Happy Trails for All during the Roy Rogers Centennial
Few entertainers have become as much a tour de force in popular culture and Country Music as Roy Rogers. Last year, he was honored at several centennial celebrations. On screen, Rogers was a “Mr. Nice Guy” who outsmarted villains, treated ladies well and kissed his horse but never his girl. Onstage, he dressed sharp and put his music first. Offstage, he valued his fans, faith and family while triumphing over adversity and tragedy.
“I think Roy Rogers is the original antidote to the outlaw,” said “Ranger Doug” Green of Riders In The Sky, which embraces the tradition set by Rogers’ last group, The Sons of the Pioneers. Green said Rogers influenced him “gigantically” and described him as “the good guy who solves problems with a song and sweet reason.”
“He’s thoroughly American in so many ways,” observed John Rumble, Senior Historian, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He works hard. He rises from the lower rung on the economic ladder to wealth, to fame, and he doesn’t have to compromise himself.”
Not to mention, the dapper actor/singer epitomized cowboy cool to baby boomers who grew up watching his 88 Republic Pictures films and 100 episodes of “The Roy Rogers Show.” He has also been immortalized in song by Toby Keith in “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and Elton John in “Remembering Roy Rogers.”
Rogers was one of the artists responsible for putting the “Western” into what was known then as Country and Western Music. He holds the distinction of being the only person inducted twice into CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame for his contributions both as a founding member of The Sons of the Pioneers (1980) and as a solo artist (1988). Rogers and Dale Evans hosted the first televised CMA Awards in 1968. In 1988, The Sons of the Pioneers won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. In addition, Rogers has four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Perhaps the most memorable tribute thus far to Rogers, who died in 1998, was seen by millions during the grand finale of the 123rd Tournament of Roses Parade, which aired Jan. 2 on NBC. A volunteer force of 100 golden palominos rode in formation before a 75-foot-long float, sponsored by RFD-TV, that featured the preserved likenesses of Rogers’ beloved palomino, Trigger, and German shepherd, Bullet. Also on the float were Rogers’ son, Roy “Dusty” Rogers Jr., and his son Dustin Rogers, both singers, who waved to spectators as a recorded soundtrack of father and son sang “Happy Trails,” penned by Evans.
Patrick Gottsch, owner and founder of RFD-TV, invested $500,000 in this homage to the man he feels carries the network’s standard high. The float was RFD-TV’s fourth consecutive entry in the parade as well as the highlight of the Happy Trails Tour, which began in July 2010. In February, Trigger and Bullet were taken to the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville for a viewing by attendees of a cattle industry convention.
“We never had a plan. It seemed like the right thing to do,” said Gottsch, referring to the tour, which took the famous horse and dog to 48 states. “I get why Roy saved Trigger and Bullet; it was to keep the Western spirit alive.”
Last year, Gottsch acquired Trigger and Bullet from Christie’s Auction House for $265,000 and $35,000, respectively. He also purchased Evans’ quarter horse, Buttermilk, for $50,000. “To me, they’re priceless,” he said.
And Gottsch is doing his best to keep the King of the Cowboy’s memory alive by airing all of Rogers’ old movies as well as TV episodes on his network.
Henager’s Memories & Nostalgia museum in Buckskin, Ind., honored Rogers in July 2011 with a one-time tribute that benefited the National Veterans Memorial. Owner James Henager notes that his nonprofit museum has the largest collection of Rogers and Evans memorabilia after the closings of museums in Victorville, Calif., and Branson, Mo., which the Rogers family ran. Henager reported spending $35,000 to bring in six acts, including Hugh O’Brien, star of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” and veteran TV actor Bo Hopkins, as well as look-alikes for the Lone Ranger and others.
Born Leonard Franklin Sly on Nov. 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the only son of Andrew and Mattie Sly, Rogers was raised in a musical family. By the time he was a teenager, he played guitar, mandolin and banjo. At 16, he began his career in music by adding an “e” to his last name and forming The Slye Brothers duo with his cousin Stanley Sly. He was part of the westward migration during the 1930s, when thousands fled the Midwest and the Dust Bowl for better opportunities. Rogers farmed, picked fruit, worked in a shoe factory, drove a truck and did what he could to support his music habit. He joined a few Western groups before forming The Pioneer Trio in 1933, which consisted of himself, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. They eventually became known as The Sons of the Pioneers.
Band personnel changed often because of the group’s inability to earn money during the Depression. Rogers was so poor that he even admitted to eating crow, said Chris Enss, who co-authored two books on Rogers, The Cowboy and the Senorita and Happy Trails, with film producer Howard Kazanjian.
A hallmark of The Sons of the Pioneers, which was noted for smooth, tight harmonies and romantic songs about the West, was Rogers’ tenor. The group popularized harmony yodeling as well. Dusty Rogers recalled that his father would listen to the simple yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, and triple-time it. “He even beat out Elton Britt in the 1930s as the top yodeler in the country,” he said.
“I think people think of Elton Britt as the supreme yodeler’s yodeler,” Green concurred. “And indeed, he was. But Roy Rogers was a magnificent yodeler.”
Many of the group’s hits penned by Nolan, including “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (1934) and “Cool Water” (1936), have been covered over the years by various artists but never duplicated. “I don’t know of anybody who has ever copied his style,” said Bill Mack, a Grammy-winning songwriter and Disc Jockey Hall of Famer, who as the Midnight Cowboy at WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, interviewed Rogers twice.
Contemporary Western singer Michael Martin Murphey has a lifelong admiration for Rogers, whose help he sought for Murphey’s 1989 Cowboy Songs album. Murphey, who remains grateful to Rogers as adviser and mentor for the project, recently finished a closed-circuit TV tribute to Rogers and Evans, which is airing in retirement communities.
Murphey recalled the singer telling him, “If you want to be a singing cowboy, get yourself a good-looking horse, because when you’re old and ugly the kids will still like the horse.” He also remembered Rogers saying, “I want you to promise to me that if you’re going to be a singing cowboy, you’ll never do anything that would send a kid down the wrong trail in life.”
Although artists today are not singing much Western music, they can learn from Rogers about surviving losses, even as severe as the deaths of his second wife, Arline Wilkins, and three children, and approaching life with humor and a smile.
As Rumble said, Rogers reached into “the grass roots of popular culture and popular material culture — not just the music and the films and the recordings, but also the merchandise.”
Dusty Rogers agreed that his dad was a marketing visionary. He told of how his father sought and gained control in the early 1940s over the Roy Rogers name, which was assigned to him in 1938 by Republic Pictures. A New York merchandiser had approached Rogers about marketing gun belts and outfits for boys, so the star told Republic he wanted to control the name and his likeness. The studio said, “We don’t care what you do, just don’t ask us for any more money.” He legally changed his name in 1942.
“He was an industry in and of himself,” reflected Enss, who believes today’s singers can learn much from Rogers’ persistency and tenacity. As she put it, “Few people will eat crow because they love music.”
Though the Roy Rogers centennial year has passed, the parties aren’t over yet. The hundredth birthday of his leading lady and wife, Dale Evans, was observed Aug. 1-4 at the Roy Rogers Festival in Portsmouth, Ohio. James Henager plans to follow up the YouTube tribute he created last year for Rogers with another one this year honoring his Queen of the West. By Eileen Sisk
On the Web: HenagerMuseum.com; RoyRogers.com; RoyRogersFestival.org