Rogers was born Leonard Slye, the son of Mattie (née Womack) and Andrew "Andy" Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family lived in a tenement on 2nd Street, where Riverfront Stadium would later be constructed (Rogers would later joke that he was born at second base). Dissatisfied with his job and city life, Andy and his brother Will built a 12-by-50-foot (3.7 m × 15.2 m) houseboat from salvage lumber, and in July 1912 the Slye family traveled up the Ohio River towards Portsmouth, Ohio. Desiring a more stable existence in Portsmouth, they purchased land on which to build a house, but the Great Flood of 1913 allowed them to move the houseboat to their property and continue living in it on dry land.
In 1919 the Slye family purchased a farm in Duck Run, located near Lucasville, Ohio, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Portsmouth, and built a six-room house. Andy Slye soon realized that the farm alone would not provide sufficient income for his family, so he took a job at a Portsmouth shoe factory, living in Portsmouth during the week and returning home on weekends, bearing gifts following paydays. A notable gift was a horse on which young Len Slye learned the basics of horsemanship. Living on the farm with no radio, the family made their own entertainment. On Saturday nights, they often invited neighbors over for square dances, during which Len would sing, play mandolin, and call the square dances. He also learned to yodel during this time, and he and his mother would use different yodels to communicate with each other across distances on the farm.
Len attended high school in McDermott, Ohio, but after he completed his second year there his family returned to Cincinnati, where his father worked at another shoe factory. Realizing that his family needed his financial help, Len quit school and joined his father at the factory. He tried to attend night school, but after being ridiculed for falling asleep in class, he quit school and never returned.
By 1929, after his older sister Mary and her husband had moved to Lawndale, California, Len and his father quit their factory jobs, packed up their 1923 Dodge, and drove the family to California to visit Mary. They stayed for four months before returning to Ohio. Soon after returning, Len had the opportunity to travel again to California with Mary's father-in-law, and the rest of the family followed in the spring of 1930. The Slye family rented a small house near Mary, and Len and his father found employment driving gravel trucks for a highway construction project.
In the spring of 1931, after the construction company went bankrupt, Len traveled to Tulare, California, where he found work picking peaches for Del Monte. During this time he lived in a labor camp similar to the ones depicted in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. The economic hardship of the Great Depression was just as severe in California as it was in Ohio.
After 19-year-old Len Slye's second arrival in Lawndale, his sister Mary suggested that he audition for the Midnight Frolic radio program, which was broadcast over KMCS in Inglewood. A few nights later, wearing a Western shirt that Mary had made for him, he overcame his shyness and appeared on the program playing guitar, singing, and yodeling. A few days later, he was asked to join a local country music group, the Rocky Mountaineers. He accepted the group's offer and became a member in August 1931.
By September 1931, Slye hired the Canadian-born Bob Nolan, who answered the group's classified ad in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that read, "Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred." Nolan stayed with the group only a short time, but he and Len stayed in touch. Nolan was replaced by Tim Spencer.
In the spring of 1932, Slye, Spencer, and another singer, Slumber Nichols, left the Rocky Mountaineers to form a trio, which soon failed. Throughout that year, Slye and Spencer moved through a series of short-lived groups, including the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. When Spencer left the O-Bar-O Cowboys to take a break from music, Slye joined Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were a popular act on a local Los Angeles radio station.
In early 1933, Slye, Nolan, and Spencer formed the Pioneers Trio, with Slye on guitar, Nolan on string bass, and Spencer as lead vocalist. The three rehearsed for weeks refining their vocal harmonies. During this time, Slye continued to work with his radio singing group, while Spencer and Nolan began writing songs for the trio. In early 1934, the fiddle player Hugh Farr joined the group, adding a bass voice to their vocal arrangements. Later that year, the Pioneers Trio became the Sons of the Pioneers when a radio station announcer changed their name because he felt they were too young to be pioneers. The name was received well and fit the group, which was no longer a trio.
