Pay­ing trib­ute to the King of the Cow­boys

Riders in the Sky

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Robert Nott

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.

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