Rogers, Jimmy 1924–1997
Jimmy Rogers 1924–1997
Although Jimmy Rogers’s rhythm guitar formed the backbone of Muddy Waters’s sound from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, he humbly allowed the spotlight to fall on others. “Of the many less-heralded players who made considerable and indelible contributions to blues recordings in the 1950s,” wrote Craig Ruskey in Blues on Stage, “Jimmy Rogers’ name remains near the top of the list.” Over time, critics identified the guitarist as an essential ingredient in the development of post-World War II electric blues. Tony Russell wrote in the London Guardian, “As the second guitarist in the Waters band … Rogers was a key figure in the development of the Chicago blues ensemble.” The recordings he made alone and with Waters during the 1950s would also influence a number of rock-n-roll players in the 1960s. “Rogers was the man who plugged into a primitive amp and blistered on the songs that fired an island of white, middle-class, British, would-be guitar heroes,” noted Colin Harper in the London Independent.
Rogers was born Jimmy A. Lane in 1924 in Rulesville, Mississippi, and was one of ten children. He later adopted the surname of his stepfather, Henry Rogers. He learned to play the harmonica, and at age 11 he made his first guitar out of a broom, using a shoe polish can to slide across the strings. He idolized Sonny Boy Williamson and listened to his live radio broadcasts from Station KFFA in Helena, Mississippi. “I would rush home every day around twelve to hear him,” Rogers told Robert Palmer in Deep Blues. “I’d be diggin’ every inch of his sounds.” By 1940 he was playing house parties in Minter City, Mississippi, receiving $12 a night and all the booze he could drink. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, for a year, where he met Howlin’ Wolf, and then traveled to St. Louis for six months to play with Sunnyland Slim.
Rogers settled in Chicago in the early 1940s, working during the day as a cabinet manufacturer and playing music at night with Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy. In the mid-1940s he met Muddy Waters and they formed a band with harmonica player Little Walter and drummer Baby Face Leroy. “They were informally known as ‘the Headhunters,’” Bill Dahl noted in All Music Guide. Dahl added, “They’d come into a bar where a band was playing, ask to sit in, and then ‘cut the heads’ off their competitors with their superior musicianship.” Rogers later told the Guardian’s Russell, “By the time the taverns closed at two o’clock we
Born Jimmy A. Lane on June 3, 1924, in Rulesville, MS; died on December 19, 1997, in Chicago, IL; son of Grozie Lane; took surname of stepfather Henry Rogers; married Dorothy Lane.
Career: Recorded with Memphis Minnie and Sunny-land Slim, mid-to-late 1940s; joined Muddy Waters’s band, 1948-1955; recorded as solo artist, mid-to-late 1950s; founded taxicab business and clothing store, 1960s; formed a band with pianist Bob Riedy, 1969; recorded Gold-Tailed Bird, 1972; guested on Rolling Stone tour, 1980s; recorded last album, Blues, Blues, Blues, with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, released posthumously, 1998.
maybe done hit four or five, maybe six different taverns.” In 1948-49 the band played at the Do Drop Inn and the Club Zanzibar in Chicago, and then traveled to Mississippi for radio and club dates. The band returned to Chicago in January of 1950 and began cutting a number of sides for Chess Records. That same year Rogers, with the help of his band mates, also released the first single under his own name, “That’s All Right.”
Rogers’s rhythm guitar filled in the empty spaces behind Waters’s lead slide guitar, giving the band a fuller and richer sound. “By the time I got to playin’ with Muddy,” he told Deep Blues, “I could back up a slide guitar good.” The band quickly came to the forefront of the Chicago blues scene. “From 1950 until about 1956 Jimmy played, toured and recorded regularly with Muddy and shares the credit for forging the sound of the Chicago blues,” noted Mike Rowe in Chicago Breakdown. In 1951 alone the band landed four songs on the R & B charts, including “Louisiana Blues,” “Long Distant Call,” “Honey Bee,” and “Still a Fool.” By 1953 Otis Span was playing piano on cuts like “Mad Love,” adding another element to the band’s sound. David Mclntyre declared in the Colorado Blues Society, “With Jimmy acting as talent scout and arranger, the Muddy Waters band took shape and molded the Chicago Blues Sound.”
While playing with Waters, Rogers also recorded several solo sessions for Chess, creating a small but important body of work. In 1955 Rogers also began working as a solo artist. Although his band was similar to that of Waters, Rogers’s style owed less to the older Delta tradition. Rowe commented that “while Muddy’s records had a dark and powerful urgency, Jimmy’s were often more relaxed and almost polished in performance.” The two artists’ singing styles were also polar opposites. “While Muddy shouted his blues in the older Delta tradition,” wrote Ruskey, “Rogers sang in a style that was as comfortable as a Sunday afternoon porch discussion with friends, and his words were easily understood.”
Rogers hit the charts in 1957 with “Walking by Myself,” but with the advent of rock-n-roll, Chess began to focus on acts like Chuck Berry. Rowe explained that “the effect [of rock-n-roll] on the blues, though not immediate, was nonetheless ultimately disastrous.” Chess believed that with his smooth vocals, Rogers had potential as a pop singer. By 1959, however, his recording career had temporarily come to a halt and he had joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band for a short time. He told Russell, “I had a nice band there for a while, [but] the blues went into a slump. Nobody was makin’ any money to amount to anything.” Lack of work and family issues were instrumental in Rogers’s decision to leave the music business in 1959. “My family was too big,” he told Russell, “and I always were a man that tried to provide for his family.”
During the 1960s Rogers started a taxicab business and opened a clothing shop. The clothing shop, however, burned down during the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In the following year Rogers formed a band with pianist Bob Riedy, and in 1972 he recorded Gold-Tailed Bird with guitarist Freddie King. Francis Davis noted in The History of the Blues, “On his own, Rogers has proved to be one of the most durable of blues performers.” At the time of his death, Rogers was busy working on a project with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards, posthumously released as Blues, Blues, Blues. “It’s easy to underestimate the role of rhythm guitarists,” wrote Ruskey. “Their job isn’t to impress with flurries of notes or stabbing leads, it’s to complement a featured artist by accenting where necessary and Jimmy Rogers excelled as a sympathetic and an incredibly important sideman.”
Gold Tailed Bird, Shelter, 1972.
Sloppy Drunk, Evidence, 1973.
That’s All Right, Black and Blue, 1974.
Living the Blues, Vogue, 1976.
Live, JSP, 1982.
Feelin’ Good, Blind Pig, 1985.
Ludella, Antone’s, 1990.
Complete Chess Recordings, Chess, 1997.
Blues, Blues, Blues, Atlantic, 1998.
Davis, Francis, History of the Blues, Hyperion, 1995, p. 194.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking, 1981, p. 200.
Rowe, Mike, Chicago Breakdown, Drake, 1975, pp. 84, 166.
Guardian (London, England), January 6, 1998, p. 14.
Independent (London, England), March 16, 1996, p. 8.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Biography Resource Center, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
Blues on Stage, http://www.mnblues.com
Colorado Blues Society, http://www.coblues.com
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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