ROY SPEAKS…..early years
It was spring of 1930 when the Andy Slye family, like so many preceding them, loaded their most essential belongings into their 1923 Dodge and pointed it in the direction of California, chasing once again the promise of a better life.
The constant battle of two-dollar woes and the slim prospect of a more prosperous future were the journey's chief motivating factors. The Great Depression was casting its clouded pall over the country, and the Styes were no different from the literally thousands of Americans who looked toward California as the place where their hard luck would change.
Years later, financial hard times well behind him, Roy Rogers would read The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's moving account of Dust Bowl refugees migrating west in hope of a better tomorrow, and would marvel at its accuracy. "There are parts in that book," Roy says, "that made me wonder if maybe Mr. Steinbeck wasn't looking over the shoulders of the Slye family."
He, his father, and his cousin Stanley Slye, after a succession of short-lived jobs, joined the legions of new arrivals traveling from one orchard to another, picking fruit for low and often irregular wages. They would work long hours, their day's service ending only with the welcome arrival of darkness. Then they would climb into their pickup and travel in the direction of the next orchard in need of harvesting. Makeshift campsites along the way became a familiar sight, and impromptu communities would spring to life in the clearings off the highways.
"Food was about the only thing more scarce than money" he remembers, "so we ate a lot of fruit. But after a while you get to a point where you figure if you have to eat another peach or handful of grapes you'd just as soon starve to death. So I made me a slingshot and every once in a while got lucky hunting rabbits."
One evening the wearied Slye clan sat around their camp-fire, glad that their day in the orchards was behind them, and all but hypnotized by the aroma of the coffee and frying rabbit. They were anxiously anticipating their first meal of the day.
"All at once," Roy remembers, "there were several little kids standing around, sad-faced and wearing about the worst-looking clothes you ever saw. A couple of mangy-looking dogs that were with them stood, just looking, every bit as silent as their little masters. Nobody said anything; they just stood there, looking over at that frying pan.
"It wasn't too hard to read their minds."
Thus on that particular evening the Slye's meal was limited to cups of the coffee Andy had brewed. The fried rabbit, cut into as many portions as possible, was quickly and enthusiastically consumed by the youthful visitors to the campsite.
Afterwards, spirits lifted as stomachs welcomed a new warmth. The youngsters stayed to talk and listen as their hosts entertained with music. Leonard Slye strummed his guitar and sang while Andy and Stanley played their mandolins and provided harmony.
In time, nightly sing-songs would be a familiar occurrence for those migrant workers who stayed the night near the Slye camping spot. On occasion there would even be enough energy left for members of the movable population to enjoy a square dance under the California stars. Never much of a dancer, Leonard Slye would generally serve as caller.
It was music, then, which would briefly relieve the Slyes and their evening visitors of the burdens they had carried through the day. The music brought smiles to faces which seldom had other occasion to smile; it cheered the cheerless and replaced bone-wearing drudgery with a few hours of fun.
It was on those long ago evenings that young Leonard Slye, still seeking the proper direction for his life, first really recognized the importance and purpose of music. Up to that time it had been little more than a joyfully accepted but taken-for-granted part of his life. In the Slye home, he will admit today, there were occasions when material goods were in short supply. There was, however, always plenty of happiness and music.
After a couple of months of nonproductive job hunting and almost nonpaying fruit-picking, Dad got word that a Los Angeles shoe company was hiring. There was a resignation in his eyes that I'll never forget. He didn't say as much, but I knew how he hated the idea of returning to that line of work. "A man takes what's available to him, son," he told me. "You coming along?"
A long silence passed between us. It answered him better than I was able to. "Dad," I said, "the only thing that I really have an honest good feeling for is music. It makes me happy, and my playing and singing seems to make everyone else happy. If I can talk cousin Stanley into it, I'd like to take a try at being a musician. From what I hear, there are always a lot of social meetings and parties and square dances to play at. Some of the better groups are even working on the radio a lot.
"I'd be crazy to say that I know how it'll work out," I continued, "but I'll never know until I give it a try."
Looking back on it now, I can see that there probably isn't a person in the world who better understood what I felt, what I was trying to say, than Andy Slye. What he realized, I suppose, is that more than a little of himself had rubbed off on his son. He wished me well and went to the shoe factory alone.
I'll not ask for a show of hands of those of you who remember a couple of skinny hillbilly-looking singers who called themselves The Slye Brothers. Their debut caused not a ripple. Their earning power was limited to depending on the generosity of square dancers and partygoers who saw fit to drop a little something in the hat as it was passed. We never had any trouble lifting the hat after it had made the rounds. Leonard and Stanley Slye were, to put it mildly, several light years away from being household names in the West Coast music business.
