Jimmie Rodgers Biography

James Charles Rodgers, 8 September 1897, Pine Springs, near Meridian, Mississippi, USA, d. 26 May 1933, New York, USA. Jimmie was the youngest of three sons of Aaron Woodberry Rodgers, who had moved from Alabama to Meridian to work as foreman of a railroad maintenance crew. In 1904, his mother Eliza (Bozeman) died (probably from tuberculosis), and following his father’s remarriage, in 1906, he and elder brother Talmage went to live with their Aunt Dora, who ran the Bozeman family farm at Pine Springs. An ex-music teacher, his aunt probably sparked Rodgers’ first real interest in music. Doubtless as the result of Jimmie’s delinquent behaviour, in 1911 his father recalled him to Meridian, but his long absences at work led to Jimmie frequenting the local pool halls and barbershops, where he first began singing. At the age of 12, renderings of ‘Steamboat Bill’ and ‘I Wonder Why Bill Bailey Don’t Come Home’ won him a local amateur talent contest. Flushed with this success, he decided to set up his own touring tent show, illicitly using his father’s credit account to buy the tent. Shortly after his father brought him home, Jimmie ran away again with a travelling medicine show, but, soon disillusioned with the life, he was once more collected by his father. On this occasion, he was given the choice of returning to school or working with his father’s gang on the railroad - he chose the latter.

During the next decade, he worked on various railroad jobs, including call boy, flagman, baggage master and brakeman, in places that ranged from Mississippi to Texas and the Pacific Coast. He became noted as a flashy dresser (when funds allowed) and for his eye for the girls, although music was never far from his mind. On 1 May 1917, after a short courtship, he married Stella Kelly; by autumn, although she was pregnant, they had separated. Kelly said later, ‘He was sweet as could be but he never had any money. He would strum away on some instrument and fool away his time and his money’. Divorced two years later, Rodgers continued his nomadic existence, and while working as a brakeman for the New Orleans & Northeastern Railroad, he met Carrie Williamson (b. 8 August 1902, Meridian, Mississippi, USA, d. 28 November 1961), the daughter of a Meridian minister. On 7 April 1920, with Carrie still at high school, they were married. Soon afterwards, Rodgers was laid off by the railroad, and was forced to do menial jobs to survive. He accepted any opportunity to entertain, resulting in absences from home and frequent changes in lodgings; the problems worsened on 30 January 1921 with the birth of the Rodgers’ first daughter, Carrie Anita. When their second child, June Rebecca (b. 20 June 1923, d. 22 December 1923), died of diphtheria aged six months, Rodgers was away with a travelling show and was too poor to pay for the funeral. During his travels in the early 20s, possibly in New Orleans, he met and probably worked with Goebel Reeves, who later claimed to have taught Rodgers to yodel (Reeves, known as the Texas Drifter, was noted for his tall tales and this may have been one of them), although their differing styles make this claim very unlikely.

Rodgers’ health had never been good, and late in 1924, a doctor diagnosed tuberculosis. Ignoring the fact that the disease usually proved fatal (as with his mother), he discharged himself from hospital. He formed a trio with his piano-playing sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams and fiddler Slim Rozell, and briefly played at local dances. He continued to work on the railroad, played blackface comedy with a touring show and later worked on the Florida East Coast Line. In 1926, believing the warm climate would alleviate his illness, he worked as a switchman for the Southern Pacific in Tucson, Arizona. He also sang and played banjo and guitar at local venues, until this interfered with his work. He was fired and the family moved back to Meridian to live with his in-laws. In 1927, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, on his own, planning to work on the railroad, but his health was poor and he was unable to do the hard work required by the job. Instead, he drove a taxi, worked as a janitor and boosted his income by playing and singing at local functions and with a band on WWNC radio. He raised enough money for his family to join him, but was soon on the road again. This time he went to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he met Jack Pierce and brothers Claude and Jack Grant. Known as the Teneva Ramblers, the trio were a string band, struggling, like Rodgers, to make it as entertainers. He convinced the trio that he had a radio show in Asheville and they agreed to back him. The radio programme carried no pay but he used it to advertise himself, until the station dropped him.

