Rear View - Life of a Cowboy

Johnny Boyle sang his way into local hearts



This vintage photograph of Johnny Boyle hung at Smoke Tree Ranch for years.

Courtesy Boyle Family

It’s 1939 and you’re shivering in a gray, eastern city when into town rides a tanned cowboy with a gap in his teeth. His name is Johnny Boyle; his sidekick is a lanky cut-up named Frank Bogert. They drag a barbecue out of their woodie station wagon and pretty soon the steaks are on and Johnny is tossing the lariat and singing in his heavenly baritone about finding cool water in the desert.

Who are these strangers? The guy named Frank tells you they’re from a place called Palm Springs, where little cowpokes ride ponies down Main Street and everyone dresses Western on Fridays.

Who wouldn’t want to go to this place? That was the idea when the chamber of commerce sent Bogert and cowboy singer Johnny Boyle on a national tour to promote the city.

Today we hire fancy branding consultants to sell the desert to visitors, but I’d say we’d do well to bring back something like the Johnny and Frank road show. After all, Western movies (like 3:10 to Yuma) are hot again, and Western paintings are topping the million-dollar mark at auctions.

I’d never have known about our local cowboy singer if I hadn’t seen the film Smoke Tree Ranch: A Way of Life produced by Tracy Conrad and directed by Bill Bailey. When I tried to find out more about the singer who lit up the movie, I discovered his daughters — Linda Butler and Patti Cushingham — still live in the valley. Along with their brother, Bob, they were part of a family act that included Johnny’s Hawaiian-born wife, Bertha (her stage name was Tani). I drove to the Cathedral City Cove to visit with Linda and Patti. First I wanted to know whether Johnny Boyle was a “real” cowboy or one of those Hollywood movie cowboys popular in the 1930s.

Johnny grew up on a huge ranch in Los Angeles, where his dad was foreman. He learned to rope and ride as a boy, but later lived the life of a rich kid in Beverly Hills. Those early cowboy credentials were enough for me.

When Johnny was 20, his parents sent him to Tahiti to recover from heartbreak. There he learned to play the ukulele and guitar and returned to the States a musician. He got a gig at the Desert Inn in 1935, singing for morning rides and moonlight steak dinners.

From there, he took his repertoire of feel-good cowboy anthems to guests at Thunderbird Country Club, White Sun Guest Ranch, La Quinta Hotel, Deepwell Ranch, and other gathering places. He was the official singer for the Rancheros Vistadores, a Santa Barbara riding club for elite CEOs and statesmen.

This would all be one happy Western yarn if it weren’t for a twist. When Johnny was in his 50s, he started dragging the toes of his cowboy boots. After awhile, his legs wouldn’t work properly. He began using a cane, then two canes. He had a terrible fear the ailment was hereditary (his father and sister had lost the use of their legs) and agonized about passing it on to his kids. “He talked about it all the time,” Linda says. “He’d say: ‘This is all I have to give you.’”

Johnny died in 1977, at age 66, of a heart attack unrelated to the paralysis. “They played him singing at his own funeral,” says Bogert, adding the lyrics: “The place where I worship is the wide-open spaces.”

Years after Johnny’s death, Linda also started tripping. She now gets around with two canes or a wheelchair. Bob is similarly disabled. It was only two years ago that Duke University researchers identified a gene for the Boyle family’s affliction: a form of hereditary paraplegia.

As I left Linda’s house, I felt sad for the family’s troubles, so I rolled down my car windows and turned up a Johnny Boyle tape Linda had given me:

You say you’re feeling blue, cowboy
You don’t know what to do, cowboy
Sing, cowboy, sing
To the rhythm and the beat
Of your faithful pony feet…
Within minutes, I felt fine. That’s why people love cowboy music.

Smoke Tree Ranch: A Way of Life is available from the Palm Springs Historical Society and at www.smoketreeranch.com.

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