Roy Rogers, “King of the Cowboys,” Gave Country Its Universal Appeal

The most enduring symbol of country music is the cowboy, or at least a person in a cowboy hat singing a song. The image is so powerful that people used to refer to the entire country idiom as “Country & Western” music.

Roy Rogers, the consummate cowboy hero of the silver screen who personified that image and is an indelible part of the American psyche, died at age 86 on Monday morning after suffering from congestive heart failure at his home in Victorville, California.

A brilliant yodeler who founded the premier Western group Sons Of The Pioneers, Rogers was crowned “King of the Cowboys” when the singing buckaroo (with help from his beloved palomino stallion Trigger) became the No. 1 Western star at the box office during the 1940s. Rogers’ impact on country music is so great that he is the only person to be elected twice to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The singer of “Happy Trails” was first inducted in 1980 as a member of the original Sons Of The Pioneers and again in 1988 as an individual artist.

“Roy Rogers made country music palatable to a huge middle-class that had never listened to Jimmie Rodgers or The Carter Family,” explains renowned country music historian Dr. Charles Wolfe. “One of the things he helped do was put the ‘Western’ in “Country & Western” music. At that time, bluesy, honky tonk singers represented negative images for a lot of Americans. Roy was so squeaky clean and so appealing that middle class families all over the country didn’t have a problem with any of his songs, and that helped country music gain the kind of respectability it needed.

Dr. Don Cusic, author of Cowboys In The Wild West, agrees that the cowboy charmer helped make country music acceptable to mass America. “Every kid wanted to grow up and be a cowboy like Roy Rogers,” Cusic notes. “He helped get rid of country music’s hillbilly image. Up to that point, country was regional music–basically Southern, connected to the mountaineer image. The singing cowboys made it universal, made it an “American” music.”

Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 5, 1911. After moving to California, he formed the Pioneer Trio in 1933 with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. The trio evolved into the influential Sons Of The Pioneers, whose songs include “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

Slye quit the group in 1937 for a solo career as a singing cowboy at Hollywood’s Republic Studio. A year later he took the stage name Roy Rogers and was given his first starring role in Under Western Stars, which had been planned for Gene Autry as Washington Cowboy. Soon his box office appeal rivaled and eventually surpassed that of Autry (though he was never quite the recording star Autry was). Rogers made nearly 100 films, many with Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947, 14 months after his first wife, Arlene, died.

Rogers and Evans had nine children: two by Rogers’ previous marriage, one by Dale’s, one of their own, four by adoption and one by foster parenthood. Rogers’ and Evans’ daughter Robin died of complications of the mumps at age one in 1952. Korean-born Debbie, one of the couple’s adopted children, was killed in a 1964 church bus crash and the following year, their adopted son John choked to death while serving in the Army in Germany.

At the height of the couple’s popularity in the late-’40s and early-’50s, they were second only to Walt Disney in merchandising their images. The couple maintained its vast popularity via the NBC television series The Roy Rogers Show, which aired 1951-57 and thereafter in reruns. TNN also revived their screen work in the ’80s.

In 1991, RCA released an all-star Rogers tribute album featuring Randy Travis, Emmylou Harris, Restless Heart, K.T. Oslin, Ricky Van Shelton, Lorrie Morgan, Willie Nelson and others. The single from the project, “Hold On Partner,” with Clint Black, gave Rogers a Country Top 50 single. Rogers was honored with the TNN/Music City News Living Legend award the following year.

“There was always a sense of comfort you felt with Roy Rogers,” says Wolfe. “Roy came along and he was like somebody’s big brother. He had boyish good looks and a youthful voice. He was the first guy to merge the two great themes of American culture: The cowboy and the family. You never saw Roy much without Dale Evans, a trusty sidekick like “Gabby” Hayes, his dog Bullet and his horse Trigger. Roy’s family values, coupled with his personality, were more important than the specific hit records he had.”

Rogers is survived by Evans; sons Roy Rogers Jr. and Tom Fox; daughters Cheryl Barnett, Linda Lou Johnson and Dodie Sailors; 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held for Rogers on Saturday in Apple Valley, California.

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