HEADING WEST - ROY'S STORY
The old Dodge sputtered to a halt in Magdalena, New Mexico. It had been choking and bucking its way across country for the whole trip, and we kept fixing it with parts from a junker car that we found in a yard and towed behind us nearly the whole way. Traveling out West during the Depression sure wasn't what travel is like today. It was long before well-paved superhighways; Route 66 was nothing but a two-lane road, and if your car broke down, you had to hope you found a part somewhere to patch it up. Along the way there weren't any comfy motels or nice restaurants. And even if there had been, the likes of the Slye family couldn't have afforded them. No, at night when it came time to bed down, we pulled far off the road, laid our blankets on the ground by the side of the car, and slept under the stars.
I'll tell you one thing, though: we weren't alone. Along the way we met dozens of families just like us, fleeing the Dust Bowl or some other misery, heading for the Golden State and hoping for something better, their old jalopies piled high with everything they owned. I remember how much those other families looked like us, too—hungry, tired, their clothes dusty from the long road, their shoes patched near as much as some old quilt. It had been exhilarating to leave Ohio on a bright June day, but once we got out onto the broad prairies and plains of the Southwest, we started feeling mighty puny against this big land. California sure seemed far away.
It took more than two long weeks to make the trip, and by the time we got to Lawndale, where my older sister Mary and her husband lived, we were bone-weary. But she was a good cook, and after a few days' rest, her husband got Pop and me jobs loading and driving gravel trucks. It was sweaty, hard work, but I liked it a whole lot more than the shoe factory. At least I got to feel the sunshine on my back, and see the broad blue sky overhead. I liked California; it felt good to be there, like I belonged. Even though I wasn't doing anything more than hauling gravel, just being there really seemed like the big adventure I had hoped it would be. Pop and I worked as truck drivers for four months, after which he decided his 4 Vacation" to see Mary was over and it was time to return to Ohio, and to our old jobs at the shoe factory. I hated hearing those words, but Pop made some sort of promise about returning to California in the future, so we loaded up the car and pointed ourselves East.
I wasn't happy back in Ohio, cooped up in the factory. I especially wasn't happy when the weather started to turn cold that fall. With winter coming on, I kept thinking of the California sun and recalling warm, easy evenings singing songs with the family on my sister Mary's porch. So late in the year when Mary's father-in-law decided to move out to join her, I offered my services to him as co-driver. He agreed to let me come along. I said "Happy trails" to my folks and headed West again, this time to stay. Once Mary and I were both in California, Mom and Pop soon made the decision to give up working at the shoe factory. They sold the farm in Duck Run and joined us.
Life sure looked sweet: I managed to get my old job back driving trucks filled with gravel. I had it made! But a few weeks after I settled in, I arrived at work to see all the dumptrucks being towed away. The boss had gone bankrupt. I was out of work with no prospects of a weekly paycheck anywhere, for in those days you couldn't beg, borrow, or steal a regular job. So, I did what lots of other poor, displaced folks did back then. I became part of the army of migrant workers, picking peaches or whatever other crops were coming up, moving with the harvest and getting paid by the bushel. Along with my pop and my cousin Stanley Slye, I picked peaches in Bakersfield for Del Monte and grapes and everything else for anybody else who would hire us. We never did work for any of the WPA camps that President Roosevelt set up: I guess we were never lucky enough to find one. You could say that we were too busy starvin' outside the system.
When one job finished we would load the family up in our battered old truck and make camp with a whole bunch of other poor strangers near another orchard that needed picking. The only thing more scarce than money in those days was food. Even if you got a little ahead on feeding yourself, the hungry faces of those around you in the labor camps made it so that a full belly didn't set so well. I remember once hunting us up a rabbit for supper—got it with my trusty slingshot—and as we cooked it in a frying pan over a camp-fire the aroma brought a whole herd of hungry, sad-faced children to where we sat. They didn't beg or anything—just stood to the side, watching the rabbit cook like they'd never seen anything so pretty. Even though Pop and I were caving in from working the fields all day, we couldn't eat with those starving little ones all around. So we Slyes wound up having nothing but bitter black coffee for our evening meal. We cut the ol' rabbit into as many pieces as we could and the kids feasted on it like it was a T-bone dinner at Delmonico's. Afterwards, Stanley and Pop played their guitars and I sang some songs for the little ones. Our family did a lot of singing in those days, even when we were alone, just to keep our spirits up.
