James Frederick Rodgers (September 18, 1933 – January 18, 2021) was an American singer. Rodgers had a run of hits and mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. His string of crossover singles ranked highly on the Billboard Pop Singles, Hot Country and Western Sides, and Hot Rhythm and Blues Sides charts; in the 1960s, Rodgers had more modest successes with adult contemporary music.
He is not directly related to the earlier country singer Jimmie C. Rodgers, who coincidentally died the same year the younger Rodgers was born. Among country audiences, and in his official songwriting credits, the younger Rodgers is often known as Jimmie F. Rodgers to differentiate the two.
Rodgers was born in Camas, Washington, the second son of Archie and Mary Rodgers. He was taught music by his mother, a piano teacher, and began performing as a child, first entertaining at a Christmas show when he was only five. He learned to play the piano and guitar, and performed locally. After attending Camas High School, and briefly taking courses at Vancouver Clark Junior College, he went to work in a paper mill; although he loved music, he was uncertain whether he could turn it into a career. He was subsequently drafted into the United States Air Force during the Korean War. While in the military, he joined a band called “The Melodies” started by violinist Phil Clark. During his service, he was transferred to Nashville, where he was stationed at Seward Air Force Base from 1954-1956. It was during this time that he began expanding his musical repertoire. And while he was in Nashville, he first heard the song that would become his first hit, Honeycomb.
Like a number of other entertainers of the era, he was one of the contestants on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show on CBS television; he won $700. When Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore left RCA Victor for Morris Levy’s company, Roulette Records, they became aware of Rodgers’ talent and signed him up.
In the summer of 1957, he recorded his own version of “Honeycomb”, which had been written by Bob Merrill and recorded by Georgie Shaw three years earlier. The tune was Rodgers’ biggest hit, staying on the top of the charts for four weeks. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Over the following year he had a number of other hits that reached the Top 10 on the charts: “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again”, “Secretly”, and “Are You Really Mine”. Other hits include “Bo Diddley”, “Bimbombey”, “Ring-a-ling-a-lario”, “Tucumcari”, “Tender Love and Care (T.L.C)”, and a version of Waltzing Matilda as a film tie-in with the apocalyptic movie On the Beach.
In the United Kingdom, “Honeycomb” reached number 30 in the UK Singles Chart in November 1957, but “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” climbed to number 7 the following month. Both “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again” were million sellers.
The success of “Honeycomb” earned Rodgers guest appearances on numerous variety programs during 1957, including the “Shower of Stars” program, hosted by Jack Benny, on October 31, 1957, and the Big Record with Patti Page, on December 4, 1957. Rodgers also made several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, including on September 8, 1957, and November 3, 1957. In 1958, he appeared on NBC’s The Gisele MacKenzie Show. Also in 1958, he sang the opening theme song of the film The Long, Hot Summer, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Orson Welles. He then had his own short-lived televised variety show on NBC in 1959.
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Head injuries, surgeries, lawsuits
On December 1, 1967, Rodgers suffered traumatic head injuries after the car he was driving was stopped by an off-duty police officer near the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles. He had a fractured skull and required several surgeries. Initial reports in the newspapers attributed his injuries to a severe beating with a blunt instrument by unknown assailants. Rodgers had no specific memory of how he had been injured, remembering only that he had seen blindingly bright lights from a car pulling up behind him.
A few days later, the Los Angeles Police Department stated that off-duty LAPD officer Michael Duffy (at times identified in the press as Richard Duffy) had stopped him for erratic driving, and that Rodgers had stumbled, fallen and hit his head. According to the police version, Duffy then called for assistance from two other officers, and the three of them put the unconscious Rodgers into his car and left the scene. This account was supported by the treating physicians who had first blamed the skull fracture on a beating; by the latter part of December, they concluded that Rodgers had in fact fallen and that had caused his injuries.
