LEONARD BEFORE ROY ROGERS
As a kid, I was Roy Rogers, and my neighbor was
Hopalong Cassidy. We fought the wars of Altadena.
Steve Schoenbaum,5#, Roy Rogers fan
as quoted in the Los Angeles Times,
May 5, 2003
A full moon lit up the desert sky over Southern California, spilling out onto a rustic migrant workers' camp below. Leonard Slye, his face sunburned and chapped, glanced up at the numerous stars as he turned the skinned rabbit skewered on a stick he was holding over a fire. His mother, Mattie, and sisters Cleda and Kathleen sat around a weather-beaten tent, dishing meager servings of beans and wheat cakes onto plates. Leonard's father, Andy, had parked himself next to him, poring over a tattered map.
"Our luck is sure to change out here, Len," he said to his son. Leonard smiled and nodded. The aroma from the cooked meat wafted through the air, and he licked his lips. The Slye family would be eating good tonight.
It was the spring of 1930, and Andy Slye and his clan were among thousands who had departed the Midwest. Many were escaping the devastating conditions of the Dust Bowl.
Drought and hard times had robbed them of their homes and possessions, driving them to California with great hopes for their future. Even in California, however, jobs were scarce, and discouraged farm families were forced to take jobs picking fruit.
Disaster did not drive the Slyes west, but they were lured to the coast for the same reasons as everyone else—a better life. Leonard and his father had depleted their funds getting the family to this point and needed money to get them back on their feet. They, too, were forced to take work picking grapes and peaches.
The work was hard, but steady. They'd not been able to afford much in the way of food; the rabbit Leonard was cooking represented the only meat his family had had to eat in he didn't know how long. He'd hunted the animal down with his slingshot.
From behind the trees and brush, Leonard caught a glimpse of some of the children who lived at the camp. They were staring intently at the fire and appeared hypnotized by the aroma of fried rabbit. Leonard watched the sad-faced, weary boys and girls inch their way over to him. He knew what they were thinking.
He glanced over at his mother, who nodded approvingly, then cut the rabbit up into as many portions as possible. The children quickly devoured the feast.
After the Slye family finished their beans and cakes, they removed their guitar and mandolin from their rickety, 1923 Dodge truck and began to play. The children clapped and danced around. Their parents wandered over, joining in the music with instruments like harmonicas and juice harps. A makeshift dance floor was quickly put together using scraps of lumber, and the camp followers square danced to Leonard's calls.
Leonard was moved by the sheer abandon the disenfranchised families were experiencing. In the midst of their trials, they let themselves be swept away with the song. They came alive. The music did something to the spirit of the hungry, depressed people, and Leonard liked being a part of it. He felt as if was helping people—something he'd wanted to do as a boy when he dreamed of being a doctor.
A tall unassuming man, not much older than Leonard, carrying a writing pad and circling the dance floor, caught his eye. He wore a serious expression and seemed to be drinking in the atmosphere, then capturing the moment with pen and paper. The man would later describe a scene similar to this in the novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The laborers and their families allowed themselves a few hours of fun, then departed to their tents to bed down for the night. What Leonard remembered most about migrant camp life was that although material goods were in short supply, there was plenty of happiness and music.
; had been a two-week drive from Ohio to California. The Slye truck, loaded down with suitcases, tents, canned goods and guitars, faithfully transported the family to their destination, breaking down only twice along the way. They traveled via Route 66—a bumpy, two-lane highway empty of hotels or rest stops. Much like the pioneers of the 1800s, the Slyes encountered hostile weather and rough terrain on their way to the Golden State. The minor setbacks never deterred them from their goal. California would afford Leonard opportunities he never imagined.
This was Leonard's second trip west with his family. The first time they'd come to California, they had stayed with his sister Mary and her husband in Lawndale. The Slyes loved the warm climate and wide-open spaces California had to offer.
Leonard and his father quickly got work driving trucks for a road construction company, but after four months Andy decided it best they head back to the farm in Duck Run. Not long after they returned to Ohio, they began missing the West Coast. Leonard ached to see the broad blue sky and feel the sunshine on his back. When Mary's father-in-law decided to leave Duck Run and move out to California, Leonard went with him. Not long after that, Andy and Mattie sold their Ohio homestead and set off for the West Coast again. This time, jobs weren't as easy to come by.
Picking fruit was welcome work, but it was grueling and paid very little. In the fall the work tapered off altogether. Andy and Leonard needed steady employment. Andy heard about a shoe factory in Los Angeles that was hiring and approached his son about the prospect.
The resignation in his eyes shook Leonard to his core. Andy wore the dread of being cooped up in a factory in every line on his face. "A man takes what's available to him," he told Leonard. "You coming along?" A long silence passed between the two. Leonard wanted to talk him out of it, but what other options had he to offer? "No, Pop," he finally said. "No factory for me." Andy studied his son's face for a moment, waiting for him to volunteer his plans.
"The only thing I have an honest good feeling for is music," Leonard confessed. "It makes me happy, and my playing and singing seems to make everyone else happy. I'd like to take a try at being a musician," he concluded.
