Thursday, February 26, 2009

4-9-1930:*******UNDER WESTERN STARS******* Roy Rogers and the true story of the OM-45 Deluxe

This unique and historically important Martin guitar was purchased used at a California pawn shop in 1933 by a young and unknown musician who would go on to live the ultimate American dream. A year before forming the seminal vocal/instrumental combo The Sons of the Pioneers, Leonard Slye scraped together the princely sum of $30.00 for this used 1930 C.F. Martin OM-45 Deluxe, his first professional quality guitar. The boy who would become cowboy legend Roy Rogers had no way of knowing that his flashy new instrument would later be recognized as being of great historical significance: it was the very first OM-45 Deluxe model guitar Martin produced, the prototype for one of Martin's rarest, most beautiful and highly coveted models.

Leonard Franklin Slye was born on November 11th, 1911. The future Roy Rogers first headed west to California from Ohio with his father, Andrew Slye, in 1930. While on a four-month visit to Leonard's older sister and her husband, the Slyes found work as truck drivers, loading up beach sand and gravel to drop off at local golf courses. Shortly after returning to Ohio, Leonard packed his bags for good and traveled back to California, convinced that his future lay on the West Coast.

At the same time, back in Nazareth, PA, C.F. Martin & Co. was also undergoing rapid change. The success of the new OM ("Orchestra Model") design with a 14-fret neck/body joint was having a major impact on the company's previously highly traditional guitar line. Frank Henry Martin, his son C.F. Martin III and James Markley (Martin's first outside sales rep.) soon realized that the custom order features Markley had filled at the request of Atlanta guitarist/banjoist Perry Bechtel could be applied to any Martin style. The first production OM guitars are noted in Martin's body assembly foreman notes as "000-28 Specials," "000-28 Perry Bechtel Models" or "000-28 Professional Models"; the OM nomenclature did not appear for the first half dozen of the new 14-fret models Martin produced in 1929. By early 1930 the term "Orchestra Model" had been made known to Martin's dealer network and the the OM was offered in Martin's Style 18 and 28. The new line was then expanded upwards, and plans to produce the OM in another, more expensive version were hatched in March of 1930. On 3-7-30 body assembly foreman John Deichman made note of the first two pearl-inlaid OM-45's. This is the initial record of Martin offering their most lavish and expensive treatment to the world's first modern flattop guitar.
Meanwhile, upon returning to California, Leonard Slye had taken a job as a peach picker, receiving a nickel for every lug he filled. By 1931, Slye's family had sold their Ohio farm and moved west to join their son, for a time finding refuge at the same migrant laborers camp that author John Steinbeck stayed in. Leonard's menial field job didn't last long, and he soon moved south to Los Angeles to try and make a living at what he loved most - music. In 1933 along with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, Leonard found work as a vocal trio for the band "Jack and his Texas Outlaws." Slye and his pals called themselves the Pioneer Trio and after securing a sponsor began to receive a whopping $35 a week paycheck. According to Roy Rogers Jr., it was around this time that his father acquired the OM-45 Deluxe which would later become synonymous with the stage and film persona of Roy Rogers. "It's worth 30 bucks to me, that's what I paid for it," said Rogers to his son at the time the Roy Rogers Museum opened in Apple Valley, California in 1967. Roy said he had purchased the guitar used at a pawn shop the year before the Sons of the Pioneers were formed. While $30 is a long way down from the $225 the guitar originally sold for new in 1930, it is not known who the guitar was originally sold to and what happened between that 1930 purchase and Slye's bargain buy a few years later.

What is certain is the information still found in C.F. Martin's records, and like many things in Martin's history, upon closer inspection the numbers often tell a previously unknown story. Comparing the timeline of Frank Henry Martin's order and expense record books with the serial number log and the body assembly foreman’s notes for the first OM-45 and OM-45 Deluxe models, it's clear that serial number 42125, the OM-45 Deluxe made famous by Roy Rogers, is the very first OM-45 Deluxe model produced.

While doing research in the Martin archives for his book, "Martin Guitars: A History," pioneering Martin guitar historian Mike Longworth noted 14 OM-45 Deluxe model guitars produced in total, all in 1930. To document the production of all instruments made this year, Longworth referred to the body assembly foreman notes, which listed model codes, shop orders and serial numbers. At this time the first step in the production of an instrument was to stamp the neck block with the serial number, which would then allow the workers in all further assembly departments to know exactly what model guitar was under construction and what parts were needed. Although there were some stand-alone orders, C.F. Martin made most guitars in batches ranging from 2 to 50 guitars in each lot. Serial numbers 42125-42126 are listed in the body assembly foreman notes under Shop Order #665 as OM-45 models, stamped April 9th, 1930.

Longworth made note of these two guitars as OM-45 models and not OM-45 Deluxes, but it was not unusual for Martin to fail to use the same wording that appeared in later catalogs when production of the first example(s) of a model were begun, as seen with the first "OM" models produced in 1929. The early chronology of these models can be determined thusly:

On 3-5-30 Frank Henry noted an order from an Akron, Ohio dealer for the very first OM-45.

