer joined the band, Bob Nolan, forming an alliance that would ultimately propel them to stardom. By 1933, Rogers, Nolan and singer Tim Nolan were performing on KFWB as members of Jack LeFevre’s Texas Outlaws and rehearsing on their own, as the Pioneer Trio, in a Hollywood garage. After musical brothers Hugh and Karl Farr got into the act the following year, they became the Sons of the Pioneers.


With their groundbreaking use of harmony and outstanding original material, the Sons quickly set a new, higher standard for Western music, introducing numerous classic titles (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Cool Water”) that were covered by numerous other artists and remain standards today.


The Sons made their first records for Decca in 1934 and were quickly grabbed for appearances in numerous Western movies and first worked alongside Gene Autry in 1935. When Rogers learned that Republic Pictures were actively looking for another Singing Cowboy to replace Autry (who had been suspended over a financial dispute with the studio), he amicably parted from the Sons of the Pioneers and wasted no time in making himself available and landed a contract in October 1936. By 1938, already a popular star, he signed a deal with Vocalion Records and began issuing some extraordinary discs.


Rogers’ superb version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “My Little Lady (Hadie Brown)” didn’t replicate the Singing Brakeman’s signature blue yodel but relied instead on Rogers’ own stratospheric style of yodeling; his version of Gene Autry’s “Dust,” a grim, melodramatic song depicting the crop-destroying storms of the 1930 Dustbowl, is one of the most riveting and evocative collisions between folk expression and Western commercialism ever achieved. Another notable title, “That Pioneer Mother of Mine” is a masterpiece of raw sentimentality, while straight-up cowboy-themed numbers like “Headin’ for Texas and Home” and “Ridin’, Ropin’” cemented Rogers as a Singing Cowboy of the first order.


While his acting career demanded full-time participation (he had already shot 13 films by the end of 1939), music was featured in almost of all them, and Rogers’ singing remained an integral aspect of his persona. His movies often featured memorable contributions from the Sons of the Pioneers, Spade Cooley and Foy Willing’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Along the way, Rogers met actress Dale Evans and picked up his still instantly recognizable theme song, “Happy Trails.”


After starring in 91 movies, Rogers switched to the small screen in 1952 with his Roy Rogers Show, and continued recording. Together, Roy and Dale made albums for RCA, and later Capitol, with each company also releasing solo Rogers albums. His appeal remained strong enough to land several singles into the Billboard Top Forty and between 1970-1972, Rogers’ placed four songs on the charts. First with 1971’s “Lovenworth,” which lodged in the Top Fifteen, and then again with 1974’s “Hoppy, Gene & Me,” which cracked the country Top Twenty, and crossed over to the pop charts Top Seventy.


In 1980, as a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame. As late as 1991, “Hold on, Partner”—a duet with country star Clint Black—entered the Top Fifty. He and Evans retired to life in Victorville, California, where they ran their own museum and often personally greeted fans.


At age 86, Roy Rogers died of congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.

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