There were times, though, when it looked as if we were on our way. One night, after hearing us play at a square dance, this fellow who identified himself as an agent said a lot of nice things about the way we were singing. He suggested we get together for a cup of coffee after the dance. Before you knew it, he was talking about booking us into some theaters, maybe even working up some kind of tour.
The few places we did work weren't exactly the Hollywood Bowl and, as it was explained to us, the money we were earning was somehow being eaten up by expenses. Pretty soon the "agent" disappeared, and the not-so-famous and not-so-smart Slye Brothers were back to passing the hat.
"Len," Stanley finally said one day, "we've got to talk. Let's go get a piece of pie." I had this old motorcycle then, and we rode all the way into downtown Los Angeles to this place where you could get half a pie for a dime.
"We're getting nowhere fast," Stanley said—something of an understatement. "I'm ready to call it quits and see if I can find a job that has a pay-check to go with it. Besides, if I stick with it we're liable to run across that 'agent' of ours somewhere along the line, and I'm afraid they might put me in jail for what I would do to him."
"Being the kind of fella he obviously is," I said, "we'd probably have to stand in a long line just to get our chance."
We laughed, finished our pie, and with no great fanfare or additional speeches abolished The Slye Brothers. I went in search of the next step in my own limping musical career.
Trying to somehow convince myself that experience was almost as valuable as money, I played a while for a group called Uncle Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies. Uncle Tom also placed high value on experience, and therefore never felt a need to offer me any kind of salary for my contribution.
A small radio station in Inglewood announced that it planned to conduct an amateur singing contest, and Mom and Mary urged me to enter. I decided I might as well, inasmuch as I was about as close to an amateur singer as they were likely to find anywhere.
As the date of the contest neared, everyone in the family got very excited about attending to serve as my personal cheering section. The more excited they got, the more nervous I got. When the big night finally arrived, I would have gladly traded the guitar I had bought back in Ohio for a spot on the assembly line down at the shoe factory. Singing with Stanley at dances and small parties or joining into the harmony with The Hollywood Hillbillies had been one thing; going up on a stage to compete against a bunch of other singers, each of whom I was thoroughly convinced was far better than I, was something else entirely.
When my name was called I froze to my chair. Mary nudged me with an elbow a couple of times, gently at first and then with a little more enthusiasm. "Len," she finally said, making no attempt at masking her rising anger, "we've come all the way down here to hear you sing. I sewed that fancy shirt for you and Mama ironed your pants. So get up right now and go up there and show them how good you can play and sing."
It was useless to try to explain to her that if my legs wouldn't work—which they suddenly didn't seem to want to do—there certainly was no reason to believe my vocal cords were going to behave any better.
I'll skip the O. Henry ending to this little tale by simply stating that I did not win. I didn't even place. The truth is, the only real applause for my efforts came from the row of seats occupied by members of the immediate Slye family.
The following day, however, I got a call from a man who identified himself as the manager of a Western music group which called itself The Rocky Mountaineers. He said he had liked my singing and wanted to know if I was interested in joining his group. It had, he explained, a regular weekly program on a station in Long Beach and, while they received no pay for the show, they were allowed to use air time to plug the fact that they were available for parties and dances.
Not exactly swamped with offers at the moment, I jumped at the chance.
My association with the Mountaineers didn't exactly jump me into another tax bracket, but it did provide me with my first introduction to a couple of musicians who would later rank among the greatest that Western music has ever known.
Bob Nolan, an outstanding baritone who had just come to California from his native Canada and was a lifeguard at Santa Monica beach, joined the group shortly after I did, but left when he became aware that paydays were going to be few and far between. Though destined to become an outstanding songwriter, he took a job as a caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club. I've always wondered if he came up with the words and music to some of his outstanding compositions like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" while hauling some golfer's bag around the plush, manicured Bel-Air course where, to be sure, never a tumbleweed tumbled.
Our advertisement for a baritone and yodeler to replace Nolan was answered by Tim Spencer, one of the thousands who had left Oklahoma's Dust Bowl in search of a more prosperous life in California. In the years to come that prosperity would be realized; Tim would write literally hundreds of Western tunes. Among my favorites were "Pioneer Mother of Mine," a song I still have trouble singing because it reminds me so of my mother, and "Roomful of Roses," which originally stayed on the Hit Parade for three months and is revived by someone every couple of years. In fact, just a couple of years ago, Mickey Gilley, the country-western singer, recorded it, and it immediately climbed to number one on the country-western charts.
Even with talent like that of Nolan and Spencer, however, it was hard going. One member of the group was married, and several of the others lived in a small house with him and his wife. The living room floor looked like a campground every night.