The people in those camps were scraping hard to make ends meet, but it wasn't all hunger and misery. There were times we managed to get a whole crowd of folks to join our family singalongs, and on some occasions the men were able to lay down enough boards so we had a fitting dance floor. With the moon full and the stars shining bright on a clear California night, we kicked up our heels, you bet! I was able to put all the square-dance calling I learned back home to good use. I remember at one of those camps there was a fellow named John Steinbeck going around taking notes on what he saw. He never did speak to me directly. I was probably too shy to have anything to say to him, and there was no reason he would have noticed me: I was just another grape picker. I did eventually read the book he wrote about us, The Grapes of Wrath, and he sure did get it down right.
Picking fruit wasn't getting us anywhere. I'll never forget the day Pop came over to me and said that he had heard about a shoe company in Los Angeles that might be hiring. The look of defeat on that man's face made me want to cry. When he asked me if I wanted to come along with him, I said no. He didn't force the issue, and I couldn't tell him not to go. For myself, though, I had another idea. I thought that I'd talk my cousin Stanley into joining up with me as 'The Slye Brothers" and playing music at dances and social get-togethers in the area. We tried it for a while, and we did play at a few parties around town, but never for pay. The only money we made was what party-goers tossed into the hat that we put down on the floor in front of us. After a few weeks, though, Stanley decided he needed a job with a regular paycheck, so we abolished the Slye Brothers. I joined up with another musical outfit called Uncle Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies. We didn't get much work, and when we did, good ol' Uncle Tom Murray told me that instead of money, my pay would be the valuable experience of playing in public. I was going nowhere with my musical career.
My older sister Mary used to harmonize with me a lot at family get-togethers, and she was the one who was always pushing me to get up and sing for people other than my own kin. I didn't mind calling square dances, or singing among a few friends in the camp, or playing with little groups of musicians at local dances of people that I knew, but I was still bashful about standing up and singing in front of large numbers of strangers. Still, Mary didn't let up, finally talking me into going to a little radio station in Inglewood, KMCS, where they had an amateur show called 'The Midnight Frolic." With my twenty-dollar guitar and a clean new patchwork shirt Mary made for me herself and pants that Ma had ironed specially for the occasion, I showed up around midnight, when the show began. It lasted till six in the morning, and I figured that with those hours there wouldn't be too many people listening, so that made me feel a little better.
When they pointed to the microphone and announced my name, I felt like I was in that school play in my Santa Claus suit all over again. I mean I was so fearful I couldn't move. I sat in my chair clutching the neck of the guitar like it had frozen in my hand. Mary came over and looked down at me, fixing my frightened eyes with hers. "Now you get up, get up there and sing," she commanded. And I did. I stood before the small audience of people who cared enough to come down to a no-account radio station in the middle of the night to hear a group of nobodies sing, and I played some old hillbilly songs for them. I guess they liked me enough because they applauded pretty good and the people at the radio station took my name down before I left.
The next day, as the red from my blushing face was still draining away, the pay phone near where we were staying rang and someone picked it up. It was for me—a call from a man who identified himself as the manager of a musical group called the Rocky Mountaineers. He said he had heard me singing on the radio show and wanted to know if I had any interest in joining the band. He said the band played regularly on a radio station in Long Beach, which was swell; but he also said that the radio job didn't pay anything. All it did was give them a chance to announce that they were available for parties and dances. Just what I needed—more work and less pay! But I can't lie: it was a thrill to get the call and to think of myself being in a real musical outfit. And the fact is that a life of picking fruit all day in the blazing sun wasn't exactly my idea of a great career. Besides, I figured my stomach couldn't get much emptier than it was. I told the fella on the phone that I would be delighted to join his band.
