Country Heritage: Leonard Slye (1911-1998)
By Paul W. Dennis on June 14, 2011
The Billboard Chart career of Leonard Slye ran from 1946 to 1991, a lengthy span of time that only resulted in a total of twelve chart records of which only four hit the top ten and only three more reached the top twenty. Moreover, there were some long gaps in charting records. After a #8 record in 1950 with “Stampede”, Leonard would not chart again until 1970 when “Money Can’t Buy Love” reached #35, followed in 1971 by “Lovenworth” (#12), “Happy Anniversary” (1971 – #47), “These Are The Good Old Days” (1972- #73) and “Hoppy, Gene and Me” (1975 – #15). After that only two more chart singles, one in 1980 and one in 1991 a duet with Clint Black on “Hold On Partner”.
This sounds like I am writing about a singer on the fringes of stardom, and based solely upon his Billboard success, that might be a fair assessment. But please read on …
Leonard Franklin Slye was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, although he raised and grew up in Lucasville, Ohio. In 1921, young Leonard traveled to California where he joined a western group called the Rocky Mountain Pioneers. While with the group, Leonard met Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, fine singers and writers both. In 1933 Leonard, Bob and Tim split off and formed the Pioneer Trio and performed on KFWB radio. Leonard played guitar and sang lead on many of the trio’s songs. As the group expanded, adding additional musicians and singers, the name was changed to The Sons of The Pioneers. Under this name, the group had many hit records, most occurring before the advent of Billboard’s Country Charts on January 1, 1944.
The Sons of The Pioneers were major recording stars during the period 1935-1949. Moreover, they had the opportunity to appear in many films of the newly emerging “singing cowboy” genre, including major roles in films starring Gene Autry. In at least one of these films, Leonard was billed as Dick Weston and played a villain who turned into a good guy by the end of the film.
In 1938, a studio dispute between Autry and Republic Pictures, left Republic without a star for the upcoming film UNDER WESTERN SKIES. Republic transformed Leonard Slye into Roy Rogers and a star was born. From that point forward Roy left the Sons of The Pioneers as a member but continued his association with them through numerous recordings and films.
Other than Gene Autry, Roy Rogers was the most successful star of western movies and there were years in which Roy was the top dog. Roy was listed in the Motion Picture Herald ‘Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars’ poll, for fifteen consecutive years from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He was in the top ten for all movie genres in 1945 and 1946. So big a star was Roy, that most of his post-war films were shot in color when most western films were still shot in black and white.
Roy’s first wife Arline died in childbirth in 1946 during the birth of Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr. Prior to that, Roy and Arline had a daughter and had adopted a daughter. In late 1947, Roy married Dale Evans, an actress who had appeared in a film with Roy in 1944. They remained married and maintained largely joint careers until Roy’s death in 1998. Roy and Dale adopted several children during their marriage, and had a daughter with Downs Syndrome who died at age two from complications of the mumps. They remained active in charity work and as active advocates of adoption throughout their lives.
Roy’s films were always kid-friendly so it was natural that Roy Rogers would emerge as one of the early stars of television, moving his radio show of nine years duration to television, where it ran from 1951-1957.
All told Roy Rogers appeared in over ninety movies, sold countless millions of records, both as a member of The Sons of The Pioneers and as a solo artist. While best remembered today for his television show and his theme song “Happy Trails To You” (written by his wife Dale Evans), Roy Rogers was a giant figure in the world of county music. Roy was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the original Sons of The Pioneers in 1980 and elected as a solo artist in 1988, the only artist elevated to the pantheon twice.
Roy Rogers was most active as a recording artist during the 1930s and 1940s, meaning that much of his original output was on 78 rpm records. During the 1950s and later relatively few albums were issued, including some aimed at children and some religious album. To be honest, I don’t have much Roy Rogers vinyl in my collection.
Roy is fairly well represented on CD. I’d recommend the following
THE BEST OF ROY ROGERS (Curb Records) collects all of Roy’s Capitol singles from the early 1970s, including “Money Can’t Buy Love”, Lovenworth”, “Happy Anniversary” and “These Are The Good Old Days” plus some covers of some classic county songs. Twelve songs in all – budget priced.
BIOGRAPHY: MUSICAL ANTHOLOGY (Capitol Records) – this was the soundtrack, so to speak, for an episode of television show BIOGRAPHY. This album is a mixed bag, some Capitol songs from the 1970s, some songs with Dale Evans from the 1950s including two songs (“Happy Trails” and “The Bible Tells Me So”) that will always be associated with Roy, and some songs from the 1940s including his biggest Billboard charting record, “My Chickashay Gal” which hit #4 in 1947.
A COWBOY HAS TO SING – three CDs – 43 songs – I don’t know the source material but it’s nicely priced and the titles sound like they are from the 1940s.
Other titles have been available in the past and may be found with a little effort. CDs of the Sons of The Pioneers from 1935-1937 often feature lead vocals by Roy Rogers, as well as fabulous harmonies and hot instrumental work.
Not currently in print, but worth finding:
ROY ROGERS TRIBUTE– issued in 1991 by BMG. Although not so credited, I think the driving force behind this CD was Clint Black, whose duet with Roy, “Hold On Partner”, was the single released from the album. Other duet partners on the album include The Kentucky Headhunters, Randy Travis, KT Oslin & Restless Heart, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton, Willie Nelson (of course), Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan & The Oak Ridge Boys and Dusty Rogers. Riders In The Sky provide background vocals on some of the songs and “Happy Trails” features everyone named earlier plus Daniele Alexander, Baillie & The Boys, Holly Dunn, Roger Miller, Johnny Rodriguez, Eddie Rabbitt and Tanya Tucker.