Roy Rogers

A major western movie star between 1938 and 1953, and known as the ‘King of the Cowboys,’ Roy Rogers, was one of the most popular of all the singing cowboys. With his horse Trigger and frequent female partner Dale Evans (whom he married in 1947), Roy was the personification of the hero in the white hat who rid the West of the bad guy in the black hat. All of his films were notable for their strong musical content, provided by Roy and Dale with occasional help from the Sons Of The Pioneers. He soon became Gene Autry’s main rival as the most popular singing cowboy, starring in over 100 movies and hosting his own TV show throughout the 1950s. He recorded prolifically with the Sons Of The Pioneers during the 1930s, then once he had launched his own career, he started recording as a solo artist, initially for RCA, and later for Capitol, 20th Century and gospel label Word, making records right through to the early 1990s when he joined contemporary country acts like Clint Black, Randy Travis, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Kathy Mattea on a special tribute album that produced his last country hit, Hold On Partner. Estimated to be worth more than 100 million dollars, at the peak of his career Roy was earning more than a million dollars a year. His horse Trigger appeared in 87 films and 101 TV shows with the popular cowboy star. The horse knew at least one hundred tricks and at one time was receiving at least one thousand fan letters a week. Roy bought Trigger for $80 and refused offers of $150,000 for him. When his beloved palomino died, he had him stuffed and mounted at the Rogers’ ranch in California.

He was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, near Cincinnati, Ohio. His biggest early musical influence was his father, who played mandolin and guitar. He grew up working on his family’s farm and following high school became employed in a local shoe factory. In his teens he began singing and playing at local dances before moving west in 1930. After stints with such groups as The Rocky Mountaineers and The Hollywood Hillbillies, he formed his own band, The International Cowboys. Later—with the aid of Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan—he founded The Pioneer Trio, which changed its name to The Sons Of The Pioneers in 1934. A cowboy and western harmony group that enjoyed success with such western ballads as Tumbling Tumblewweds, Cool Water and Way Out There. Rogers first recorded for Decca with The Sons Of The Pioneers, beginning in 1934, ten years before the first national country charts were launched. After splitting with the group in 1937, his first major solo release, Hi-Yo Silver was released in 1938. The 1940s found him on RCA Victor, where he inked his first chart entry with A Little White Cross On The Hill, which peaked at number seven in 1946. His biggest hit, My Chickashay Gal, came the following year.

Always seeking other avenues for his talent, Leonard Slye began playing bit parts in films, first under the name of Dick Weston and then assuming the guise of Roy Rogers. He gained a starring role in Under Western Skies in 1938, and soon followed with Carson Cisco Kid, Robin Hood Of The Pecos, The Man From Music Mountain and Along The Navajo Trail. In 1944, Rogers teamed with actress-singer Dale Evans (born Frances Octavia Smith) in Cowboy And The Senorita. Evans became Rogers’ frequent co-star and wrote their theme song, Happy Trails To You. They were to marry in 1947 and went on to raise a large family, also adopting several children. Considered the most popular woman ever to appear in Western movies, Dale was the ‘Queen of the Cowgirls’ to Rogers, the ‘King of the Cowboys.’ She rode her horse, Buttermilk, beside him on his celebrated palomino, Trigger. When the B-Western movies faded in the early 1950s, they began their television career. The Roy Rogers Show ran from 1951 to 1957; later incarnations included The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, in 1962, and Happy Trails Theatre, a show of repackaged Rogers and Evans movies on cable TV’s Nashville Network in the late 1980s. Dale and Roy recorded more than 400 songs together. Rogers’ business ventures included a chain of restaurants bearing his name and a radio show carried on more than five hundred stations on the Mutual network. He is the only performer twice elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame: as part of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and as an individual in 1988. He received the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music in 1986 and has garnered countless other accolades. In the later years of his life, Rogers enjoyed greeting visitors at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum, which the couple established in 1965 in Victorville, California. One of the exhibits is Trigger, whom Rogers had stuffed when he died. In 1991 he came out of semi-retirement to participate in an RCA tribute album that spawned Hold On Partner, a duet hit with Clint Black.

Roy Rogers, the cowboy star who helped create global images of the American West and taught several generations of youngsters ‘the cowboy way,’ died July 6, 1998 at his home in Apple Valley, California. His wife and co-star Dale Evans, was with him when he died. ‘Roy Rogers was a wonderful human being,’ she said in a prepared statement. ‘What a blessing to have shared my life together with him for almost 51 years. To say I will miss him is a gross understatement. He was truly the King of Cowboys in my life.’ Dale passed away less than three years later on February 7, 2001.

Recommended Listening

Roll On Texas Moon (Bear Family 1986)
Sweet Hour Of Prayer - with Dale Evans (Stetson 1988)
The Best Of Roy Rogers (Curb 1990)
Tribute (RCA 1991)
Country Music Hall Of Fame (MCA 1992)
Columbia Historic Edition (Columbia 1995)
Happy Trails: The Roy Rogers Collection 1937-1990 (Rhino 1999)
Great Songs of the Old West (Rockbeat 2011)
The Centennial Collection (Varese Fontana 2011)