Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Singing Cowboys of the American West

One of the most colorful entertainment genres that grew out of the combination of  motion pictures and radio was that of the "singing cowboy". Today, many of the younger generation may not have had the experience of watching the old B-Movie westerns of the 1940's and 1950's. Cowboy singing today is not seen in too many movies or television shows. When the motion picture "talkies" began in the late 1920's it was the perfect medium for the singing cowboy. Westerns had been made into movies, although quite short in length, from as far back as 1900 thanks to the innovation of Thomas A. Edison. In fact, Edison was one of the very first movie studios with his small make shift building in New Jersey.

singing cowboy recording
Early Cowboy hit song
The U.S. Census Bureau officially declared the end of the American western frontier in 1890 and. there may be no other entertainment figure that is so identified with the old American frontier than that of the "singing cowboy". What is very interesting with this subject is where it derived from and  what contributed to it's growth. The two names that immediately come to mind are Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Gene Autry

When you're enjoying a southern California vacation and looking for fun things to do in Los Angeles, add the Autry National Center of the American West to your LA vacation planner. The museum formed in 2003 by the merger of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Women of the West Museum.

The Autry National Center of the American West, located in Griffith Park in Los Angeles , has over half a million art pieces and artifacts which includes the large collection from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. The merger of these museums helped make this institution one of  the largest and most significant in the United States. If you want to learn more about this topic along with the overall subject of the cowboy and the American West then there is probably no better place in the the western U.S. than the Autry National Center of the American West.

The Autry National Center represents a unique niche of Western history and culture. It is the only museum of its kind located in a major city and the only museum that combines multiple Native American perspectives with Western histories and cultures in an interconnected way.

The Singing Cowboys, Autry and Rogers

gene autry
Gene Autry and the Pinafores, 1948
The "singing cowboys" were quite an American entertainment sensation. It's interesting to note some of the similarities between Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Both had a talent for singing and both originally found a wide outlet for that talent via radio. In the case of Roy Rogers, originally from Ohio, he was probably best known during the early days with his association with the western singling group, "Sons of the Pioneers".

Gene Autry, who grew up in Oklahoma and played the guitar quite well, was influenced by Will Rogers to take his musical talent commercial and seek a recording contract.

While trying to secure the recording contract Gene Autry did a lot of singing on the radio just as Roy Rogers did. Eventually, in 1929 Autry signed a contract with Columbia Records. Autry produced a lot of recordings and was heard across the country on radio, most notably a four year stint on WLS radio in Chicago with the program "National Barn Dance". WLS was and is one of those high power radio stations that in the evening hours could reach a good part of the U.S. Gene Autry's popularity grew from there and he ended up with his own radio show. Autry's first real hit was in 1932 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine".

Gene Autry made his film debut as a singing cowboy in 1934 with the movie, "In Old Santa Fe". This was followed in 1935 with the starring role in the twelve part series, "The Phantom Empire". Through 1940 Gene Autry made a total of forty-four B-Movie westerns for Republic Pictures. Autry is recognized as the first singing cowboy in films with Roy Rogers being the second. Actually, there were several polls taken from the late 1930's to the early 1950's in regards to Autry and Rogers. Gene Autry was the top singing cowboy prior to World War Two and Roy Rogers had the distinction in most polls after the war.

After moving to southern California to nurture his singing career, Roy Rogers appeared in his first motion picture as one of the singing cowboys in 1935 and made films regularly after that. He appeared in his first film with his real name of Leonard Slye. Rogers even appeared as a singing cowboy in a Gene Autry movie under his real name of Slye. The Roy Rogers name was developed for Leonard Slye by Republic Pictures during a time that Gene Autry was in a contract dispute with the studio.

The Move to Television

The development of television obviously gave both of these singing cowboy stars another medium in which to entertain the public. The Gene Autry Show aired on CBS from 1950 to 1956. Gene and his famous horse Champion were featured weekly in a variety of roles. Each week Autry portrayed a different character, everything from a common ranch hand to a sheriff. The show also featured the popular character actor Pat Buttram, later seen on television's "Green Acres".

Roy Rogers starred on television with his cowgirl wife Dale Evans. The Roy Rogers Show ran on NBC from 1951 until 1957. These were pretty much the same years that Autry had his show on CBS.
Roy Rogers played a ranch owner and his wife Dale was the owner of the Eureka Cafe. Roy's sidekick was played by Pat Brady. You may remember the jeep named Nellybelle which was driven by Brady on the show. Also featured each week was Roy's horse Trigger and his German Shepherd dog Bullet. Roy Rogers and Trigger were both big 1950's western stars.
gene autry statue
Gene Autry Statue, Palm Springs, CA

When you look back at each of these stars entertainment careers, their path was almost identical. Starting with a talent for singing, they gained some fame with personal appearances and on the radio, followed by motion pictures and then during the 1950's in that new medium of television. They were the two American singing cowboys during television's early years.

After his entertainment days ended, Autry received acclaim as a businessman. In addition to owning radio stations, some might remember Gene Autry as being the owner for decades of what is now called the California Angels of baseball's American League. Autry was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969 and also to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. Gene Autry passed away in 1998 at the age of ninety-one.

Rogers, "King of the Cowboys", was inducted twice into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1980 for his association with the "Sons of the Pioneers" and then in 1988 as a soloist performer. Rogers also has his star on Hollywood's Walk of fame. Both Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were very active in children's charities and had adopted several children. Roy also licensed his name out to a few commercial endeavors such as the Roy Rogers restaurant chain. There is also the non-alcoholic "Roy Rogers Drink" which is named after the actor and consists of cola and grenadine syrup topped with a cherry.

Roy Rogers, for years, had his Roy Rogers Museum located outside Los Angeles in Victorville. The museum moved from Victorville California, where Roy had retired to, to the entertainment town of Branson Missouri in 2003 but closed in December 2009. The museum was a casualty of the economic times and the fact that Roy's fans were getting quite a bit older and attendance dropped off.

The Roy Rogers family still operates a website which had a lot of great information on Roy and Dale. Most of the museum's exhibits were auctioned off in 2010. The car from the old TV series, "Nellybelle", reportedly fetched $116,000. Also, as a side note, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. This is another excellent stop if you're traveling through Oklahoma. The museum features 200,000 sq ft of exhibits including some 2,000 pieces of western art. Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were one of the most popular husband and wife duo's during the 50's. Roy Rogers passed away in 1988 at the age of eighty-seven.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos are in public domain)

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