Roy, Gene, And The Singing Cowboys

In the 30s and 40s, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry topped the list of singing cowboys. Even John Wayne tried his hand with a guitar.

"Git yourself another singin' cowboy," the tall, handsome actor angrily informed movie magnate Herbert J. Yates. "I ain't gonna do it no more!"

The speaker was John Wayne. He had been cast as "Singing Sandy" for several years in a series of "B" westerns produced at Lone Star-Monogram. Wayne, who couldn't carry a tune, had his voice dubbed by Smith Ballew. At first he went along with the casting as a gag, but unfortunately the idea had caught on. During personal appearances he often found himself backed into a corner by fans shouting to him to sing a song. Wayne got fed up. When Monogram and several other small independent production companies sold out to Yates in 1935 to form Republic Pictures, the rangy actor told the boss to get himself another crooner. When Wayne made his first western for Republic, "Westward Ho", it was strictly action fare.

Yates' right hand man, Nat Levine, thought he had the answer. He knew of a young fellow who had been a telegrapher in Oklahoma and was now selling zillions of records though the Sears and Roebuck catalog. His name was Gene Autry. So Levine gave young Autry about 10 minutes in a Maynard western, "On Old Santa Fe" to warble a couple of tunes. Fans liked him, and Levine talked Yates into signing him to a contract. The problem was that Autry could act about as well as John Wayne could sing.

That problem was partially solved with a few acting lessons. Then to give his new warbler the best possible exposure, Levine cast Autry in a 12-part serial called "The Phantom Empire". The result was a weird combination of a western and science fiction, but guaranteed Autry a 12-week exposure in any theater that booked the serial. And he sang plenty of songs.

Autry's next film, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" was his first starring vehicle and resulted in a monster hit record. Autry was on his way.

There was a great deal of difference between the musical western and the traditional western that had been a Hollywood staple for years. Other than the emphasis on music, many of the films were anachronistic to say the least. Horses, stagecoaches, board-front towns, outlaw gangs, and other trappings of the old west were shamelessly combined with automobiles, buses, telephones, electricity, radios, and crooked city slickers. In this eclectic mix, pursuing horses could even outrun powerful motor cars. But the public, especially those in the rural South, loved them.

Autry's stardom rose rapidly and in 1937 he walked out on Yates and Republic because he thought he wasn't getting enough of the profits. Yates' reaction was typical, "the hell with Autry," he said, "We'll get another singing cowboy."

Republic Picture's second singing cowboy was a young man from Ohio who had changed his name from Leonard Sly to Dick Weston. He had formed a singing group with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. Calling themselves The Pioneer Trio, they had made a minor name for themselves on Los Angeles radio. Then, through talent and good fortune, they earned a place on the "Hollywood Barn Dance". The pioneers had even sang a couple of songs in Republic films, but nothing had come of it.

One day, while at the dry cleaners getting his Stetson cleaned, the young singer overheard a conversation.

Republic was looking for a new singing cowboy. He jumped in his car and drove to Republic as fast as he could, but the guards blocked his entry. Undaunted, the young singer sneaked through the gate with a group of carpenters. Once inside, he began searching for Levine's office. Suddenly he felt someone tap him on the shoulder and a voice asked him what he thought he was doing. Roy Rogers whirled around, then smiled in recognition. "I'm looking for you, Mr. Levine."

Rogers was the only singing cowboy to ever give Gene Autry serious competition. Yates gave his new discovery the star treatment and his rise was rapid. A much chagrined Gene Autry returned to the Republic fold and Yates found himself with two of the country's most popular signing cowboys under contract. This windfall would continue until Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the beginning of World War II.

There were other singing cowboys, to be sure, but they didn't have a chance with Autry and Rogers gathering most of the box office. Tex Ritter made some films for Grand National and later for Columbia and PRC, but his prominence as a singer had to wait for his off-key rendition of the title song of "High Noon" in 1952. Smith Ballew, the performer who had dubbed John Wayne in the Singing Sandy pictures, made a few films, but never became very popular. Eddie Dean, who had a good voice and was a fair actor, made a series of singing westerns, but was mostly regulated to character roles in the action westerns of other stars. Other than Autry and Rogers, the most successful of the singing cowboys was probably Jimmy Wakely and Rex Allen.

Wakely was an Autry protege. The star heard the group in Oklahoma and told Wakely if he ever got to California to look him up. Wakely almost beat Autry back to the coast. Autry was true to his word and the trio joined him on his weekly radio show, "Melody Ranch". They were an instant success. Wakely, a shameless Autry imitator, went on to make over 30 singing westerns.

Rex Allen had the dubious distinction of being the last of the singing cowboys. Already, in the early 1950s, Republic was making plans to enter the new medium of television. The "B" western was dying. Autry had moved from Republic to Columbia and would make his last theatrical film in 1953. Two years earlier, Rogers had completed his last western for Republic and was deep in the production of his own popular television show. In a final effort to rejuvenate the musical western, Republic signed Rex Allen, but it was too late. Old westerns were already being shown on television. Why would the public pay at a theater to see what they could watch for free on television?

It was Allen who made the last singing western in 1954.

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