Friday, August 5, 2011

Blues Legends - Jimmy Rogers

Muddy Waters' band, circa 1954.  Waters is at far left, Jimmy Rogers at far right
In many ways, Muddy Waters' bands were similar to Miles Davis' groups in was often a starting-off point for many blues stars of the future.  A partial list of musicians who got their start with Waters, then moved on to their own successful solo careers includes harmonica players Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, and Paul Oscher, guitarists Luther Tucker, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, John Primer, John Primer, Sammy Lawhorn, Buddy Guy, and Bob Margolin, piano players Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.....a pretty impressive list. 

One of the best of them all was Ruleville, Mississippi's Jimmy Rogers, who served as second guitarist in Waters' first band for most of the early 1950's.  He got his start playing harmonica with a group of players that included Snooky Pryor, but soon learned to play guitar.  He played in Mississippi, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago, but settled in Chicago in the early 40's, learning at the feet of the established stars of the time (Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Big Maceo Merriweather, Memphis Minnie) and also playing on Maxwell Street.

In the late 40's, Rogers was playing harmonica with guitarist Blue Smitty, who then welcomed Waters into the group.  When Smitty left, Waters brought in Little Walter and Rogers moved to second guitar.  That band was dubbed "the Headhunters" for their habit of dropping by other musicians' gigs and "cutting their heads" by outperforming them on their own stage or even stealing their gigs outright.  During this time, Chess decided to record Rogers as a solo act and some of his recordings  are considered blues standards today, such as "Walking By Myself," "Ludella," "Chicago Bound," "Sloppy Drunk," "That's All Right," and "You're The One."  He also was an indispensible session musician for Chess, backing Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson on several recordings.

"Walking By Myself" was inspired by a song ("Why Not") T-Bone Walker recorded during a Chicago session where Rogers backed him on second guitar.  It ended up being the only song of Rogers' that charted on Billboard's R&B charts, because in the late 50's, blues was being supplanted by R&B and Rock & Roll, not only on the charts, but also at Chess.  Though Rogers' material was as strong as when he started, his singles output decreased to nearly nothing.  After a short gig playing guitar in Howlin' Wolf's band, Rogers basically retired from the business in the early 60's, driving a cab and later running a clothing store on the West Side.

In the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Rogers' store was burned to the ground during the riots that followed.  He gradually returned to performing around the Windy City, joining a European tour in the early 70's and eventually returning to the studio (first for Leon Russell's Shelter label, backed by the Aces and Freddy King, then with Black & Blue, and a later 70's session with Muddy Waters) and performing semi-regularly.  By the early 80's, he was back to being a full-time musician. 

Throughout the 80's, Rogers performed regularly, but recorded infrequently.  What he did release was very good, including a live session with Ronnie Earl in the early 90's and a set backed by Rod Piazza.  The standout recordings were a part-live/part-studio recording on Antones with all-star backing (Ludella) and a fantastic session for APO, called Blue Bird, that he recorded with his son, Jimmy D. Lane on second guitar and Chicago harp wizard, Carey Bell.  Below is a song from a mid 80's appearance in Antones' ("You're Sweet," with Kim Wilson on harp), a mellow track recorded in the late 70's with Left Hand Frank Craig, "Fishing In My Pond," and a track from Blue Bird, "I'm Tired of Crying Over You."

Rogers' final album, Blues Blues Blues, was a star-studded affair with many, and I do mean MANY rock musicians who recognized him as an influence.  Ordinarily, I look at these types of recordings, blues artists teaming up with various and sundry rock and rollers, with a sketical eye....mainly because the rockers tend to overwhelm the bluesmen in most cases (see Carlos Santana) and it usually ends up being, say, a Santana song instead of a John Lee Hooker song.  Your mileage may vary...that's just how I see it.  The guest list for Blues Blues Blues included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Stephen Stills, Jeff Healey, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Carey Bell, and Johnnie Johnson.  Naturally, Rogers was overwhelmed in some cases, but for the most part, it actually part maybe because Rogers had often served in a secondary role behind larger-than-life figures like Muddy and the Wolf, so it was a role he fit into comfortably.  One of the better songs on the disc was the track featuring Rogers and Healey, "Blow Wind Blow." 