Andy admired the dreamer and understood more than anyone could at that moment just what Leonard was telling him.
"I'd be crazy to say that I know how it will work out," Leonard added. "But I'll never know until I try."
"A man should do something he enjoys doing," Andy told him. "I've always felt like a slave making shoes. Probably you're right." He wished his boy well and headed off for the shoe factory alone.
Leonard talked his mandolin-playing cousin, Stanley Slye, into joining him and forming a duo. He sold him on the idea that they could earn a living playing for social meetings, parties, and square dances. "Some of the better groups are working on the radio a lot," Leonard added confidently. And so the Slye Brothers was born. The boys managed to play for a few events in the area, but not for pay. The only money they made was when they passed the hat and partygoers made contributions.
One particular evening the Slye Brothers got a boost to their bruised egos when a swarthy man approached them at the conclusion of their show. He told the pair that he was an agent and wanted to represent them. For a brief moment Leonard and Stanley thought they were on their way to the big time. Their new agent arranged a couple of jobs for the duo, but no money was ever forthcoming. He explained to the brothers that the funds they earned were somehow eaten up by expenses. The agent disappeared not long after that, and the boys went back to business as usual—a little wiser than before.
The Slye Brothers continued to play for a few events here and there, but they still weren't making much money and Stanley was getting discouraged. He summonded Leonard to a meeting to discuss their career. "We're getting nowhere fast," Stanley told his partner. "I'm ready to call it quits and see if I can find a job that has a paycheck." Leonard understood his concern. He'd entertained those same thoughts from time to time. It was decided that the Slye Brothers' career should come to an end. Stanley went off to find a nine-to-five position, and Leonard was left to ponder his musical fate. After careful consideration he realized he wasn't ready to abandon his dream.
Leonard signed on with a musical group known as Uncle Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies. Uncle Tom never offered Leonard a salary for his contribution. He convinced the younger man that experience was more valuable than money. Leonard again had to take stock of his situation and make a decision. Should he continue with the Hollywood Hillbillies or go it alone? He turned to a family member who had always been a strong supporter.
Leonard's sister Mary sang with him at family get-togethers. They harmonized beautifully, and she believed he had talent. Although he was quite bashful, she pushed him to sing solos for people other than their relatives. "He's a charming boy with a good voice," Mary told her parents. "Given half a chance I think he can do wonders." Mattie and Andy agreed.
Leonard's opportunity to "do wonders" finally came by way of a small radio station in Inglewood. Station KMCS was hosting an amateur singing contest on a program called The Midnight Frolic, Mary and Mattie urged Leonard to enter. It took a bit of talking to persuade him that it could be the break he was looking for. "I don't mind calling square dances, or singing among a few friends," Leonard told them. "But I'm not sure about singing in front of strangers." When he finally agreed, everyone in the family was excited and pledged to do all they could to help him get ready.
While Leonard practiced for the event, his mother and sister worked on putting together a proper western outfit for his debut. Mary stitched a patchwork of bright-colored squares onto one of his old shirts, and Mattie pressed his lone pair of cowboy trousers. When the big day finally arrived, Leonard scooped up his twenty-dollar guitar and, with his family in tow, set out for the radio station.
The studio audience was jammed with people wanting to participate in the contest. The Slyes arrived just before midnight and took their seats among the hopeful singers and musicians. Leonard was nervous. Looking around the room, he studied the faces of the people he was thoroughly convinced were far better than he was. By three o'clock in the morning, The Midnight Frolic amateur contest was still going strong. Leonard would be next up to the microphone. When the show's master of ceremonies introduced him, he didn't make a move. He was paralyzed with fear and clutched the neck of his guitar as if it had frozen in his hand.
Mary elbowed her brother a couple of times. When he didn't move, she poked him hard in the ribs. Then she got up from her seat, bent down in front of him, and looked him straight in the eyes. "Len," she said firmly. "We've come all the way down here to hear you sing. I sewed that fancy shirt for you and Mama ironed your pants. Now get up there!" Leonard still didn't move. Mary grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. "You get up there and show them how good you can play and sing," she concluded.
Leonard made his way to the stage and, after an awkward moment or two, began strumming his guitar and singing. He played a couple of old hillbilly tunes, the ones he'd grown up singing. He watched his folks clapping along with the music, and that eased his nervousness. At the end of the set, the audience erupted in applause. A broad smile crept across Leonard's scarlet face.
Leonard Slye didn't win the contest. He didn't even place, but before he left the studio the people at the radio station took his name down. The next day he received a call from the manager of a western musical group, The Rocky Mountaineers. He wanted to know if Leonard would be interested in signing up with the band. "We've got a weekly program going on a Long Beach radio station," the manager explained. "And while we don't get any pay for playing, we are given the privilege of plugging our own services over the air. So that means a few pay jobs."
Leonard didn't have to think about the offer long. He jumped at the chance to be a part of a real musical outfit.
TO BE CONTINUED