When I met them, I saw why they were so eager to have me join up: they didn't have a singer. There were whole bunches of all-instrumental groups around in those days, but the Rocky Mountaineers had gotten a lot of requests to sing, and none of them could. I suggested that in addition to me, they would need to hire another singer, too, for the harmony, and they agreed to the idea. We placed an ad in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner saying, "Yodeler wanted for old-time act; tenor preferred," and a fellow named Bob Nolan answered. It's hard to forget Bob when he walked in the door—barefoot, holding a pair of brown shoes in his hand! You see, he was a lifeguard down in Santa Monica—you could tell that right away by his good physique and his golden tan. Each of his feet had a big blister on the heel, and I reckon his beach job didn't require much in the way of a business wardrobe. Financially, lifeguarding was probably only one step above fruit picking, and when Bob learned what we paid (nothin'!) his face fell; but like me, he was game to try. He was a great singer with a rich, honeytone voice, and a fine musician who played fiddle and guitar. Before too long, Bill Nichols, a tenor, joined the group and the three of us made a well-blended trio.
I'm surprised we lasted the eight months that we did together. We played pretty regularly on the radio, but the problem was that times were tough and nobody could afford to hire us. We made no money, and in order to get by we mooched off the banjo player and his wife for a roof over our heads and for meals. We used to take their couch and put it next to the day bed and we would all sleep across it that way. After a while, Bob Nolan couldn't take it anymore. He quit the group to become a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club. For the sake of musical history, I'll tell you here and now he didn't do that forever. Bob went on to be a great songwriter, coming up with some classic Western tunes, including "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." I've sometimes wondered if he thought of that one while hauling some rich man's golf bag over the smooth grass at the Bel Air Country Club, where there was nary a weed at all.
When Bob Nolan left the group, we placed an ad in the paper for a harmony yodeler who could also play guitar. Tim Spencer answered. Like me, Tim had come West to seek his fortune. He was from Oklahoma—a fine singer and a first-rate yodeler, with a terrific talent for songwriting. He, too, went on to write some of the classics, including "Pioneer Mother of Mine" and "Roomful of Roses," which Mickey Gilley revived as a number-one hit not too long ago. But all that success was far in the future. In the early 1930s, we sometimes thought we would never get a break. There was no money coming in at all; all we had was our dreams, which we held on to with the tenacity of a barnacle. We tried every way we knew to retool the group and get noticed. We dropped the name Rocky Mountaineers and joined up with Benny Nawahi's International Cowboys. Despite this high-flown moniker, there wasn't really a whole lot that was international about us; we liked the name because each member of the group had such a different ethnic background. But our home was still a makeshift campground on the floor of someone's living room, our meals were what we could manage to scrape together or get ourselves invited to. At least people seemed to like to hear us sing. We were invited to play over the radio, and in 1933 we performed at the Warner Theater in downtown Los Angeles. That was one show I'll never forget.
Just as we were introduced a big earthquake hit and the audience ran for the doors. One man remained in his seat. To this day, I don't know if he really wanted to hear us perform, or if he was so scared he couldn't move. Whatever the reason, when even one person wants to hear you play (and has paid for it!), you play. We launched into 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as the giant chandelier overhead swayed like crazy and the whole theater vibrated with aftershocks.
By this point, I was darn near convinced that the International Cowboys had about as much chance of making it as a thirsty man in the desert. A phone call from a booking agent made it seem that there might be some hope. He asked us if we would be willing to take our act on a tour of the Southwest, where the type of music we played was most popular. He suggested barnstorming into such places as Yuma, Arizona; Roswell, New Mexico; and Lubbock, Texas. The boys and I sat down and discussed it, and we figured that we didn't have a lot to lose: might as well starve to death in a part of the country we hadn't seen. We called the man back and said, "Let's go!" To make it a fresh start, we gave ourselves a new name, taken from a famous old ranch brand that we felt had the right sound for traveling through the heart of cowboy country. We became the O-Bar-0 Cowboys—Tim Spencer, Bill "Slumber" Nichols, Cactus Mac, Len Slye, and a fiddle player known as Cyclone. Cyclone was the one with the car, an old broken-down Ford. In June of 1933, we strapped our instruments to the roof and hit the road to find our fortune.
