Modern generations cannot fathom the fascination that previous generations had with the lore of the Old West.
During those thrilling days of yesteryear, people of all walks of life ate up tales of gunmen (good and bad), marshals, rangers, sheriffs, desperadoes, outlaws, owlhoots, cattlemen, schoolmarms, and all the other characters of Western folklore.
Which led, as so oft happens,to the creation of what some call “fakelore”–deliberately-written tales of legendary figures and of their exploits.
Such are the tales of Pecos Bill–no surname ever given.
A writer known as “Tex” O’Reilly began submitting his “Pecos Bill” stories to slick-paper magazines in 1917. And they were so popular that a collection of them was put between hard covers and published in book form in 1923.
However, by the middle 1940’s, the tales of Pecos Bill had been accepted by many as authentic Western folklore–right up there with such legendary characters as Paul Bunyan or John Henry.
This is where Roy Rogers enters the picture.
Back in 1938, Leonard Slye–who had been working as “Dick Weston” in a few Gene Autry films–was plucked from the Sons of the Pioneers by Herbert J. Yates, head of Republic Pictures, and placed in his own series of musical Westerns.
By 1945, with Autry in the service, Rogers was the most popular cowboy on the silver screen. And this popularity extended even unto radio.
On V-E Day–May 8, 1945–Roy Rogers featured tales of Pecos Bill on his rather uptown variety show–sponsored by a rather uptown Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In this sketch, Rogers was aided and abetted by members of the Sons of the Pioneers, thrush Pat Friday–and visiting guest star, character-actor Porter Hall.
So, when the Walt Disney studios decided to do an animated version of “Pecos Bill”, who better than the KIng of the Cowboys to do the narrating–and the singing of a song written for the purpose?
On December 1, 1947–in plenty of time to beat the strike that the American Federation of Musicians had called against the record companies–Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers went into RCA Victor’s studios, and recorded the song that was to be associated with this segment of the film.
A week later, Roy and the Sons went into the same studio,and recorded a six-side storyteller (with music), telling of the legends of Pecos Bill. The song was issued on RCA Victor 20-2780, coupled with “Blue Shadows On The Trail”. It was probably not much later that the storyteller set was released as part of RCA Victor’s growing “kiddie” records division. This storyteller was later reissued on 45rpm discs.
Let me acknowledge Greg Ehrbar, who covered some of this ground in an earlier Cartoon Research post here.
As it happened, Roy Rogers was not the only artist to sing of Pecos Bill – but, thanks to Walt Disney, the legendary western character and the “King of the Cowboys” will be forever linked.