On 3-7-30, foreman shop order (or S.O.) #646 for two OM-45 models was entered.

On 4-3-30, an order was entered for an OM-45 to be shipped to Oakland, CA.

The records suggest that the orders from Akron, OH and Oakland, CA represent where the first two OM-45 models Martin produced were sent.

On 4-9-30, foreman shop order #665 for two OM-45 models was entered. The serial numbers were 42125-42126 (42125 being Roy’s OM-45 Deluxe). In Longworth's personal records he notes that OM-45 #42126 has '”banjo pegs.” Longworth noted this in pen, most likely after seeing that instrument firsthand as was his habit with other such references. In Frank Henry Martin’s expense book on 4-11-30 he notes this purchase: "Inlaying 2 special guard plates for 45 guitar, $7.11.” These are the first OM-45 Deluxe pickguards (they were called “guards” or “guard plates” at the time) purchased from the New York supplier from which Martin acquired these unique parts. This record is for payment, which means Frank Henry had ordered these guards approximately two weeks prior to receiving them. This payment date also indicates that Martin either already had the inlaid pickguards in its possession when work on shop order #665 was begun, or knew they were about to arrive.

The pickguard on the Rogers guitar is unlike any subsequent Deluxe models but can also be seen in Martin's 1930 catalog, suggesting that this particular instrument is the same one seen in the catalog image. It's possible that the supplier that shipped Martin these two guards offered two versions of the piece for Martin to choose from, or that the design was changed immediately. The first unique version was fitted to Roy's Deluxe (probably photographed for the catalog prior to shipment) with the latter one going on the subsequent Deluxe model. It's also interesting to note that there is at least one record of Martin shipping a single inlaid Deluxe pickguard to an individual later in 1930.

In Martin’s order book on 5-29-30, there is recorded an order from California jobber/music chain Sherman, Clay & Co, billed to the main store in San Francisco. This order for guitars and ukuleles was shipped to the Sherman, Clay branch in Oakland, CA. Included were six Style O ukes, one OM-45 + Style D case and one OM-45 Deluxe. This is the first record of Martin using the term “OM-45 Deluxe” that has been found in the surviving archives. Comparing the foreman records and the order book, it is evident that the OM-45 guitars sent to Sherman, Clay in Oakland were serial numbers 42125 and 42126, of which only 42125 was a Deluxe model. The next listing in the order book for an OM-45 Deluxe is on 7-23-30, ordered from a Denver, Colorado dealer to be set up "Hawaiian style." C.F. Martin III took that order directly while on a sales trip.

On 7-26-30 foreman shop order #760 for an “OM-45 Deluxe - For Hawaiian Playing" is noted. This is the first record of the designation “OM-45 Deluxe” in the foreman’s notes, and is the first of the fourteen previously known Deluxe models in Mike Longworth's serial number log.

At a time when Leonard Slye and his group's breakfast was "catsup, salt and pepper mixed into water glasses", Slye made an investment in his future as a professional musician, finding the money to purchase what would go on to become one of the most iconic Martin guitars. At the time, no one had any clue that it was also the earliest example of the most deluxe modern flattop guitar the company ever offered. It is generally assumed that Slye purchased this OM already fitted with the Grover G-98 pegs seen in all early images of him with the guitar, although it was originally equipped with engraved gold-plated Grover banjo pegs. Sometime around 1939 he changed the tuners again to the sealed Kluson units with amber buttons that are still on the guitar. In the 1930s, while performing from midnight to 6am with Farley's "Gold Star Rangers," Slye placed a silver star-shaped sticker on the guitar’s top beneath the bridge, showing support for their sponsors, the Gold Star Bread Company. The sticker remains in place today.

In 1938 when Gene Autry temporarily walked out of his film contract with Republic Pictures, "Leonard Slye" became "Roy Rogers" and was assigned the lead role in "Under Western Stars." The film earned an Academy Award Nomination for best song and made Rogers an instant star, billed ever after as the "King of the Cowboys." Rogers retired his Deluxe by the mid-1940s, in favor of a larger Gibson Super 400. When the guitar was pulled from his collection in 1967 for display at the Roy Rogers museum it was placed in a glass case. Its serial number, 42125, stamped into the neck block, would years later reveal that this particular guitar has epic historical significance beyond its already documented celebrity status. How fitting that this unique OM was, unknown to its owner or anyone else, already the stuff of legend even before that fateful pawnshop encounter with a future western idol.

Roy Rogers and his OM-45 Deluxe in the 1938 film; "Under Western Stars."

Special thanks to Peter Kohman and Richard Johnston for their help with this piece. Dick Boak, Chris Thomas and Mike Dickinson at C.F. Martin for their continued support. Ken Fallon for the current photos of the guitar, and Roy Rogers Jr. for his interviews and period photos of his father.