The O-Bar-O Cowboys' tour of the Southwest made my family's trek out from Ohio look like a first-class holiday. We knew when we left Los Angeles that we weren't going to be playing in glamorous places like New York or Chicago, but no one had told us that Miami, Arizona, where we were booked one night, was now a ghost town, population zero. Down the road in Yuma, the good citizens there had never been told we were coming, and not a single person had ever heard of us. When we stood up to perform, it was in front of an audience of none. We figured we'd better learn how to drum up business, so we went to a pawn shop and found us a megaphone. Whenever we arrived in a new town, we drove up and down the street leaning out the window of the car, using the megaphone to tell everyone that the O-Bar-O Cowboys were in town. Not many people cared. We had to pay the bill at one tourist court with my wristwatch. On those occasions when actual living people showed up to hear us, we took in maybe three or four dollars apiece. Most of that money seemed to get put back into fixing the rotten old heap of a car we traveled in. We spent more time under the car then aboard it looking at scenery. Even the silver clouds had dark linings. Cactus Mac, the leader of the band, was a native of Willcox, Arizona, so when we rolled into that town, we got a hero's welcome. Boy did that feel good for a change! People turned out in droves to hear us that night. We couldn't go anywhere without getting our hands shaken and backs slapped. The townspeople were so danged friendly, however, that Cactus Mac decided he never wanted to leave home again. He quit the band on the spot, pulling his guitar out of the car and waving good-bye as we drove out of town, one member short.
When we had seven flat tires between Willcox and Roswell, New Mexico, Cyclone the fiddle player decided that he had had enough of this tour, too. He wanted to drive straight back to Los Angeles. But we had one more town to hit—Roswell— and he agreed to hang on till we finished up there.
This time, it really did seem like the end. In order to eat, I borrowed a rifle from the man who ran the radio station. I shot a stringy jackrabbit for supper, and we were happy to have it. The next night, when I couldn't find a jack, we had to make do with a hawk I shot off a telephone wire; and the third night we ate a wild blackbird I remember being nothing but gristle and bone. We tried to brew up some gravy to cover these miserable offerings, but it was so thick you could stand a fork in it.
When you get hungry enough, you spend lots of time imagining what you would eat if you had your choice, so we boys in the band sort of cooked up a game in which we imagined our dream meals out loud. We'd debate for hours about whether it would be a T-bone or a plump turkey, and whether there'd be pie or chocolate cake for dessert. When we showed up to sing at the Roswell radio station one night, visions of pork chops were dancing in our heads. One of us had a bright idea: maybe if we spoke on the air a bit about what food we liked, some nice listener might help us out. It was all planned ahead; the boys and I figured out a real full meal. Slumber Nichols said he liked fried chicken best; Cyclone rhapsodized over homemade biscuits; and I sang the praises of lemon pie (which was no lie)!
The scheme worked!
The phone at the radio station rang, and a woman on the other end of the line said that if I sang "The Swiss Yodel" the next night we were on the air, she would bake us a lemon pie and bring it down to the station.
Talk about motivation! Back at the motor court I stayed up practicing all night. My tonsils were vibrating by the time I got to the microphone, and I sang the best "Swiss Yodel" you ever heard in your life. But when the show was over, no woman and no pie had shown up, and man, was I disappointed! We drove back to the tourist court, and we weren't there long before a car pulled up and an older lady and her daughter stepped out holding two warm-from-the-oven pies. She introduced herself as Mrs. Wilkins, and said her daughter's name was Arlene. Being a healthy young male, I couldn't help but notice Arlene. She was pretty—five foot nine, ash-blond hair, with a gentle manner. But good-looking as she was, we could hardly wait for those ladies to hand over the pies and go away. We positively inhaled them. Oh, boy, they were good, with meringues as tall as Hoot Gibson's ten-gallon hat. We ate them both, including every crumb— everything but the plates they came on.
I guess Mrs. Wilkins felt real sorry for us because she invited us over for fried chicken dinner the next day. We almost fell to our knees with happiness at the prospect. Over dinner, when I was able to relax a little, I really got to looking at Arlene. I guess if there is such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. The band spent two weeks in Roswell, and I saw her nearly every day I could. When the time came to leave, it wasn't easy to drive away from her.
I left that town feeling a whole lot different about my life. I was better fed than I had been in months; I was in love; and despite the O-Bar-O Cowboys' lack of success, I had a sense that my career blues just might start to turn around. Back in Los Angeles, the singing group split up: Tim Spencer went to work bagging groceries at Safeway, Slumber Nichols landed a job at a radio station in Fort Worth, and I joined a group called Jack and His Texas Outlaws. I also spent a lot of time exchanging letters back and forth to Arlene Wilkins; and the more I got to know her the more I wanted to be with her.