By the time Blues Blues Blues was being recorded, Rogers was already ill with colon cancer.  Shortly after completing the recording and following a successful tour, Rogers was hospitalized and underwent surgery.  He developed complications and died on December 19, 1997 at age 73.  His death occurred during that terrible six-month period in 1997 and 1998, when Luther Allison, Johnny Copeland, Junior Wells, Fenton Robinson, and Junior Kimbrough all passed away.

Today, Jimmy Rogers is rightfully acknowledged for his role in the formation of the classic postwar Chicago Blues sound.  His role in Waters' band cannot be overstated.  His rapport with Waters was second to none.  He played a major part in bringing Otis Spann into the group, and he helped Waters keep good harmonica players in the band after Little Walter departed for a solo career.  His recordings for Chess in the 50's were widely influential and when he returned in the 70's, he had barely lost a step and remained a vital part of Chicago's blues scene until the end. 

Selected Discography

His Best (MCA/Chess) - This set is for casual fans who just want to hear the highlights of Rogers' recordings with Chess.  It includes 22 songs, the cream of the crop, with backing musicians like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, and Otis Spann, among others.  Rogers moves effortlessly from the pure blues of the early 50's to the more rock & roll-influenced sounds of the latter part of the decade.  If you're an average blues fan, this is the disc for you, but if it's not enough, then you need to check out.......

The Complete Chess Recordings (MCA/Chess) - 51 tracks, covering Rogers' entire recorded legacy at Chess.  It may be more than the average fan would want, but trust me.....if you do pick it up, you won't be sorry because EVERYTHING Rogers recorded for Chess was of the highest quality.  There's not a bad song in the bunch.

Sloppy Drunk (Evidence) - This session, recorded for the French
label, Black & Blue in the early 70's, was a laid-back set teaming the rejuvenated Rogers with Louis and David Myers, Fred Below, and Willie Mabon.  Rogers sounds wonderful here.  This is one of my favorite Rogers recordings.

Ludella (Antones) - This set is a part live, part studio recording that teams Rogers with many of the Austin music scene's top talents (Kim Wilson, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and Ted Harvey.  It's hard to go wrong with any of Rogers' post 70's recordings.....the Blind Pig session with Piazza is great and so is the live set with Ronnie Earl on Bullseye Blues, but to me, the Antones set is slightly better.

Blue Bird (APO) - This is the best recording that Rogers did after his comeback, bar none.  It features Rogers with his son, Jimmy D. Lane, Johnnie Johnson, Carey Bell, Dave Myers, and Ted Harvey.  The sound is fantastic, as might be expected on an APO recording.  The set list is a mix of old Rogers favorites with a few Chicago favorites.  Seek this one out at all costs.

Blues Blues Blues (Atlantic) - Rogers' swan song, his shot at the "big time," his star-studded tribute disc, has some nice moments, but there are just too many distractions.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I purchased it, but I can count on one hand the number of guest star-heavy blues recordings I do like.  This one is slightly above the middle of the pack.


Paul Thorne said...

Jimmy Rogers recorded some fabulous music,his 50's Chess sides are definately high class and the backings are so very tight and interlocking.It seemed as though Chess really wanted Jimmy to be a top recording artist
thus every effort was made to offer Jimmy the best in the recording studio with Muddy,Little Walter,Willie Dixon(of course)and others providing top quality assistance.'Walking by myself' a 1957 recording gave Jimmy his best selling recording but my own personal favourites are 'That's All Right'and 'Luedella'.I have not heard much of his later recordings because I think the Rock and Pop 'stars' and their industry diluted the blues into something I still can't put a name to and I have been a record collector since 1959!

Graham said...

I agree with your assessment. If Rogers had never recorded again after his Chess sides, his place in blues history would be secure. He was such a big part of the original Waters band, but proved capable of being the front man, too. It was good that he did return to performing and recording later on because many probably would have missed out on his talents if he had not.

Thanks for posting, Paul.