Roy Rogers’ Son Shares Late Father’s Story on 100th Birthday
Nov. 5, 2011 marks what would’ve been Roy Rogers’ 100th birthday. Although we lost the legendary American icon in 1998, he is still loved by children of all ages. In addition to his positive influence on American culture, the ‘King of the Cowboys’ also had a very successful career in country music, with hits like 1947’s ‘My Chickashay Gal’ and ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ Furthermore, he was a founding member of the Western group the Sons of the Pioneers, known for hits like ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and ‘Cool Water.’ As a result of his impact on country and Western music, Roy Rogers is the only person elected twice to the Country Music Hall of Fame — first, as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and then as a solo artist in 1988. In honor of this great American Western hero, Taste of Country visited with his son, Dusty ‘Roy’ Rogers Jr.
Today we’re celebrating what would have been your father’s 100th birthday. Isn’t that just amazing thing looking back?
It really is. I don’t know where the time went. It’s an amazing thing, it’s just been wonderful; people come into the show [Dusty’s tribute show in Branson] and say how much they loved dad when they were kids, and I think back to all the things dad did. He lived to be 86-years-old, and my God, the man was in show business since he was 18 or 19-years-old, so it’s an amazing thing.
Now Roy Rogers was actually in music before movies, is that correct?
Yes, he was. He was kind of born into a musical family. My grandfather and grandmother on dad’s side both played mandolin guitar and dad learned from them. They would sit on the front porch years ago and just play music, and he would call square dances in town every once in a while. But then he came out to California looking for a job. He started singing live on the radio after winning a talent contest out there with a couple of cowboy groups. Things started to fall into place; he met Tim Spencer and they decided to form their own group, they found Bob Nolan and they formed the Sons of the Pioneers. And of course the rest of it’s just history from then on, but he started just doing music locally.
Why do think America loved Roy Rogers? Even today people look back and they say his name with a smile. They think of him as one our greatest, positive role models in America.
I think that’s why they loved him so much — because he was a positive role model and he kept his life in line to match what his being a role model was. He took that very seriously. He knew that kids were looking up to him and he knew he had to keep his life in line, and he did very well with that. Sometimes that is difficult to do in this kind of business. He was just a regular guy, and he was a big kid at heart and I think that’s why kids of America loved him so much and felt so close to him as part of the family. I hear that every day at the show: “We just felt like part of the family, watching those shows when I was a kid.” It was a special time for a lot of us who grew up in that era, and dad was a special man who meant a lot to us. Dad was kind of a surrogate father to a lot of folks during the war when some of their dads went away and some of them didn’t come back — so dad was a surrogate father to a lot of kids. So they looked up to him in a very positive way, and he always returned that ten-fold, so that’s why they loved him; he was just a regular guy.
You probably heard a lot of stories about your dad throughout the years, but is there one interesting story you’ve heard from a fan about the impact that Roy Rogers had on their life that sticks out?
There are a lot of them out there. Many who come to the show were kids in the ‘40s, and polio was very big in the ‘40s. Some had polio when they were kids, and they remember so much my dad coming to the hospital to visit. I remember one story a gal told me. Dad came in and brought Trigger — they put rubber shoes on Trigger, and they brought him right up to the children’s ward on the floor and then dad came around to each of them individually. They were each in iron lungs and you have to face backward and look through a mirror to see people when you’re in those lungs. Dad would come up right next to them. And this one little girl said he went right up to her and got her in her face and said to her, “I know, honey, you’re having trouble fighting this disease, but if you work really hard you’ll get out of this, — but you have to do this, no one can do it for you.” She said he hung this child’s gun belt up on the mirror and said, “Now I want you to work really hard and when you get out of this iron lung, you’ll be able to wear this gun and I want you to come see me in California.” Well, that’s all that a little kid needed was a little bit of excitement in their life, and I cannot tell you how many people have brought those cap guns with them that dad hung on their iron lungs back in the ’40s. There are so many stories, but that’s probably the most poignant.
How did your dad get into pictures? We read somewhere it was kind of by chance that Gene Autry was out on strike, so he landed the role that would have been Gene’s.
