Music and the Movie Cowboy
By Patrick Bousquet, 1992
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The Singing Movie Cowboy! What a star-studded era it was and for many cowboy movie fans, it returns them to many fond memories when they view the old westerns on television or tape.
My introduction to the Singing Movie Cowboy came about from my mother and I can remember the occasion of it to this day. I must have been six or seven years old. My mother told me the family was going to see a new cowboy movie and mom wanted to see how well the cowboy star sang. I don't remember the name of the picture, but it was the first Roy Rogers movie I saw.
My mother loved cowboy music and as far as I can recollect, it started with Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Mom had bought a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. She took some lessons and later on, sang and played in amateur shows. The guitar that mom bought from Sears was the one I took my first lessons on and she still has it today.
In l938 or l939, mom appeared on radio stations WLW in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and on WHDH in Boston, Masschusetts. The station in Boston offered mom a radio contract and encouraged her to go to Nashville or Wheeling, West Virgina. My mom had a family so she decided against moving and Boston was too far away to commute every day.
The whole family listened to cowboy music on radio WLS in Chicago, the Grand Ole Opry, and The Gene Autry Show, but it was mom and I that took a real fancy to cowboy music. The Singing Movie Cowboy that attracted national attention first was probably Gene Autry, who was inspired by Jimmie Rodgers, the "Mississippi Blue Yodeler." He could emulate the Rodgers music and yodeling style almost to a "T."
Gene was born in l907, on a tenant farm in Tioga, Texas. The family moved to Oklahoma where Gene became a telegrapher for the Frisco Railroad. To while away the lonely hours at the station in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, he sang and played his guitar.
One day, in l925, Will Rogers stopped off in Sapulpa and overhearing Gene singing and playing, encouraged him to go to New York and become a professional. With l929 depression days upon him, Gene traveled to New York. With guitar in hand, he made the rounds of many promotional agencies and finally recorded for American Record Corporation. Then in l929, he was hailed as "Oklahoma's Singing Cowboy" on Victor records.
Because of his fame on Chicago radio stations and his records, he began his Hollywood career in l934 as the "Nation's Number One Singing Cowboy." Gene appeared in three Mascot films and fifty-six for Republic. When Gene left Republic, he moved to Columbia Pictures and made thirty-two pictures there. He also made one at Times and one at 20th Century Fox. In 1959, he made a movie with Bob Hope at United Artists.
Gene Autry wrote many western songs and many in collaboration with other song writers. In Gene's first song folio are co-writers such as Jimmy Long, Raney and Marvin (Marvin is probably Frankie Marvin). I was surprised to find that the arranger for all these songs was Nick Manoloff. Manoloff had many guitar playing and lesson books published. (Note: The author still has the Manoloff books he used when taking guitar lessons.) Other co-writers were Cindy Walker, Fred Rose, Jenny Lou Carson, Denver Darling and Vaughn Horton, Steve Nelson, and the "Man with the Golden Voice" Eddie Dean.
With the huge success of the Singing Movie Cowboy, Hollywood started looking for others. In l931, a young man had travelled to California with his father to pick fruit in Tulare, California. During the next five years, he and a cousin called themselves the Slye Brothers. Leonard Slye went on to perform with Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies, The Rocky Mountaineers, The O-Bar-O Cowboys, The International Cowboys, and The Texas Outlaws. Then, in l934, Leonard Slye joined forces with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer to become The Pioneer Trio. The name changed to The Sons of the Pioneers and the group grew.
Leonard Slye grew also when in l937, he signed a contract with Republic Studios. He was called Dick Weston for a few films until he took the name Roy Rogers. From this point on, he was starring in his own right.
Roy also wrote some cowboy songs, although not as many as Gene Autry. In his song folio, "Roy Rogers Own Songs," Roy and Tim Spencer share the credits. Roy also wrote a few songs with Dale Evans.
Roy was not born on a ranch. He came into this world on November 5, l911, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His love of music came from his parents; his father played mandolin and guitar. As a young man in Ohio, Roy became a well-known square dance caller.
When Roy left Republic Studios and went into television, he had completed 85 starring films and two with Gene Autry. "The Roy Rogers' Show" on television lasted for 100 episodes.
Eddie Dean, "The Man with the Golden Voice," is still doing a few personal appearances today. And, at the age of 85, still has the Golden Voice that made him so popular. Mr. Dean was born in Hopkins County, Texas, near Sulphur Springs. He came from a large family; six brothers and two sisters. I don't know if Eddie considers seven as a lucky number, but he was the seventh son of a seventh son born in the seventh month.
Eddie Dean, at the age of twenty-one was encouraged to follow classical music but his love was country music. Because of his "Golden Voice," he was in great demand on Chicago radio stations in l928. Later, he played his guitar and sang on most stations in the Midwest. Returning to Chicago, he appeared on all the radio networks; on NBC he sang in harmony with his brother Jimmie. In 1937, he moved to California, where he has made his home ever since.
Eddie's first nine films were with Hopalong Cassidy. Then followed roles as second-lead heavies in some sixty movies doing his own stunts and fights. Finally, he starred in his own westerns, acting, playing guitar, and singing.
His first recording was on the Okea label in l933 and he made some of the first Decca recordings. Eddie's first national hit was on an independent label, Sage and Sand Records. The song was "I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven," and he co-wrote it with Hal Southern. Another big hit was "One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart," by Eddie Dean, Dearest Dean (Eddie's wife), and Hal Blair. Eddie wrote many other songs along with over half of the music for his western movies. One of Eddie's song was written by him and Glen "Pee Wee" Strange, western bad man and bartender on the Gunsmoke TV series.