It was easy to see that an arrangement like that couldn't go on forever. And, sadly, it didn't. The time eventually came when people were dropping out faster than we could find replacements. The Rocky Mountaineers soon went the way of The Slye Brothers and The Hollywood Hillbillies.
But, to the everlasting credit of this crazy business, there's always another group waiting to be formed, certain that it will be the one to make it big. I was just too stubborn to give it up; Tim hadn't been at it long enough to be completely disenchanted; and Slumber Nichols, another holdover from the Mountaineers, said he didn't have anything else to do but sing and go hungry. So we joined a group which called itself the International Cowboys and were soon back on the radio, singing for free. How's that for progress?
Enter another booking agent.
Resigned to the fact that a breakthrough for a new group was all but impossible in the Los Angeles area, where there seemed to be a bunch of guys singing Western music on every street corner, we talked about the possibility of trying a barn storming tour, hitting the smaller towns in other states. The aforementioned agent, who to the best of my recollection was selling time on the radio station, said he would like to add a touch of refinement to our plan. He suggested a "Southwestern tour," taking our kind of show to a part of the world where good western music was properly appreciated—Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Once he knew that a member of the group had an automobile, he assured us he would set the dates for us and we could get on the road.
When you're singing for free and have already accumulated a pretty sizable list of past failures, you understand, you grab at promises. Road map in hand, five of us from the International Cowboys hit the road to begin what has to be one of the most unsuccessful musical tours in entertainment history. Our new name, we decided, would be the O-Bar-O Cowboys.
Our first stop was Yuma, Arizona, where, despite the assurances of our "agent," not a single person in town had ever even heard of us, much less made preparations for a show. We never made a nickel in Yuma.
Next stop, Miami, Arizona. They were expecting us there, but not for another week. We were forced to take a week's vacation in Phoenix, which we needed like we needed four heads. We got on a radio station in Phoenix to advertise our appearance in Miami, which was a copper mining town.
But nobody bothered to tell us that the mines had long ago closed and that the town was just a few stubborn souls away from being officially a ghost town. We rode up and down main street with megaphones announcing our appearance that evening. Again, as in Yuma, we made no money; we were getting nowhere fast. We paid the bill at our tourist court with my wristwatch, just to get out of town.
There probably aren't a lot of people in the country who can tell you much about the little community of Safford, Arizona, but to this day it remains one of my favorite spots. It was there, after all our dead ends, that we found a paying job. Our performance netted us four dollars apiece, and to the man we were certain we had at last found the mother lode.
Our next stop seemed like a sure thing. Wilcox, Arizona was the hometown of one of the members of the group, so it stood to reason that this triumphant return would provide a sizeable audience. Sure enough, when we got there, there were signs everywhere saying, "Welcome Home Cactus Mac." "Hometown Boy Makes Good in Hollywood," and generally proclaiming a hero's welcome.
We got our crowd all right, but the enthusiasm shown by the citizens of Wilcox caused our leader Cactus Mac to break out in a thundering case of homesickness. He announced to the group that he had thought about it and had decided to just stay there in Wilcox where he belonged and give up the music business. Our fiddle player owned the car and wanted to return to Los Angeles, so at three o'clock in the morning we had to talk him into going on to Roswell, New Mexico, which was our next booking.
It was in June of 1933 that we arrived in Roswell, short on money and again ahead of the schedule which had been set for us. We pooled our finances and came up with a grand total of two dollars. I got to thinking maybe we all should have stayed in Wilcox.
But when in a bind you make do. We talked the manager of a tourist court into extending us credit until after we were paid for our show, and went to the local radio station where the manager agreed to let us go on the air and sing a few songs to promote ourselves. He even loaned us a rifle so we could do some rabbit hunting, since it was unlikely that any of the grocery stores or restaurants were going to be interested in extending credit to a less than prosperous-looking group of musicians passing through.
We lived pretty well on cottontails and jack rabbits for quite a while. But even the rabbits became scarce in a week or so. One day all we could bag was a hawk, which we tried to boil on a hotplate in the room. We were hungry, and it tasted good, but suffice it to say it won no cooking prize, nor could it be remotely compared to any kind of homestyle meal any of us had ever experienced.
So it was time to dust off the old ploy which had worked on occasion back in California. It was almost tradition for singing groups working on radio to make some kind of offhand mention of food during the course of a broadcast, hoping that someone out there in radio-land would get the hint and drop by the station with a cake or a pie or maybe a plateful of fresh-baked cookies—anything but rabbit.
Between songs on the Roswell station the subject of food came up right on cue, and I said something like, "I'd just about give my left arm for a piece of lemon pie like Mom bakes back home." It would prove to be not only my most sincere but best performance of the tour.