Well, Gene left the studio because of a contract dispute, so Republic went right away on looking for a new singing cowboy, and my dad was out in Burbank getting his hat fixed and cleaned. A big guy about the size of John Wayne came busting through the door and says, “Man, does anybody know where I can buy a cowboy hat? I gotta get a cowboy hat.” Dad said, “What’s all the excitement about?”And he said, “Republic Pictures is screen testing for a new cowboy. I need a hat because I’m going to go out there and try out.” And dad thought, “Well, what an opportunity for me.” So he grabbed his guitar and they went out there together. He waited by the front door because the guy at the front gate wouldn’t let him in. So he waited until all the cowboys went out to lunch. And of course they stayed in costume, and he was dressed like a cowboy, so when they left the restaurant to go back to the studio, he just got in with them. He just looked like an extra. Well, he went through the gate and got about 15-20 feet then felt a hand on his shoulder and he thought, “Oh man, I’m going to be thrown out.”And who it was was Sol Segal, who was head of all Western programming at the time at Republic and he said, “Leonard (which was my dad’s name at the time — Leonard Slye), I never thought about you until I saw you come through the gate.” Sol had seen dad singing in a couple of events. He said, “Let’s get you tested.” So dad was about the 18th guy they screen tested, and they loved what they saw and signed him to a contract on October 13, 1938, and he made 88 full-length motion pictures and became ‘King of the Cowboys’ in 1942. Dad said, “God just made it happen that I was in the right place at the right time.”
Let’s fast forward to 1991. Clint Black recorded a duet with your dad called ‘Hold on Partner’ and kind of brought your dad back into mainstream for a while. How did that come about?
They invited Dad to Nashville for the CMA Awards, and they wanted him to start recording again but he was having some trouble with hearing loss. But they finally talked him into coming down and singing a few songs on an album. Of course for the CMAs, all the young artists were there like Clint, Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and the Kentucky Headhunters at that time, and they all heard that Roy was in town to record and every one of them said, “We want to come over and sing with Roy on his album.” It didn’t start out to be a duet album, but all these kids were told, “If you’re coming tomorrow, come see Roy. Don’t bring an agent, don’t bring your manager and don’t bring any label agents. Just bring yourself and we’ll see what we can do.” When dad walked in that morning, there was about 38 major young country artists there, plus Roger Miller, Marie Osmond, Restless Heart and other great artists, and that’s how it worked out being a duet album even thought it wasn’t intended to be. Everyone thought Clint Black looked like dad so they did one together called, ‘Hold On Partner.’
Tell us about ‘Happy Trails’ — how the song came about and how it’s just taken on a life of its own as a song that will always be around and never be forgotten.
That’s the one song that everybody looks for as a songwriter. They need that one song that just kind of sticks in everybody’s mind — it’s kind of short in length and you just kind of go around humming it. That was ‘Happy Trails.’ My mother passed away when I was just a few days old, and in 1947 when I was about a year and a half, Dad asked Dale to marry him on Christmas Eve. Well, they were doing a radio show at that time — a variety show — and Dale was doing the show with Dad and she said, “You know, Roy, you’re a cowboy.You have this ‘Smiles Are Made Out of the Sunshine’ song, which is great, but you really need a trail song, and I’m going to write one.” She sat down right there and in about a half hour on the back of an old envelope she wrote down the words and the tune to ‘Happy Trails.’ She taught it to the Sons of the Pioneers that afternoon, and that evening they did it on the radio — they played it on the radio and sang it. Everybody loved it and it became their theme song. From then on, it’s been Roy and Dale’s theme song forever, and three years ago it was put into the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of the most recognized cowboy songs. It shows you what you can do in a half an hour, if you just put your mind to it.
What do you, as the son of Roy Rogers, miss the most about your dad?
I miss watching him. People ask me all the time, “What’s the one thing he really taught you? What did he say to you that stuck with you?” Well, with Dad, he said a lot of things and told me a lot of things but I just watched him. I watched how he handled people, how he handled family members and how he loved Dale, and all the wonderful things that dads should be and it made me want to be like him and do the same things he did. So, it was just being able to be around the man. That’s what I miss more than anything — it’s just having his presence around me. You never think you’re going to ever lose your parents. You always think your parents are going to be with you always, but they’re not; the good Lord calls them home. That’s the time when the grieving process takes place, and I don’t grieve over him anymore but I sure do miss him and being able to talk to him every morning and have coffee with him, I think that’s what I miss the most — and my mother. After my dad passed away, Dale was there and I’d go over every morning and spend time with her, and I just miss that closeness that you think you’d always have.
Watch the Clint Black and Roy Rogers ‘Hold On Partner’ video