Singing cowboys are no longer part of the popular culture, not even in country-Western music. No one pretends that Garth Brooks or Tricia Yearwood was ever a cowboy or cowgirl, and if either one had a sidekick it would likely be a lawyer or accountant.
But 50 years ago, singing cowboys--who carefully cultivated the image of being true cowboys, even if they had never done a day's work on the range--were superstars. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans amassed a fortune close to $100 million during their careers, and Gene Autry parlayed his earnings into an economic empire that encompassed radio stations in four states, a television station, vast real estate holdings, the California Angels baseball team and a foundation that built and operates a Los Angeles museum that carries his name.
Archie Green, a Bay-Area folklorist, says, "Cowboys, even singing cowboys, became mythic American heroes. It was an example of the vernacular and the popular culture coming together, at least for a while. That can be a very powerful and profitable, even glamorous combination."
The singing cowboy, as Green suggests, had roots in the vernacular. Cowboys in the 19th Century sang around the campfire and in the bunkhouse to amuse themselves, similar to the way lumberjacks and other workers did. Cowboy songbooks started to appear in the 1880s. "Cowboy music started to get a wide audience at about the turn of the century when bands and cowboy singers traveled with the Wild West shows," said John Langellier (director of research at the Autry museum). "The Wild West shows and the music played in them were not necessarily authentic," he said. "But if they were not the real West, they at least became the popular image of the West."
Many of the first movies were Westerns, but because they were silent, they were no boost to Western music. But not long after sound came in, cowboy star Ken Maynard (who really had been a cowboy) started to include musicians in his films to enhance campfire scenes.
The first singing cowboy of the movies was a highly improbable choice, a character named Singin' Sandy Saunders, played by none other than John Wayne. "He was pretty bad at it," said Langellier, a judgment borne out by a clip he had of the 1933 film "Riders of Destiny." It showed the Duke singing a tune and looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable as he prepared to gun down a bad guy.
It was in the 1934 Maynard film "In Old Santa Fe" that the singing cowboy we think of today was born. Gene Autry, who was then an up-and-coming Western singer with his own radio show on WLS in Chicago, was brought out to sing just a couple of songs in the movie.
He followed it with a 13-chapter science-fiction/Western serial called "Phantom Empire," then starred in the 1935 feature "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." "In that film, he set up his character," said Langellier, "and for the rest of his film career he was essentially the same thing."
He was the man with the white hat, who used his own name, rode a horse named Champion and sang a song (often in a radio station setting) after capturing the villains. "It is a very mysterious process how an image becomes mythic," said folklorist Green. "Why singing cowboys? Why not lumberjacks or even iron workers who work on high buildings. They probably sang too. Part of it is probably tied into our notions of populism and democracy, and chivalry, men on horseback. But we never really exactly know why something becomes part of the mass culture."
Autry made 93 films, and from 1937-'42 was one of the top 10 moneymaking stars in Hollywood. After World War II, he went into television, where he also enjoyed great success. There were many other singing cowboys, of course, including Tex Ritter, whose songs were more rooted in authentic Western music than most. (Actor John Ritter is his son). There were also Rex Allen, Johnny Bond and Monte Hale.
But only one ever approached Autry's success. As a young singer and member of the Sons of the Pioneers vocal group, Roy Rogers also appeared in "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" back in 1935. After that, he quickly stepped into starring roles and developed his own image. He was known as the King of the Cowboys, and Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947, was the Queen of the West. Every kid knew his horse was named Trigger and his dog was named Bullet.
The Rogers-Evans films eventually capitalized on the movie craze for big musical production numbers. Audiences became used to Rogers singing to lush orchestrations and surrounded by choreography that owed more to Busby Berkeley than it did to the barn dance.
Rogers took over as chief Western moneymaker in 1942 and like Autry also had a successful career in television. "They were stars of movies, radio, recordings and eventually television," Langellier said. "And the merchandising was phenomenal. Roy and Dale supposedly had their names on about 15,000 products during their careers. The audience was saturated on every level and at every age group. People talk about the merchandising of movies now, but with the singing cowboys it was more broad-based."
As popular as the genre was, the singing cowboy phenomenon was relatively short-lived. "The last singing cowboy movies were made in about 1953," Langellier said. "Westerns had begun to change by then and had gotten more psychological. "The singing cowboy lasted a bit longer on television, but was replaced by more hard-edged programs like 'Maverick' or 'Have Gun Will Travel.'" According to Green, we are not likely to see the genre, or anything like it, revived for a long time.
Roy and Gene were the screen's preeminent singing cowboys, playing idealized versions of themselves more than fictional creations. Their innate goodness, emanating more from their own strength of character than the interchangeable scripts they spun into B-movie cowboy poetry, made them heroes to more than one generation of little buckaroos.
The Sons of the Pioneers, the group Roy Rogers founded with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, created a template for traditional Western music through radio and television performances and more than 100 films. Rogers once predicted that 100 years after their songs first topped the Western music charts, the group's music would still be popular. Ranger Doug from Riders in the Sky, says, "It is always a thrill to hear them do what they do."
The current Pioneers lineup might be more accurately described as the Grandsons of the Pioneers, but their close harmonies and classic songs like "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" haven't aged a bit. "It paints a picture in your mind of the American West," says Rogers' grandson, Rob Johnson, of the Pioneers' music. "They don't feel the need to modernize ... to evolve with the times. And people love it."
Monte Hale was the last great singing cowboy to inspire and charm Western movie audiences during Hollywood's classic era. The handsome actor, singer and songwriter literally and figuratively rode tall in the saddle (he's 6'5" and 100% white hat!) in the Republic B-Westerns of yesteryear. His screen characters were noble men - those who would consistently stick up for the underdog; his films demonstrated that crime doesn't pay, with the heroic Hale tracking, capturing and bringing to justice the two-legged varmints that terrorized the land. And while the humble Monte Hale tends to play himself down, his host of adoring fans will continue to regard him as an A-1 performer and cowboy whose films make for delightful and Memorable entertainment.
The singing cowboy was a nearly indispensable centerpiece of old-time B-Westerns. And Republic Studios was the leader, offering the best of the silver screen cowboy heroes and singers, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, and , last but not least, Monte Hale. By the time Monte Hale had made his first appearance in a Republic production, The Golden Era of the B-Western was almost over, and the sun was setting on the classic genre.
Hale was born on June 8, 1919, in Ada, Oklahoma. By the age of 16, he was the proud owner of a Gibson L-10 concert guitar. A few years later, he found himself playing vaudeville during WWII. While playing Galveston, two planeloads of stars from Hollywood flew into Texas. The mission: to sell war bonds. As it happened, the promoter, Philip Isley (and father of actress Jennifer Jones) happened to be staying at the same hotel where Hale was booked. Isley had heard that Hale could play guitar and as a result invited the musician to accompany Lee "Lasses" White on tour for the next three weeks! In addition, Hale, along with Johnny Mack Brown, Gale Storm, and Chill Wills, visited army and navy hospitals throughout the country to raise funds for the war effort. "We sold over 60 million dollars worth of war bonds," says Monte proudly. After the tour, an audition was arranged at Republic Studios for Hale.
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