I wasn't particularly happy with Jack and His Texas Outlaws, so I got in touch with Bob Nolan, who was still slingin' around other people's golf bags in Bel Air, and twisted his arm a little until he agreed to give his singing career another shot. When I went to talk with Tim Spencer, he pointed out to me that he was enjoying the regular meals he could afford now that he had a real job; but as I stood there watching him stack cans of beans and bags of flour, it didn't take a whole lot of convincing to get him to untie his clerk's apron and come along with me and Bob.
We called ourselves the Pioneer Trio, and pretty soon we got a regular spot on the Warner Brothers radio station KFWB in Los Angeles. The pay was nothing—literally—but they let us advertise that we were available if anyone wanted to hire us.
Inchworms would have grown bored measuring our success. But at least we had beds to call our own instead of sleeping on other people's living room floors and couches. We found a boardinghouse at Carlton and Bronson in Hollywood for nine dollars a week (three meals a day included) only a short walk from KFWB. Other than our performances on the morning radio show and the occasional party or dance we played, I didn't have much of a life. I ate, I slept, I wrote letters to Arlene and waited anxiously for hers, and all the other hours in the day I spent rehearsing songs. I thought that it would be a good idea to join the musicians union because it seemed to me that they would help us find work. But when I went to them, they turned me down. The reason? I couldn't read music. I played by ear. Six months later, once the band started getting some good work, I remember some fella from the union coming up to me and saying that I couldn't play unless I was a union member. I told him I still couldn't read music. He said that didn't matter; I had to pay dues. To this day, I've never had much use for that kind of organization.
The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner had a writer named Bernie Milligan who wrote a column called "Best Bets of the Day." Mr. Milligan heard us play somewhere and put us in his column. He started to mention us pretty regularly, saying we had the finest arrangements and were a good singing trio. We were doing mellow, three-part harmony yodeling, which was pretty novel in those days. The yodeling was put together with some jazzy fiddle playing and syncopated singing—kind of an early version of what they later called Western swing. Well, folks liked it a lot. And once Mr. Milligan started writing about us and we were getting that daily exposure on KFWB, things began to fall into shape. We worked harder than ever perfecting the smooth harmonies and wistful Western sound that would soon become our trademark, leading off nearly every show with a song Bob wrote called "The Last Roundup." Another columnist named Ray De O'Fan heard us sing that song and wrote, "Eating, sleeping, driving, working, or playing, this haunting melody seeks me out and taunts me."
Suddenly, we had no trouble getting bookings all around the town.
The radio station actually offered us a contract, for money: thirty-five dollars a week, apiece, paid by our sponsor, the Farley Clothing Company! I thought I was going to swallow my tongue; thirty-five dollars was like a million to me then. We did two shows a day—one in the morning as the Gold Star Rangers, and one in the afternoon as the Pioneer Trio. One day early in 1934 announcer Harry Hall introduced us as the Sons of the Pioneers. We were so flustered by that, we hardly could perform, and after the show we all gathered around Mr. Hall and asked to know what kind of trick he thought he was playing, introducing us wrong. "You're all young guys," he explained. "You don't look like pioneers." It made sense to us; I mean we didn't want the radio audience to think we were grizzled old men with long gray beards. That name stuck, and life just kept gettin' better. The only thing that didn't change much was my problem with being bashful in public. Although there wasn't a live audience, there were always five or ten people hanging around the station listening to us. To this day I'm still scared to death the first half hour I get up on stage.
The phone in our boardinghouse was ringing morning and night. All the popular radio shows of the day wanted us to perform, and to top it off we even got invited to a benefit for the Salvation Army in San Bernardino. That came about because Will Rogers had personally requested that we appear! Will Rogers was my hero. He went through hardships and came out with his wit intact. He looked at America from the poor man's side of things, not from the point of view of the rich bankers and powerful politicians who usually get their thoughts heard. After the show Will Rogers visited with the band awhile and shook our hands one last time, telling us that he and his airplane pilot Wiley Post had to get going because the next day they were heading off for Alaska. That night would be the last time anyone saw Will Rogers on stage. His plane crashed on that trip, killing all aboard.
