The other night I saw an old western movie, Under Colorado Skies, starring Monte Hale. He was the singing cowboy Republic Pictures dug up in case Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers had to do their duty in World War Two. And Monte did a pretty good job too, but for me the real stars were Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage. My goodness, what tight, smooth harmony they had, and such great songs, Holiday for the Blues, Jimmy Crack Corn, and that old Bob Wills hit Rose of San Antone.
It seems there have been a bunch of different groups using the handle of Riders of the Purple Sage including a modern day group as well as the Jerry Garcia influenced country rock band whose most noted song was Panama Red. But the Foy Willing Riders is the one I remember most. Here’s an old 78 of Casey Jones.
In 1942 Foy and his pal Al Sloey moved to California and the band came together. In 1943 they performed often on the Hollywood Barn Dance and in 1944 their first hit record, Texas Blues, came out on Capitol Records. For the next two years they were featured on Cottonseed Clark’s All Star Western Theater and then became part of the cast of the Roy Rodgers Quaker Oats Show. Here’s one of my favorites, Cool Water.
In 1946 they were backing up Monte Hale at Republic Pictures. The exposure was great for the Riders. Two years later they did their first film with Roy Rodgers, Grand Canyon Trail, replacing the Sons of the Pioneers at Republic. They went on to do a lot more movies with Roy and Dale as well as recording with them at RCA Victor.
Then, in 1957, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage had the honor to join Gene Autry on his final tour. They performed with Gene at the Illinois State fair, on the Perry Como Show and were on Gene’s single, Johnny Red and Billy Yank. The day of the singing cowboy was over but the magical harmonies of this great group still live in the hearts of so many who love western music.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.