When Roy Rogers began his career as a singer and actor in the 1930s, the golden era of the real-life cowboy was coming to an end. But on stage and screen, the cowboy was achieving new fame… and Roy Rogers became one of the most famous of them all.
Roy Rogers is shown in a Feb. 24, 1984 photo. Rogers, the singing ``King of the Cowboys'' whose straight-shooting exploits in movies and television made him a hero to generations of young fans and No. 1 at the box office, died Monday, July 6, 1998. He was 86. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Though Rogers was born in Cincinnati, he discovered the Wild West when he moved to California in his teens. He also discovered his calling there, while working as a fruit picker during the Great Depression and living in a campsite along with other temporary workers. Times were hard and the work was cruel, but Rogers discovered that everyone's spirits were raised when he played his guitar and sang in the evening while everyone sat around a campfire. He was inspired by the response and decided to pursue his fortune in music.
It's not a common career trajectory – from migrant fruit-picking to a hit single in just four years – but it happened to Rogers. The band he became a part of, the Sons of the Pioneers, captured the attention of a public that was just beginning to immortalize the mythical cowboy in music and movies. Their early song, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," hit it big – and helped Rogers break into the movie biz.
In short order, Roy Rogers became a movie star. He was one of the great "singing cowboys," those affable gentlemen of the silver screen who were as likely to burst into song while on horseback as they were to rope a calf or sling a gun. Along with Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, John Wayne (who wasn't a true singing cowboy, with dubbed vocals) – and Rogers' equally famous wife, Dale Evans – Rogers helped create a western archetype that survives today.
Rogers and Evans turned their big-screen success into a radio and TV phenomenon, with the long-running favorite The Roy Rogers Show. The show featured cowboys and cowgirls in Wild West scenarios – but often with the surprising additions of contemporary touches like cars and telephones.
Fourteen years after Roy Rogers' death, the western movie is still popular, with recent favorites like Rango and the rebooted True Grit drawing crowds. We can thank Rogers and his contemporaries for jump-starting the genre.
Written by Linnea Crowther