Monday, June 28, 2010

(empo-caallii) California music? Sons of the Pioneers

Perhaps you missed this story - I put it in my Empoprise-IE Inland Empire blog because of the Victorville connection - but the contents of the former Roy Rogers Museum are being sold at auction. Yes, you can buy Trigger.

While Roy Rogers had a multi-faceted career as a movie star, museum owner, and yes, restaurateur - he also had a notable musical career as part of the Sons of the Pioneers.

The West has always had its heros but until the 1930s a distinct type of music was not part of Western lore. The public did not connect any separate genre of music to the West and the cowboy. Starting in the early 1930s the film and radio industry changed all that forever.

From the earliest days of the film industry the cowboy has been a favorite movie subject. Westerns became the bread and butter of most early studios. When musical segments were added to broaden a movie’s interest the “singing cowboy” was born. It created mega stardom for people like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and Rex Allen. Enter the Sons of the Pioneers in 1934.

The Pioneers were different right from the start. While some screen stars sang traditional sweetheart songs the Pioneers actually sang about the West. The Pioneers' songs painted unforgettable images and stories of horses, cattle, cowboys, “night herds”, tall timber, cool water, canyons and prairies. The songs were original compositions freshly penned by the original members, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer and Roy Rogers (then known as Leonard Sly). They created a whole new library of music. The group and their music garnered millions of both national and international fans through appearances in over 90 movies, numerous radio shows, major label recording projects and later television appearances.

And yes, the Sons of the Pioneers were a California band, since Roy Rogers (then Leonard Slye) had ended up in Tinseltown, following a familiar Depression route:

Leonard and his father felt imprisoned by their [Ohio] factory jobs. In 1929, his older sister Mary was living at Lawndale, California with her husband. Father and son decided to quit their shoe factory jobs. The family packed their 1923 Dodge for a visit with Mary and stayed four months before returning to Ohio. Almost immediately, Leonard had the opportunity to travel to California with Mary's father-in-law, and the rest of the family followed in the spring of 1930.

The Slyes rented a small house near Mary. Leonard and his father immediately found employment as truck drivers for a highway construction project. They reported to work one morning, however, to learn their employer had gone bankrupt. The economic hardship of the Great Depression had followed them west, and the Slyes soon found themselves among the economic refugees traveling from job to job picking fruit and living in worker campsites. (He would later read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and marvel at its accuracy.) One day Andy Slye heard of a shoe factory hiring in Los Angeles and asked Leonard to join him in applying there for work. Leonard, having seen the joy that his guitar and singing had brought to the destitute around the campfires, hesitantly told his father that he was going to pursue a living in music.

And pursue he did.

While Roy Rogers left the group in 1937, he continued to be associated with the group for years afterwards. The Sons have gone through numerous membership changes, but are still a going concern today. (Yes, another of those forever and ever amen groups.)

One interesting song in the Sons' catalog is "Old Man Atom" - see my FriendFeed thread on this song. The song was written in 1945 on Vern Partlow, but was then recorded by Sam Hinton.

Sam recorded Old Man Atom in 1950 for ABC Eagle, a small independent label.

Influential New York disc jockey Martin Block played the record on his show 'Make Believe Ballroom.' Overwhelming listener response prompted Columbia Records to acquire the rights for national distribution.

From all indications, it promised to be one of the year's biggest novelty records. RCA Victor rush-released a cover version by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Bing Crosby was reportedly ready to record Old Man Atom for Decca when right-wing organizations began attacking Columbia and RCA Victor for releasing a song that reflected a Communist ideology.

Buckling under pressure, both Columbia and RCA Victor withdrew Old Man Atom from distribution.

As Variety said at the time:

Victor has quietly withdrawn its Sons of the Pioneers plattering of “Old Man Atom” off the market. It is reported that RCA top tier execs feel that the lyrics of the novelty stresses capitulation as an ideal to be pursued by US foreign policy in light of present world conflict, with focus, of course, on Korea.

To my knowledge, right-wing groups never protested "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

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