No sooner were we off the air than a young lady called and said if I would do "The Swiss Yodel" on the air the following day she would come running with a whole lemon pie. I practiced the song well into the night and, to hurry along delivery as much as possible, opened the next day's show with it. It probably wasn't the best rendition of the song ever done, but I bet it's never been done with more enthusiasm.
When we got off the air, however, there was no young lady, no lemon pie. Spirits collectively fell as we loaded into the car to return to the tourist court. And rose dramatically when, on our arrival, we saw a woman and a young girl standing at our door, each of them holding still-warm lemon pies.
"I'm Mrs. Wilkins from across the street," she said, "and this is my daughter Arlene, who called you at the station. She loved your 'Swiss Yodel.'"
Arlene smiled but didn't say anything. Neither did I. I was standing there with my mouth open, having forgotten about the pies for the moment, looking at the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. Don't ever believe anyone who tries to convince you there's no such thing as love at first sight.
The next day I delivered the empty pie plates to the Wilkins's house, came to the conclusion that she was even prettier than I had first thought, and returned to the group with the welcome news that we had been invited over for fried chicken that evening. Things were looking up.
Mrs. Wilkins's fried chicken dinner was far more successful than the show we eventually put on. We didn't even draw enough people to pay for our lodging. We were finally saved by the local Lions Club, which agreed to let us do a square dance for them. We made enough money to pay our bill at the tourist court and get the repair work done on our car as we traveled into the Texas Panhandle. We reached Lubbock, Texas, then, in a familiar state: so broke we couldn't pay attention.
The less-than-enthusiastic reception there did it. Enough, we decided, was enough. We had made enough money to make it home, so, cancelling the remainder of our tour to nowhere, we headed back toward California. Slumber Nichols got himself a job with a radio station in Fort Worth, Tim Spencer went to work for Safeway, sacking groceries, and I joined a group called The Texas Outlaws. When I wasn't working on radio KFWB, I was writing letters to Arlene Wilkins in Roswell, New Mexico.
I kept thinking that it was possible to make a go of being a musician. All you had to do to know that it wasn't impossible was listen to the records they were playing on the radio or go out to see live performances that had seats filled with admission-paying customers.
Allowing him what I considered a proper amount of time to forget some of the hardships of our abortive past efforts, I sought out Tim Spencer. He quickly pointed out to me that he was fast coming to enjoy eating regularly and having a little money in his pocket. It didn't make my mission any easier.
"Tim," I told him, "I want to make one more try at it. I've come too far to stop now. Let's you and me go find Bob Nolan and try it as a trio. I believe we can make it."
Once a musician, always a musician. Tim agreed to have a go at it. So did Bob Nolan. The Pioneer Trio was born and began rehearsing around the clock for its debut on an early morning show on KFWB with Jack and His Texas Outlaws. Of course, there would be no pay.
But, lo and behold, a man named Bernie Milligan, a columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner, put an end to that. Having heard us on the radio, he touted us in his "Best Bets of the Day," and suddenly the station agreed to put us on the staff at thirty-five dollars a week each. We left the Outlaws and soon were working on a regular basis, earning enough money to hire staff musicians and add a talented fiddle player named Hugh Farr.
The Pioneer Trio soon became known as The Sons of the Pioneers. Whatever it was we were doing was working, and none of us was about to spoil things with a lot of analyzing. We picked up a radio sponsor, did an occasional guest spot on even bigger radio programs, did a little movie background work, and suddenly weren't having to go hat in hand looking for playing dates. In fact, we were working almost every night.
One particular show we did comes to mind. There was a Salvation Army benefit being held in San Bernardino where Will Rogers, the folksy Oklahoma cowboy who had captured the nation's heart with his homespun wit, was appearing. Having heard us perform, he had personally asked that we do the show with him. It was a great thrill to share the stages with him, and after the show was over we stood around talking for quite some time.
Finally, he said he had to be going. "Gotta get some rest," he said. "Me an' Wiley Post are taking off for Alaska tomorrow."
Little did we know at the time that we had worked with Will Rogers in his last public appearance. The saddening news came on August 15, 1935 that he and his pilot Post had died in a crash near Port Barrow, Alaska. I have since visited that spot, while on a hunting trip in Alaska.
The following year the state of Texas was celebrating its Centennial in Dallas, and the Sons of the Pioneers were invited by Governor James V. Allred of Texas to entertain the thousands who would come to the State Fair Grounds in Dallas to join in the festivities.
I wrote Arlene to tell her that we would be coming her way and offered a suggestion. En route to Dallas, then, I stopped by the Wilkins's house—not for a piece of lemon pie but instead a slice of wedding cake. In the living room of her family's home we were married on June 14, 1936, and went to Dallas to combine our honeymoon with the one-hundredth birthday of Texas.
Leonard Slye, feeling pretty good about himself, was definitely on a hot streak.