Paying tribute to the King of the Cowboys
Riders in the Sky
HE was the “King of the Cowboys.” His horse was perhaps the most famous equine in the film business. One of his best-known songs, “Happy Trails,” is still used as a sign-off tune for many a bar band. He made about 90 motion pictures, mostly colorful, action-packed B movies that featured lots of horse chases and fistfights and gun duels and, of course, songs. Lots of songs.
He was Roy Rogers. And the western-swing musical group Riders in the Sky are paying tribute to his legacy with a ripsnorting show of Rogers songs, clips from his films, and an homage to his sidekick, George “Gabby” Hayes, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
“In the broad spectrum of American entertainment, Roy Rogers was one of the superstars of the 1940s and 1950s,” said “Ranger Doug” Green in a phone interview with Pasatiempo. Green is one of the Riders in the Sky and the author (as Douglas B. Green) of the 2002 book Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy (Vanderbilt University Press).
“He was known around the world. And that’s something that won’t be forgotten.”
Rogers — born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati in 1911 — was a fresh-faced, slightly built kid barely in his midtwenties when Republic Pictures changed his name to Roy Rogers and set about making him a star in musical westerns, much as the studio had done with Gene Autry a few years earlier. To an America worrying about pulling itself out of the Great Depression and avoiding entry into what looked to be a pretty nasty war overseas, audiences found Rogers’ easygoing, all-American presence comforting.
Rogers played with the Sons of the Pioneers (who often accompanied him in his early films) and was known as a mean yodeler — a talent he was still showing off in television appearances in the 1970s and ’80s. He could hold his own in a straight dramatic turn, as his work supporting John Wayne in 1940’s Dark Command proved. A shrewd businessman, Rogers bought a palomino stallion named Golden Cloud, renamed him Trigger, and made the horse a near-partner in his cinematic escapades. It would be hard to contest the argument that Trigger was the best-known cowboy-hero horse of the period, eclipsing Champion (Autry’s horse), Koko (Rex Allen’s horse), and Black Jack (Allan “Rocky” Lane’s horse, but cut him some slack — unlike Autry, Rogers, and Allen, Lane didn’t sing).
Green said the horse’s influence was huge. “Trigger got second billing — even over the women and Gabby Hayes,” he said. “It was very clever of Roy to have bought Trigger, to own him, because he became a star in his own right, and every time [studio head] Herbert Yates tried to put on the financial screws, Roy said to him, ‘He’s my horse. I can take him anywhere I want.’ ” Roy used Trigger in personal appearances, and both hero and horse spoofed themselves in the 1952 Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface.
Rogers also wisely maintained the rights to market his own image on commercial merchandise — such as cap guns, lunchboxes, pajamas, and eventually a fast-food chain — and set up his own television series
after the heyday of the B Western came to an end in the early 1950s. But before the demise of the singing cowboy genre, fans would swamp their local cinemas for Saturday matinees to see Rogers singing, riding, and fighting in such snappily paced films as King of the Cowboys, Man From Music Mountain, Lights of Old Santa Fe, Don’t Fence Me In, My Pal Trigger (Guess who the main character was in that one), and Trigger, Jr. (Why not? Clearly Trigger liked to horse around.)
In Singing in the Saddle, Green writes of Rogers, “Although his magic onscreen was palpable, he never really found the magic on record.” This was not the case with Gene Autry, who may not always have topped Rogers at the box office but whose recordings — including the holiday favorite “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — beat his younger rival to the draw every time.
“Autry was very astute when it came to picking songs and figuring out what was good for his voice and talent,” Green said. “He also came along earlier, when the whole genre was fresher and newer. Roy Rogers had hit songs, but not like Gene had.” But there are still some Rogers beauties to cherish, like “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Pecos Bill,” and “Land Beyond the Sun” (with the Sons of the Pioneers) — songs the Riders in the Sky will likely perform in their show.
“And we better do ‘Lights of Old Santa Fe,’ ” Green said, adding that even though the days of the singing cowboy are long gone, a lot of people still find the tunes soothing. “Especially in the West, people feel a closeness to it,” he said. “It speaks to what you love and where you live and what you love about where you live.” Cowboy music, he said, differs from country music in that “it’s not about broken hearts and feeling sorry for yourself and beating up your boyfriend’s truck. It’s about the great outdoors and being lonely but free and being bound along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”
Green and the Riders in the Sky performed with Rogers several times before the cowboy star’s demise in 1998, once for a benefit for the Grand Ole Opry. Another time, they backed him on an episode of Hee-Haw. “He had a very easygoing, ironic sense of his own stardom,” Green said. “He didn’t take himself incredibly seriously.” While the floor director counted down from five to zero just seconds before the cameras began to roll on a number Rogers was doing with the Riders in the Sky for Hee-Haw, Rogers turned to the ensemble and quipped, “I wonder what Gene is doing right now?” Green still laughs as he recalls that story. And he regrets that he didn’t sit Rogers down for a more formal interview about his career. He hopes the show at the Lensic “makes people laugh and makes them a little wistful and a little sentimental for a time long gone.”
Roy Rogers bought a palomino stallion named Golden Cloud, renamed him Trigger, and made the horse a near-partner in his cinematic escapades.