Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame. Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).
The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away. On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances. On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California. After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally. He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states. After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934. The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre. As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen. His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers. Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”. The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965. On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death. Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records. As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962. Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade. After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.
Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.
All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938. Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version. Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.
A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.