The following month, Rodgers filed an $11 million lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, claiming that the three officers had beaten him. The police and the L.A. County District Attorney rejected these claims, although the three officers (identified in the press as Michael T. Duffy, 27; Raymond V. Whisman, 29, and Ronald D. Wagner, 32) were given two-week suspensions for improper procedures in handling the case, particularly their leaving the injured Rodgers alone in his car. (He was later found by a worried friend.) Duffy had had a previous four-day suspension for using unnecessary force; he had used a blackjack on a juvenile.
The three officers and the LA Fire and Police Protective League filed a $13 million slander suit against Rodgers for his public statements accusing them of brutality.
Neither suit came to trial; the police slander suit was dropped, and in 1973 Rodgers elected to accept a $200,000 settlement from the Los Angeles City Council, which voted to give him the money rather than to incur the costs and risks of further court action. Rodgers and his supporters still believe that one or more of the police officers beat him, although other observers find the evidence inconclusive. In his 2010 biography Me, the Mob, and the Music, singer Tommy James wrote that Morris Levy, the Mafia-connected head of Roulette Records, had arranged the attack in response to Rodgers’ repeated demands for unpaid royalties he was due by the label. All of Rodgers’ most successful singles had been released by Roulette, who were notorious for not paying their artists for their record sales.
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Rodgers died on January 18, 2021, at the age of 87.
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Other Notable Musicians’ Deaths…
18: Maria Koterbska, 96, Polish singer; Josep Mestres Quadreny, 91, Spanish composer; Claudia Montero, 58, Argentine classical composer, Latin Grammy winner (2014, 2016, 2018), cancer (death announced on this date); Jimmie Rodgers, 87, American pop singer (“Honeycomb”, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, “Secretly”); Yvonne Sterling, 65, Jamaican reggae vocalist, stroke.
17: Ebe Gilkes, 90, Guyanese pianist (Ebe Gilkes Quartet); Ghulam Mustafa Khan, 89, Indian classical singer; Junior Mance, 92, American jazz pianist and educator; Sammy Nestico, 96, American jazz composer and arranger; Joan Eloi Vila, 61, Spanish guitarist.
16: Jason Cope, 43, American guitarist (The Steel Woods, Jamey Johnson); Pave Maijanen, 70, Finnish musician (Hurriganes, Dingo), complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Chris Murphy, 66, Australian talent manager (INXS, Models), lymphoma; Rapper One, 41, Peruvian rapper, pneumonia from COVID-19; Phil Spector, 81, American Hall of Fame record producer (Wall of Sound), musician (The Teddy Bears), and convicted murderer, founder of Philles Records, COVID-19; Muammer Sun, 88, Turkish composer, multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.
15: Le Thu, 77, Vietnamese-American singer, COVID-19.
14: Antún Castro Urrutia, 74, Colombian musician and actor; Elijah Moshinsky, 75, Australian opera, theatre and television director; Duranice Pace, 62, American gospel singer (The Anointed Pace Sisters); Joanne Rogers, 92, American pianist and puppeteer (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), heart disease; Larry Willoughby, 73, American country singer-songwriter (“Building Bridges”, “Operator, Operator”) and music executive, vice-president of A&R at Capitol Records, COVID-19.
Rogers met Sara Joanne Byrd (called “Joanne”) from Jacksonville, Florida, while attending Rollins College. They were married from 1952 until his death in 2003. They had two sons, James and John. Joanne was “an accomplished pianist”, who like Fred earned a Bachelor of Music from Rollins, and went on to earn a Master of Music from Florida State University. She performed publicly with her college classmate, Jeannine Morrison, from 1976 to 2008. According to biographer Maxwell King, Rogers’ close associates said he was “absolutely faithful to his marriage vows”.
13: Tim Bogert, 76, American rock bassist (Vanilla Fudge, Beck, Bogert & Appice, Cactus), cancer; Duke Bootee, 69, American rapper and songwriter (“The Message”), heart failure; Henri Goraïeb, 85, Lebanese pianist; Sylvain Sylvain, 69, American guitarist (New York Dolls), cancer.