Hold on partner: The day Clint Black met the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers
Hayden Nicholas, best known as the songwriting and guitar sidekick of singer Clint Black, relives the serendipitous moment when a childhood dream came true in an exclusive interview dropping below.
Nicholas’ buddy had recorded “Hold on Partner,” a jaunty country duet, with none other than the quintessential King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, in early 1991. A subsequent trip to the prestigious Academy of Country Music awards in Los Angeles with his mother in tow led to a fascinating conversation between Rogers and Nicholas, heretofore kept a tantalizing secret.
In his heyday of the ’40s and ’50s, Rogers was a ubiquitous pop culture presence. A founding member of country and western purveyors the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers demonstrated his pleasing tenor voice, dexterous yodel, and rhythm guitar skills on a slew of cowboy standards including “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Don’t Fence Me In” before venturing into acting.
The genial troubadour was a natural in front of the camera, soon rising to lead roles in B-Westerns, significant box office clout, and public appearances met with impassioned screams from youngsters dressed in cowboy regalia. Gene Autry, initially the upstart’s rival, was soundly trounced in the aftermath of World War II.
Rogers transitioned seamlessly into primitive television with an eponymous series costarring Trigger, perhaps the most intelligent horse of all time, and his lovely wife, singer Dale Evans, responsible for penning the iconic “Happy Trails” as the couple’s theme song.
A marketing genius who would have been right at home in modern times, Rogers ultimately acquired the rights to his films and series. His likeness appeared on best-selling comics, cook books, lunch boxes, trading cards, apparel…you name it. He conquered every medium and then some.
The deeply religious individual was an elder statesman approaching his eighth decade as the ’90s commenced. Turning up occasionally at galas and charity events, Rogers was content to retire gracefully until producer Kyle Lehning tracked him down for a duet with Randy Travis. The baritone-voiced balladeer was traditional country music’s hottest commodity at the time, and he had decided to record his next album with his favorite artists. Consequently, Rogers gladly traded verses on “Happy Trails.”
Unleashed as Heroes and Friends in 1990, the album achieved platinum status and may in fact have convinced another Nashville-based producer, Richard Landis, to ask Rogers if he would consider recording an entire duets album consisting of classic and new material. After a bit of arm twisting and considerable doubt that he still had the stamina, Rogers agreed.
Recorded when the expert yodeler was an astounding 79 years old, Tribute still stands head and shoulders above the rest of the breed. Rogers was invigorated, taking the recording seriously and easily giving each of his partners a run for their collective money.
When the elder statesman initially glimpsed Black, he thought he had met his long-lost son. Just kidding — the striking resemblance was unquestionably uncanny. Instead, Rogers joked, “Hi Clint. I thought I got rid of all you black-hatted guys in the ‘40s.”
Black was riding a wave of unfathomable success with his triple platinum debut album, Killin’ Time, and killer follow-up, Put Yourself in My Shoes, and RCA naturally picked “Hold on Partner” as Tribute’s lead single. Nominated for a Grammy in the Best Country Vocal Collaboration category, Rogers concluded his recording career on an extremely positive note.
The black-hatted singer extended the mutual admiration society in a 1993 interview, admitting that “Roy has been an American hero, and he is one of the icons of our society. He was always that Western hero. It was such a great experience to just hang around him.” Stick around as Nicholas takes you inside his very special meeting with the King of the Cowboys.
On a personal note, I was beginning elementary school when “Hold on Partner” arrived. Obsessed with watching classic Westerns on VHS — we were considerably late cable TV adopters — when virtually none of my friends had even the slightest interest, my grandfather Paul Luke regularly teased me when I arrived home, asking, “Who is the greatest cowboy — Roy Rogers or John Wayne?” You be the judge.
The Hayden Nicholas Interview, Part Two
Did you actually play on the “Hold on Partner” session?
I don’t believe I did. The session was set up by producer Richard Landis in Nashville, and he hired a bunch of talented studio musicians — Brent Rowan/lead guitar, Steve Gibson/rhythm guitar, Paul Franklin/steel guitar, David Hungate/bass, Paul Leim/drums, Glen Duncan/fiddle, and Mitch Humphries/keyboards.
Clint basically just came in and did his vocal with Roy. We were so busy during that period of time. We were touring somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 dates a year, and we barely had time to record Clint’s second record.
What do you remember about the “Hold on Partner” music video?
Since we were on the same record label as Roy, RCA put him and Clint together to do a music video for “Hold on Partner” in order to promote the single. I was present on the set for awhile, and it was shot somewhere in California one day.
Vintage clips were interspersed from silent Westerns along with successful B-Western screen partnerships — i.e. the Lone Ranger/Tonto, Hopalong Cassidy/George “Gabby” Hayes, Gene Autry/Smiley Burnette, and of course, Roy himself.
At the time, a lot of people were always talking about how Clint resembled Roy, so the video was obviously a play on that fact. Clint wore black, while Roy wore traditional white as the hero. They sat on mechanical horses to simulate riding [laughs].
[Author’s Note: Receiving moderate airplay, “Hold on Partner” reached a Billboard peak of No. 42 Country and became Rogers’ final charting single. Tribute climbed to a respectable No. 17 during a 26-week residency, Rogers’ best ever placement on the country album chart. The album is inexplicably out of print, although used CD copies are on sale via Amazon’s marketplace. The “Hold on Partner” duet was unearthed for Sony Legacy’s Playlist: The Very Best of Clint Black compilation in June 2009].
Did you have any memorable conversations with the King of the Cowboys?
The first time that I met Roy and spent any time with him was in California, possibly at the Academy of Country Music Awards. RCA had one of their private parties, so we had dinner together.
I brought my mom, Beth Nicholas, to attend the awards with me. It was a big treat for her to get to meet Roy as well. Dale Evans, Roy’s wife, wasn’t there. He made some comment that she hadn’t been feeling too well [Author’s Note: Evans suffered a moderate heart attack in May 1992]. Ironically, she passed away three years after her husband in 2001.
The thing that sticks out in my mind about that evening was we were all talking, and my mom mentioned an old honky-tonk at the border of New Mexico and West Texas. She had seen Roy and his band — the Sons of the Pioneers — performing there in the 1930s [Author’s Note: Rogers left the group to become an actor for the second-tier Republic Pictures at the end of 1937].
Roy remembered. He said, “Oh yeah…Snuffy’s. That was a rough joint.” It was one of those places that stilled echoed the Wild West. You didn’t hang out in the parking lot type of thing [laughs]. Mom and Roy had a wonderful conversation.
Clint and I were discussing an issue that we were experiencing with our tour bus. Roy heard our plight and remarked, “That’s a little different from the way that we used to travel when we toured. We had a couple of Sedans that we took turns driving. We would just pull over by the side of the road at dusk.
“A couple guys would start gathering wood. Somebody would build a fire. The bass player [likely Bob Nolan] was the best shot, so he would take his .22 rifle out and kill two or three cottontail rabbits for supper” [laughs]. They were pretty much camping out — kinda like Elvis Presley did 20 years later during his tenure on Sun Records. Touring conditions didn’t change for awhile.
Clint and I had been talking about traveling in our one million dollar buses, and it was just kind of funny. Some food for thought, you know what I mean? Regardless, it was a great treat getting to sit and talk with Roy. That was cool.
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