Three things come up whenever you read about pop singer Jimmie Rodgers. These three facts are mentioned over and over, everywhere and anywhere. But if they weren’t mentioned here, you’d probably think PopularSong.org remiss, so here goes…as quickly as possible…
1. Jimmie Rodgers is not Jimmie Rodgers, and vice-versa. In case you live under a rock, this means that the late 1950s pop sensation Jimmie Rodgers we are writing about is not the same person as “The Singing Brakeman,” the 1920s country sensation who spelled his name the same way. The original Jimmie (the country singer) has admittedly had a greater influence in the world of music, shaping the future of country, blues, and rock. But this is PopularSong.org, our purpose today is to enlighten you as to the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, pop star.
2. Jimmie Rodgers was assaulted in California in 1967 and suffered a severe 4″ skull fracture. Originally said to be a failed robbery attempt, it is now believed to be the result of a run-in with an off-duty policeman in a road rage incident. But nobody knows for sure, except the officers who fled the scene when Jimmie’s friend showed up. Jimmie spent a year recovering from the attack. He’s tried to put it behind him, but obviously the subject refuses to go away.
3. Jimmie Rodgers was not a rock and roller. Pundits point this out every time his name is mentioned, immediately after clarifying which Jimmie Rodgers they are referring to and sadly recalling the 1967 assault. They’ll say he was something of a folk singer (sort of) even though he sometimes toured with rock and rollers.
Moving right along, the first and foremost thing to understand about Jimmie Rodgers is that he was — and still is as of this writing — an extremely talented vocalist. In our brief articles covering Perry Como and Dinah Shore, we note that both had an ability to hit a high note softly. Full-throttle when they needed to be, but when a quiet high note was appropriate, they could do it like few artists before or since. Rodgers had a similar skill. Like Como, his voice alone gave the impression that he was a gentleman. Add to that talent the movie star good looks and rock and roll hairstyle of the late 1950s, and presto — you’ve got a new vocalist for a new generation.
Jimmie may have looked the part, but he was actually older than his rock and roll contemporaries, married with children, and usually retired early when on tour. And although songs like “Honeycomb” and “Oh, Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” move along at a moderate rock and roll pace, they are hardly the stuff of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis. In retrospect, these sound almost “country” after half a century.
“Honeycomb” was Jimmie’s first and biggest hit, and is straight from the great American songbook, penned by Robert Merrill (for more name confusion, see our songwriter of the month). Rodgers had always been something of a folkie at heart, and struck gold next with a haunting version of the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Give either of these a listen today, and despite Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore’s best attempts to make them sound rock and roll, the recordings are decidedly pop and would not be out of place had they been performed by Como, Shore, Frank Sinatra or Doris Day.
Jimmie’s propensity for folk songs continued throughout his recording career. Songs like “100 Miles,” “Bimbombey” and “Tucumcari” were all hits; he went on to record the Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda” and make it his own. These were folk songs to be sure, but with Hugo & Luigi’s arrangements, definitely fit more in the vein of popular song.
By 1959 Rodgers’ popularity was such that he was given his own television variety show, and was able to compel his label, Roulette, to begin recording albums consisting almost entirely of folk songs. The zenith came with 1961’s The Folk Song World of Jimmie Rodgers. Lest you envision a soundtrack of harmonicas and banjos, be assured that it was fully orchestrated and perhaps the finest “popularized” platter of folk music ever made. Jimmie managed to take folky stuff as diverse as “Mockingbird” and “Whitcomb Fair” and turn them into classics. Fans and critics alike continue to tout his version of “English Country Garden” as an outstanding presentation of an otherwise simple tune.
By 1962 Rodgers had enough of the short payments that Roulette was supposedly guilty of, and switched to Dot records and the melodic leadership of Billy Vaughn. “The World I Used to Know” was a hit from this period. Although Jimmie’s career suffered under the British invasion right along with the Bobby Darins and Pat Boones, the demand for recordings of “Honeycomb” and the earlier hits was still strong. So he re-recorded these songs to (hopefully) begin to realize better income from an allegedly more honest record label. Not sure how successful this was for Jimmie, but it did provide fans with better and fuller-sounding recordings of songs like “Honeycomb.” Unlike many re-recordings by aging artists that sound drastically reduced in quality or performance level, Jimmie was still at the peak of his career and laid down vocal tracks that were startlingly similar to the originals. Now, because so much time has passed, many of these re-recordings are actually preferred by fans, which is definitely not the norm for most artists.
Jimmie returned to the charts in a big way in 1966 with “It’s Over;” this recording shows just how strong his range and vocal stylings were. His rebound continued with more success in 1967, and then the fateful attack effectively ended his hit streak. Although Jimmie vanished from show business for quite a while, he managed to return to touring and recording, and into the early 2000s still made occasional appearances. A widely circulated video from February 2008 is evidence that, even though a shadow of his former skills, the tone and quality of Jimmie’s voice remained haunting, beautiful, incredible…
After more than half a century in the music business, Jimmie never came close to being properly compensated financially for his record sales. But he doesn’t complain at all. As fans of American popular song, the least we can do is give him proper credit for the importance of his music, and our appreciation of his outstanding vocal presentations and performances.