On February 16, l914, another singing cowboy star was born, Jimmy Wakely. Born in Mineola, Arkansas, he was the son of Major A. and Caroline Burgess Wakely. When he was seven, the family moved to Oklahoma. Jimmy worked as a ranch hand as he grew up but decided he would prefer to follow a singing career. His first radio appearance was on station WKY in Oklahoma City and this was the beginning of Jimmy's rise to success.
Gene Autry gave Jimmy his first big break when he was signed for Gene's Melody Ranch TV show on CBS. Jimmy stayed with Gene for two years and then decided to go on his own. His success skyrocketed on radio, Decca records and then in western movies. He wrote many of his own songs and also wrote with others such as Smiley Burnett, Arthur Smith, Oliver Drake, and Lee "Lasses" White. "Lasses" was also Jimmy's sidekick in his movies. Some of Jimmy's songs are "Too Late," "You Can't Break the Chains of Love," and "Standing Outside of Heaven." One of Jimmy's greatest recordings was a duet he sang with Margaret Whiting, "Slipping Around."
While busy with movies, recording, and other activities, Jimmy guested on major radio programs, "National Barn Dance," "Grand Ole Opery," and "Kate Smith Hour" to name a few. His fan mail was an average of 5,000 letters a month, which ranked him with the top western stars.
Republic Studios garnered another singing cowboy who had risen to stardom, Rex Allen, "The Arizona Cowboy." Republic was having a contract disagreement with Roy Rogers and decided they had better have another singing cowboy on hand. Rex filled the bill.
Unlike some of the movie cowboys, Rex Allen was born on a homestead in Willcox, Arizona, on December 31, l920. His father had homesteaded free "free range" and the large cattle owners didn't cotten to this very well. Rex's dad had his fences cut and his cattle killed, but he was determined to stick it out. Then, when Rex was seven, his brother died of a rattlesnake bite and Rex's dad moved the family closer to town. Rex learned to ride, brand cattle, and mend fences; he learned to cowboy.
When Rex was 11, he received a guitar and instruction book from his parents from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Learning to play and having tremendous singing voice, Rex was soon entertaining at rodeos and square dances. At the age of 13, he made his radio debut in Phoenix, Arizona. After high school, Rex toured the rodeo circuit and did quite well; he entertained after rodeo hours for his rodeo friends.
Rex decided he would rather sing than rodeo. He worked many local radio stations and wound up in Trenton, New Jersey, on station WTHJ as Cactus Rex. This was a turning point for Rex, and he became well known from coast to coast. For two years, he was the feature singer at the famous Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Pennsylvania.
In 1945, he joined the National Barn Dance and came to be known as a top singer yodeler and song writer. He remained there for four years and then Republic Studios signed him to a seven year contract. Rex Allen recorded for Mercury and Decca records and like other singing cowboys, he wrote his own songs and wrote some with others.
Today, Rex lives in Sonaita, Arizona, and has a museum in Willcox, Arizona. Although he says he retired "years earlier," in October, 1992, he was in concert at the Lone Pine Sierra Film Festival with the Reinsman in Lone Pine, California. He continues to have that beautiful singing voice that many of us are used to hearing.
Another singing movie cowboy, Tex Ritter, was born in Panola County in East Texas where there wasn't much cowboy activity. Tex graduated from the University of Texas and then attended Northwestern Law school for one year. He collected western and mountain songs which he used when he started singing on radio station KPRC out of Houston, Texas, in 1929. The year 1930 saw Tex traveling with a troupe on one-night stands throughout the South and Midwest. Going bust, he went to New York and in 1931 was given a feature role in "Green Grow the Lilacs." With his knowledge of cowboy lore and Texas accent, he became a sensation and this led to a lecture tour of Eastern colleges.
Tex was a featured singer at the Madison Square Rodeo in 1932; this led to a stint on radio station WOR in New York. WOR had one of the first western programs in New York. After four years on various radio stations, including the WHN Barn Dance, Tex landed a Hollywood movie contract in 1936. Because of his Texas background and his western music, Tex was thought of as a cowboy and he tried to live up to that image.
The singing movie cowboy, those who attained "Big" star status, all seemed to have song folios put out for the general public. Gene Autry had the most. Gene even had one entitled, "Sgt. Gene Autry," put out while he was serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
There were other cowboy stars who sang in their movies, but for whatever reason, never made it big as singing movie cowboys. These three were Bob Baker, Fred Scott, and Monte Hale. Bob and Fred had song folios though. Monte Hale was one of Republic Studios singing movie cowboys. In a recent article I read, Monte didn't consider himself a singer, actor, or even a good rider. I for one enjoyed his singing.
Dick Foran sang in some of his early westerns and had a song folio. I have in my collection a song sheet of a song that he sang in a western with his photo on it.
Some of the sidekicks even had western song folios on the market. Two of these were Johnny Bond and Smiley Burnett. There were even some non-singing cowboy stars that had western song books, for example, Tom Mix, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, and even John Wayne.
The era of the singing movie cowboy and his song books was a joyous time, especially for the western movie fan. It was another item to add to a fan's movie cowboy collection. I have most of the song folios in my collection and they make a beautiful addition to any movie cowboy display. One has to remember though, the song books were another way to add to the movie cowboy's income.
Used with author's permission.