By the summer of 1934, the popularity and fame of the Sons of the Pioneers extended beyond the Los Angeles area and quickly spread across the country through short syndicated radio segments that were later rebroadcast across the United States. The Sons of the Pioneers signed a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label and made their first commercial recording on August 8, 1934. One of the first songs recorded during that first session was "Tumbling Tumbleweeds", written by Bob Nolan. Over the next two years, the Sons of the Pioneers would record 32 songs for Decca, including the classic "Cool Water".
From his first film appearance in 1935, he worked steadily in Western films, including a large supporting role as a singing cowboy while still billed as Leonard Slye in a Gene Autry movie. In 1938, Autry demanded more money for his work, and there was a competition for a new singing cowboy. Many singers sought the job, including Willie Phelps of the Phelps brothers, who appeared in early Western movies. Slye ended up winning the contest and was given the stage name Roy Rogers by Republic Pictures, shortening his first name and combining it with the surname of Will Rogers. He was assigned the leading role in Under Western Stars. Rogers became a matinee idol, a competitor with Autry as the nation's favorite singing cowboy. In addition to his own movies, Rogers played a supporting role in the John Wayne classic Dark Command (1940). Rogers became a major box office attraction. Unlike other stars, the vast majority of his leading roles allowed him to play a character with his own name, in the manner of Gene Autry.
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Rogers was listed for 16 consecutive years, from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1938 to 1955, holding first place from 1943 to 1952. In the final three years of that poll he was second only to Randolph Scott. These two polls are only an indication only of the popularity of series stars, but Rogers also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films in 1945 and 1946.
Rogers was an idol for many children through his films and television shows. Most of his postwar films were in Trucolor during an era when almost all other B westerns were black and white. Some of his movies would segue into animal adventures, in which Rogers's horse, Trigger, would go off on his own for a while with the camera following him.
With money from Rogers's films and from his public appearances going to Republic Pictures, Rogers brought a clause into a 1940 contract with the studio where he would have the right to his likeness, voice, and name for merchandising. There were Roy Rogers action figures, cowboy adventure novels, and playsets, as well as a comic strip, a long-lived Dell Comics comic book series (Roy Rogers Comics) written by Gaylord Du Bois, and a variety of marketing successes. Rogers was second only to Walt Disney in the number of items featuring his name.
The Sons of the Pioneers continued their popularity and have not stopped performing from the time Rogers started the group, replacing members as they retired or died (all original members are dead). Although Rogers was no longer an active member, they often appeared as his backup group in films, radio, and television, and he would occasionally appear with them in performances up until his death.
Rogers and Evans were well known as advocates for adoption and as founders and operators of children's charities. They adopted several children. Both were outspoken Christians after their marriage. Beginning in 1949 they were part of the Hollywood Christian Group, founded by their friend Louis Evans, Jr., the organizing pastor of Bel Air Church. The group met in Henrietta Mears's home and later in the home of Evans and Colleen Townsend, after their marriage. Billy Graham and Jane Russell were also part of this group. In 1956 the Hollywood Christian Group became Bel Air Church. In Apple Valley, California, where they made their home, streets, highways and civic buildings have been named after them in recognition of their efforts on behalf of homeless and handicapped children. Rogers was also an active Freemason and a Shriner and was noted for his support of their charities.
Rogers and Evans's famous theme song, "Happy Trails", was written by Evans; they sang it as a duet to sign off their television show. In the fall of 1962, the couple co-hosted a comedy-Western-variety program, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, aired on ABC. It was cancelled after three months, losing in the ratings to The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS. He also made numerous cameo or guest appearances on other popular television shows, starring as himself or other cowboy-type characters, such as in an episode of Wonder Woman called "The Bushwackers".
Rogers owned a Hollywood production company, which produced his own series. It also filmed other undertakings, including the 1955–1956 CBS Western series Brave Eagle, starring Keith Larsen as a young, peaceful Cheyenne chief, Kim Winona as Morning Star, his romantic interest, and the Hopi Indian Anthony Numkena as Keena, Brave Eagle's foster son.
In 1968, Rogers licensed his name to the Marriott corporation, which converted its Hot Shoppes restaurants into Roy Rogers Restaurants, with which Rogers otherwise had no involvement.