Years later I traveled to where the plane had gone down at Point Barrow, Alaska, to pay my respects. Tim Spencer wrote a song about it. It went something like:
'Twas the fifteenth day of August, year of 1935
In Alaska's frozen land of ice and snow
Will and Wiley looked around just to set the old ship down
And to howdy with the native Eskimaux ….
Anyway, I'm sure glad to have met Will Rogers when I did.
Western groups were getting pretty popular around Los Angeles, although a lot of people still thought of what we were doing as old-fashioned hillbilly music. I remember groups with names like the Arizona Wranglers, the Texas Wranglers, Jimmy LeFevre and His Saddle Pals, and Stuart Hamblen's Lucky Stars. There was one bunch back then that called themselves the Beverly Hill Billies. Their story, believe it or not, was that they had been discovered in the backwoods of Beverly Hills by the managers of radio station KMPC, who convinced them to come down from their holler and sing on his station. They wore floppy backwoods hats and went by the names Zeke, Lem, and Ezra. Their yarn was a windy one, but they were probably the most popular Western group in the area when we were getting started with the Sons of the Pioneers.
There was some friendly competition among us Western singers. One time the Lucky Stars challenged the Sons of the Pioneers at a local rodeo—not to try and outsing each other, but to ride wild broncos. I was sure we'd win; those Lucky Stars were no cowboys, and I knew I could sit a horse pretty well. I sure was surprised when the Lucky Stars beat us hands down. Turns out they had recruited a bunch of sure-'nuf cowboys and dressed them in Lucky Stars clothes for the contest!
The Sons of the Pioneers were becoming such a hot commodity that a new outfit named Decca Records wanted us to go with them and do some recordings on the West Coast (which was then kind of a novelty; most recordings were made back East). We signed a deal that guaranteed us a penny for every record we sold, and went for our first studio session in August 1934. We recorded "Way Out There," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Moonlight on the Prairie," and "Ridin' Home." Pretty soon Liberty Pictures cast us in a cowboy movie called The Old Homestead. We sang "Wagon Wheels" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." We also sang in some Charles Starrett Westerns called Mysterious Avenger, The Old Wyoming Trail, and Gallant Defender. We appeared in one big-budget movie over at Paramount, Bing Crosby's Rhythm on the Range, which also featured Martha Raye and Bob "Bazooka" Burns, and in four of Gene Autry's earliest singing-cowboy pictures. The whole country was cottonin' up to singing cowboys and the smooth harmonizing sounds of Western music. I guess we were in the right place at the right time. It just took us awhile to get there.
In 1936 the boys and I were invited to perform at the Texas Centennial.
It was a good job, but when I accepted I had more on my mind than the show. I had been keeping up my letter writing to Arlene Wilcox during the two years since we met, and my thoughts never strayed far from her. I was no longer the struggling, hungry kid who had eaten her lemon pie in record time, and with some measure of success under my belt I felt ready to ask her to marry me. On the way to Texas, I detoured to Roswell, New Mexico. We stood hand-in-hand in the living room of her mother's house and pledged our love to each other on June 14, 1936. We were now man and wife.
Marrying Arlene made me even more eager to make something of my life.
The Sons of the Pioneers were getting good work and being paid for it, but I got to hankering for greener pastures. We went to radio KHJ in Los Angeles, and we became regulars on Peter Potter's Hollywood Barn Dance on KNX. Early in 1937, we signed a deal with Columbia Pictures to appear in a series of Westerns. In those days, a movie deal was considered the Holy Grail; it meant you were a big name. But in nearly all the pictures we made, we were only interludes in the action or voices in the background. I did manage to land a few bit parts in movies that involved a little more than singing; in The Old Corral, I was the bad guy and had a fistfight with the hero, Gene Autry. When Gene won, he forced me to sing a song at gunpoint, which was supposed to be a humiliating moment for me.
I wasn't very good at playing bad guys. I guess I wanted to win the fights; I wanted to be the hero, and I wanted to be the one whose name was on the movie marquee outside. By this time, Gene Autry's pictures were a big success, and nearly every studio in Hollywood was looking for its own singing cowboy. I heard that Universal was casting and managed to actually get a screen test there. But I lost out to Bob Baker, who went on to make quite a few musical Westerns back then. They told me I wasn't right to be a movie cowboy hero because the camera made me look like a teenager.
