Some years ago, Jimmie Rodgers autographed a CD for me and said, “Say hello to Bobby Cole for me.” While they were not exactly similar in style, they covered some of the same songs, had some of the same highs and lows, and ironically, wrote eerie, beautiful ballads about age and fame.
Bobby’s most legendary number is “Growing Old.” Sometimes, late at night in a club, he'd offer “So Sleeps the Pride,” a bittersweet meditation on his time in the spotlight. He never recorded it, which his fans always lamented. And Jimmie Rodgers, who did record the pensive “Child of Clay” never waxed “Leader of the Band.” It appears below via a live rendition done some 16 years ago.
Sadly (on this day that we remember the passing of George Martin at 90), in the case of both Bobby and Jimmie, there wasn’t a producer (or agent, or manager) able to take a “Growing Old” or “Leader of the Band” to some influential artist who could make it into a hit. Of course in that regard, luck plays a part. The well-connected Randy Newman hoped Frank Sinatra would cover the bitter “Lonely at the Top.” Frank never did.
James Rodgers was born September 18th, 1933 in Camas, Washington. The other Jimmie Rodgers, a legendary C&W star, had died several months earlier. By the time Rodgers began performing, there didn’t seem any reason to worry about any confusion with the long dead competition. Now, of course, any Google of “Jimmie Rodgers" will get a pastiche of both. It doesn’t help modern confusion that Jimmie’s early singles, like the 1957 hit “Honeycomb” sound quaintly country and might be mistaken for much earlier C&W fare. Jimmie also covered a lot of folk songs in those early days.
After his breakout year (aside from "Honeycomb" he also married, and made his “Ed Sullivan Show” debut), Rodgers was welcomed on live show tours around the country. In 1958 and 1959 he was on the same bill with The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, The Tune Weavers, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly among others. Yes, Jimmie was going to be part of Buddy Holly’s ill-fated winter tour, but had to cancel due to illness. Jimmie continued to have hit records, but not all the money that he deserved. This was because he was on the notorious Roulette Records, which labelmate Tommy James would later expose as Mafia-run.
In 1963, Jimmie moved over to Dot Records, and in 1967 with folk-rock now popular, signed with A&M, the label that also had faith in Phil Ochs. Rodgers’ career, which had flagged a bit, instantly gained a strong new direction via his ballad “Child of Clay.” But 1967 ended up as the worst year of his life.
Rodgers told Rolling Stone (in a 1986 "Where are they Now" piece), “"I got beaten up by an off-duty Los Angeles policeman. I went to a Christmas party in December of 1967. On the way home a car pulled up behind me, blinked its lights. I pulled over and stopped. This guy got out, stood outside the car. I rolled down the window, and he hit me through the open window with a bar or something. I don't know what transpired because I was unconscious. I might have said something to him, 'Who are you?' or whatever, and that's all it took. Whether I cut him off on the road or what, we don't really know."
It’s possible Rodgers was being vague out of worry for the still-powerful president of Roulette, who had made no secret of telling people that if they dared to leave the label they’d get the same treatment as Rodgers. Apparently the mob, following Oscar Wilde's advice ("revenge is a dish best served cold") had waited a few years for the right time to get Jimmie, which coincided with his big comeback and new hit single. Rodgers wasn’t beaten up by just one off-duty cop. There were three on the scene, and all became implicated when Jimmie ultimately sued and settled.
The cop version seemed to change from an excuse that Jimmie was drunk and had needed to be subdued after being pulled over, to the even more ludicrous insistence that Jimmie had merely fallen down and injured himself. Once he had stopped falling down and injuring himself, they’d merely put him in his car and abandoned him so he could sleep it off.
Rodgers went through three brain surgeries. His loyal pal Joey Bishop publicized the problems via his late night talk show. He interviewed Rodgers during his road to recovery, and booked Jimmie in 1969 for a comeback appearance. It was at this point that I really became aware of this singer. Yes, I sort of knew of those early hits, but it was traumatic for a kid to see a guy lying in a hospital bed half-dead, and a comedian (Bishop) somberly interviewing him and wishing him well. (Years later, when I had a chance to communicate with Bishop, I mentioned that my first memory of him was not the sitcoms or stand-up, but his talk show and his concern for Jimmie Rodgers).
Unfortunately, Jimmie’s health situation was still far from perfect: “I started having convulsions,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get back. Nobody wanted me.” The fragile ex-pop star worked for a while painting houses. He eventually found his way back to the less strenuous world of show business, and was well enough to record again…and suffer the usual problems an artist has. He went into the studio in Nashville for a session, and nothing happened. A while later, somebody had seized the masters and marketed a 2 record set on K-Tel; no profit to Jimmie. He eventually managed to buy back the masters, but it didn’t do him much good with a semi-bootleg already out for several years.
Here at the blog where Mr. Ochs is so well remembered, I do have to say that for me, the most important part of Jimmie’s career remains the A&M years, and the folk rock material, not the happy folk stuff, pop material or C&W tracks. His best new song, "Leader of the Band," echoes the mood of the introspective A&M years.
Rodgers continued his sporadic comeback of live shows, records, and original songs. He was among the aging pop stars who managed to find a home in Branson, Missouri, where he had a small theater and played to the nostalgia trade…home folks who mostly wanted to hear “Honeycomb” or ‘Sweeter than Wine” or “that song that they re-wrote for the Oh-Oh Spaghettio’s commercials!”
Rodgers left Branson for semi-retirement some years ago, and his last gig, according to his website, was in Sandusky, Ohio, in August of 2014. I’m sure he gave the crowd a lot of smiles and a helping of “Honeycomb.” I don’t know if he went to open D tuning and sang about those days when he was…”Leader of the Band.”
Jimmie Rodgers Leader of the Band