Rogers owned a Thoroughbred racehorse named Triggairo, who won 13 career races, including the 1975 El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
In 1932 a palomino colt foaled in California was named "Golden Cloud"; when Len acquired him, he renamed him Trigger. In 1932, Len met an admirer named Lucile Ascolese. They were married in 1933 by a justice of the peace in Los Angeles; the marriage failed, and the couple divorced in 1936. Len then went on tour with the O-Bar-O Cowboys and in June 1933 met Grace Arline Wilkins at a Roswell, New Mexico, radio station. They were married in Roswell on June 11, 1936, after having corresponded since their first meeting. In 1941, the couple adopted a daughter, Cheryl Darlene. Two years later, Grace gave birth to a daughter, Linda Lou. A son, Roy, Jr. ("Dusty"), was born in 1946. Grace died of complications from the birth a few days later, on November 3.
Rogers met Dale Evans in 1944 when they were cast in a film together. They fell in love soon after Grace's death, and Rogers proposed to her during a rodeo at Chicago Stadium. They married on New Year's Eve in 1947 at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma, where they had filmed Home in Oklahoma a few months earlier. Together they had five children: Robin Elizabeth, who had Down syndrome and died of complications with mumps shortly before her second birthday, and four adopted children—Mimi, Dodie, Sandy, and Debbie. Evans wrote about the loss of their daughter in her book Angel Unaware. Rogers and Evans remained married until his death in 1998.
In 1955 Roy and Dale purchased a 168-acre ranch near Chatsworth, California, complete with a hilltop ranch house, expanding it to 300 acres.. In 1965 after their adopted daughter Debbie was killed in a church bus accident in 1964, they moved to the 67-acre Double R Bar Ranch in Apple Valley, California, living in the nearby town..
Rogers was a Freemason and a member of Hollywood (California) Lodge No. 355, the Scottish Rite Valley of Los Angeles, and Al Malaikah Shrine Temple. He was also a pilot and the owner of a Cessna Bobcat.
Rogers died of congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998. He had been residing in Apple Valley, California. He was buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley, as was his wife Dale Evans three years later.
On February 8, 1960, Roy Rogers was honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for Motion Pictures at 1752 Vine Street, for Television at 1620 Vine Street, and for Radio at 1733 Vine Street. In 1983 he was awarded the Golden Boot Award, and in 1996 he received the Golden Boot Founder's Award.
In 1976, Rogers and Evans were inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and in 1995 he was inducted again as a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers.
Rogers received recognition from the State of Arkansas, appointed by the governor of that state with a Arkansas Traveler certificate.
Rogers was also twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, first as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980, and again as a soloist in 1988. To this day, he remains the only person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame twice. In 2001, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him and Dale Evans.
Rogers' cultural influence is reflected in numerous songs, including "If I Had a Boat" by Lyle Lovett, "Roy Rogers" by Elton John on his 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and "Should've Been a Cowboy" by Toby Keith. Rogers himself makes an appearance in the music video for the song "Heroes and Friends" by Randy Travis. Rogers is referenced in numerous films, including Die Hard (1988) in which the Bruce Willis character John McClane used the pseudonym "Roy" and remarks, "I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually." In the television series American Dad!, the character Roger uses "Roy Rogers" as a pseudonym in the episode "Roy Rogers McFreely".
For a number of years exhibitors voted Rogers among the most popular stars in the country:1942 – 2nd most popular Western star (following Gene Autry)
1943 – most popular Western star
1944 – 24th most popular star in the U.S.; most popular Western star
1945 – most popular Western star; 11th most popular star
1946 – 10th most popular star in the US; most popular Western star
1947 – most popular Western star
1948 – most popular Western star
1949 – most popular Western star
1950 – 19th (US); most popular Western star
1951 – most popular Western star
1952 – most popular Western star (for the 10th year in a row)
A"Hoppy, Gene and Me" also peaked at number 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 38 on the RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks chart in Canada.
"Don't Fence Me In"
"Hold That Critter Down"
"Little White Cross on the Hill"
"One More Ride"
"Ride Ranger Ride"
"That Pioneer Mother of Mine"
"Way Out There" (singing and yodeling)
"Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?"
"Hold On Partner" (duet with Clint Black)