In the fall of 1937 I walked into a hat shop in Glendale to pick up my white Stetson, which I had left there to be cleaned and reblocked. While I was standing at the counter a big guy, about the size of John Wayne, came running through the door, wild-eyed and in a hurry. "What's all the excitement about?" I asked him. He said that Republic Pictures was holding auditions the next day for a new singing cowboy, and he needed a hat fast so he could look the part. Now, Republic already had Gene Autry, but Gene's contract was up for renewal and the word around town was that he was hoping to go to the mat to fight for the great big raise he thought he deserved. To put the pressure on Gene to keep his contract demands in line, Republic had set up these auditions to find another singing cowboy.
I didn't have an appointment, but I went anyway, unaware that the guard at the gate had orders to let in only those people with a gate pass. The guard told me to get lost.
I walked away but didn't leave, lurking around all morning hoping to figure out a plan or see someone I knew going in. Around the end of the lunch hour, I saw a large group of studio workers heading for the gate to return to work. I slipped into their midst, collar up and Stetson hat pulled down low so the guard wouldn't recognize my face and, sure enough, I got past him. About ten yards inside, though, I heard him call out for me to stop. I froze, ready to get the bum's rush. But before the guard had a chance to turn me around, I heard a friendly voice.
"Len, Len Slye! Hello!" It was Sol Siegel, the producer, who saw the guard coming toward me and knew I was about to be expelled. He remembered me as one of the Sons of the Pioneers. "I assume you're here to try out for the singing cowboy screen test," he said. "I've tested seventeen men already, and don't feel good about any of them. If you have your guitar, come on in and give it a try." I had left my guitar in my car, several blocks away. "Go get it," he said. "Don't worry, I'll make sure you get back in," he called to me as I sprinted away.
When I returned and caught my breath, I sang "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which was the theme song of the Sons of the Pioneers, and "Haddie Brown," which is a fast-paced ol' country song with a lot of flashy yodeling.
By the smile on Mr. Siegel's face I could tell he liked my work. "Len, come back in the morning and let's do a screen test," he said. He later told me that as much as he liked the music of the Sons of the Pioneers, he had never once considered me when thinking of hiring a new singing cowboy. It was only when he saw me there walking through the gate that it dawned on him that I might be right for the role. If he hadn't been walking by just when the guard was about to nail me, who knows what ever would have happened to young Leonard Slye?
I floated out the gates of Republic humming a tune, too happy to notice the suspicious "Ain't-I-seen-you-before?" look in the guard's eyes.
On October 13, 1937,1 became a contract player at Republic Pictures.
NOW AS YOU READ THROUGH ROY'S DESCRIPTION OF THOSE YEARS IN THE 1930s, YOU REALLY GET A MINDS-EYE OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON IN THE SO-CALLED "DIRTY-THIRTIES" - AND TRYING TO LIVE AS A FULL TIME MUSICIAN - NOT GOOD, NOT GOOD AT ALL. FEW OF US TODAY IN THE WESTERN WORLD, HAVE EXPERIENCED SUCH LIVING, WHERE YOU LITERALLY DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOUR NEXT MEAL IS COMING FROM.
YOU ALSO BEGIN TO SEE A HAND FROM SOMEWHERE LEADING THESE YOUNG MEN, BRINGING THEM TOGETHER WITH THEIR TALENTS.
ROY WOULD EVENTUALLY, ALONG WITH DALE EVANS AND TIM SPENCER, ACKNOWLEDGE THE ETERNAL GOD IN HEAVEN, AND ACCEPT HIS SON CHRIST JESUS AS THEIR PERSONAL SAVIOR.
SO NOW YOU SEE, THE LEADING AND GUIDING THE ETERNAL GOD WAS DOING, TO BRING TOGETHER SOMETHING THAT PROBABLY THEY DID NOT FULLY DREAM OF; SOMETHING THAT WOULD HAVE LASTING GOODNESS FOR THE WESTERN STAGE AND MUSICAL COWBOY FILMS.
SO MUCH WAS YET TO FORM AND COME TOGETHER TO DELIGHT AUDIENCES AROUND THE WORLD; AND IS STILL TODAY GIVING A NEW GENERATION PLEASURE, AS THEY COME TO KNOW ABOUT THE MOVIES OF THE MAN WHO BECAME ROY ROGERS.