Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Leonard Franklin Slye, 5 November 1911, Cincinatti OH; d 6 July 1998) Singing cowboy, songwriter, actor. The western movie star of the '30s-40s, Gene Autry's only rival as the Saturday matinee cowboy idol, was billed as 'King of the Cowboys', and was a hit on TV in the '50s. His father made mandolins and guitars; he grew up on a farm, worked in a shoe factory, performed locally in the '20s; to California '31, worked as a truck driver, then picking peaches. He sang in various groups; then as Dick Weston led the Pioneer Trio, which appeared in Autry's Western sci-fi serial The Phantom Empire '34, then as the group got bigger a radio announcer changed their name to the Sons of the Pioneers (see their entry). He had bit parts in Columbia westerns, signed with Republic as Roy Rogers (and had to leave the Pioneers as they signed with Columbia).

He had his first starring role in Under Western Stars '38 when Autry quarrelled with Republic and they replaced him with Rogers. Another Rogers epic was a fairly realistic portrait of the Pony Express postal service. With his palomino horse Trigger (1932-65, later stuffed and mounted at his California home) he made about 100 films. Dale Evans (b Lucille Wood Smith, name soon changed to Frances Octavia Smith, 31 October 1912, Uvalde TX; d 7 February 2001) sang with Anson Weeks and other bands; with third husband pianist Robert Dale Butts co-wrote a few songs. (Butts [1910-90] was a pianist and arranger at NBC radio, worked on well over 100 films.) She sang on Chicago radio with Caesar Petrillo's band; starred with Rogers in The Cowboy And The Senorita '44; they married '47. His second wife had died suddenly '46 after giving birth to Roy Jr (called Dusty); he and Evans found a long and happy marriage together.

His late-'40s films with such co-stars as George 'Gabby' Hayes (b 16 March 1892; d 23 October 1984: also a close friend: they made about 40 films together) and many with a peculiarly sunsettish colour process, are redolent of nostalgia for millions of American men. He also appeared as a guest in variety films such as Hollywood Canteen '44; together he and Evans had a radio show Saturday Night Roundup mid-'40s. In Son Of Paleface '52 (a movie with Bob Hope and Jane Russell) he came close to sending himself up. Rogers had left Republic Pictures after 80 films because they would not allow him to appear on TV; he then made a few Paramount movies, but he and Evans had a popular TV series '51-6, moving to that medium when most of Hollywood wanted nothing to do with it. Their programs were syndicated for decades.

He came back with film Mackintosh And TJ '75 (there was a soundtrack LP). His early hits included 'Hi-Yo, Silver' on Vocalion '38 and 'Think Of Me' on Decca '43; he then recorded for RCA for many years; his theme was 'Happy Trails To You' (co-written by Evans). He made '(There'll Never Be Another) Pecos Bill' (by Johnny Lange and Eliot Daniel) with the Sons of the Pioneers for the Disney cartoon compilation Melody Time '48, a record that a lot of kids loved. The singing cowboy image came to be regarded as cornball, but Rogers was always a good singer: later country hits on Capitol included 'Money Can't Buy Love', 'Lovenworth', 'Happy Anniversary' '70-71; 'Hoppy, Gene And Me' '74 on 20th Century, and 'Ride Concrete Cowboy Ride' '80 on MCA with the Pioneers.

Rogers and Evans were popular guests on TV shows and had their own show again '62; they did charity work, and adopted children. She wrote Angel Unaware (about her handicapped child) and several other books; wrote 'The Bible Tells Me So' '55, co-wrote 'I Wish I Had Never Met Sunshine' '45 (with Autry and Oakley Haldeman); he wrote or co-wrote 'Dusty', 'My Heart Went Thataway' and others. They made LP Sweet Hour Of Prayer on RCA; she made Get To Know The Lord on Capitol. Roy Rogers' Tribute '91 on RCA found him duetting with younger cowpokes Randy Travis, Lorrie Morgan, Willie Nelson, Clint Black etc; 'Hold On My Partner' with Black was a '92 hit by the 80-year-old King of the Cowboys. Happy Trails: The Roy Rogers Collection '99 on Rhino was a 3-CD set including cuts from movies, radio and TV; one from the late 1940s was called 'Cleanin' My Rifle (And Thinkin' Of You)'. That was another era.

In 2015 T Bone Burnette was hired to write a Broadway musical, Happy Trails, about Roy and Dale.