Leaving the family in Asheville, Rodgers and the trio took to the road. They played various venues as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, before gaining a residency as a dance band at the affluent North Fork Mountain Resort. Rodgers then heard that Ralph Peer, a field representative for The Victor Talking Machine Company, equipped with portable recording equipment, was in Bristol, Tennessee, seeking local acts to record. With Rodgers’ persuasion, the band went to Bristol and were offered an audition, but they argued over the name of their act. The result was that the trio again became the Teneva Ramblers and Rodgers found himself minus his Entertainers. Nevertheless, he convinced Peer that he should record as a solo artist and consequently, on 4 August 1927, with only his own guitar accompaniment, Rodgers made his first recordings, ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ and ‘Sleep, Baby, Sleep’. The two songs were released on 7 October 1927 (Vi 20864) and although the record did not become a major seller, it marked a first step towards musical success. When Rodgers knew the record had been released, he headed for New York, booked himself in at a hotel by telling them he was an RCA - Victor Records recording artist, and contacted Peer.

His impudence paid off and on 30 November 1927, he made four more recordings at RCA’s Camden studios. It was the third recording, ‘Blue Yodel’ (often referred to as ‘T for Texas’), that proved to be the boost Rodgers needed. It was coupled with Rodgers’ version of Kelly Harrell’s song ‘Away Out On The Mountain’ (Vi 21142). The wistful yodel, which eventually became a million-seller, became so popular that it led to him recording a series of ‘Blue Yodel’ numbers during his career and won him the nickname of ‘America’s Blue Yodeler’. Late in 1927, Rodgers, who had moved to Washington, appeared on a weekly show on WTFF billed as the Singing Brakeman (he always dressed as a brakeman on stage) and to help with family expenses, Carrie worked as a waitress. The northern climate, however, worsened his illness, and medication was expensive. In February 1928, Rodgers recorded eight more sides at Camden, including ‘Blue Yodels #3 and #4’, and a version of ‘In The Jailhouse Now’ that has become a country classic. Peer provided accompaniment from Julian Ninde (guitar) and Ellsworth T. Cozzens (steel guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo). Three further sessions were held that year, one at Camden and two in Atlanta, which produced 14 more sides. Peer constantly pressed him for new material, and Elsie McWilliams came to Rodgers’ rescue. In a week, she and Rodgers wrote nine new songs. These included ‘Daddy And Home’, ‘My Old Pal’ and ‘You And My Old Guitar’, while Cozzens co-wrote ‘Dear Old Sunny South By The Sea’ and ‘Treasures Untold’, both very successful Rodgers recordings.

By the end of the year, he was receiving a considerable sum in royalties and had played major tours in the south, allegedly receiving a weekly wage of $600 dollars for a 20-minute spot each night. He was hailed a hero on a visit to Meridian, but his health again gave cause for concern. By this time, he had forsaken his image and dress as the Singing Brakeman. He now sometimes dressed in a tuxedo and bowler hat and gloried in his billing as ‘America’s Blue Yodeler’. In February 1929, he recorded 11 sessions in New York (two), Dallas (four) and Atlanta (five). He also recorded the soundtrack for the short film The Singing Brakeman. He received backing on many of the recordings from Joe Kaipo (steel guitar), Billy Burkes (guitar) and Weldon Burkes (ukulele). Between the recording sessions, he played many venues, including a number on the major Radio-Keith-Orpheum Interstate Circuit tour (RKO), which visited cities in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. Over 12 days during June and July 1930, Rodgers recorded a total of 16 tracks, including ‘Pistol Packin’ Papa’ and ‘Blue Yodel #8’ (Muleskinner Blues) which featured only his guitar, while others had backing from Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians (‘Moonlight And Skies’ and ‘For The Sake Of Days Gone By’). On the recording of ‘Blue Yodel #9’, he was backed by Lillian Armstrong (piano) and the trumpet of a young Louis Armstrong.

Away from the studios, he suffered health and personal problems, including the reappearance of his first wife Stella. Accompanied by her daughter Kathryn (b. 16 February 1918), who bore a startling resemblance to Rodgers, Stella demanded money to support the child, evidently intending to capitalize on Rodgers’ new-found financial success. On 3 February 1931, she launched a civil action; Rodgers did not dispute the parentage, but was perturbed by the huge sums being demanded. Rodgers decided to head west with his family, while his lawyer brother-in-law sorted out the problem (the final judgement in June 1932, ordered Rodgers to pay $50 per month until Kathryn was 18 years old - a total of $2, 650). In January and February 1931, Rodgers worked with Will Rogers on a Red Cross tour to raise funds for families affected by the drought and Depression in Texas and Oklahoma. Rodgers also found that bookings were affected as a result of the Depression, and in consequence, he struggled to maintain his lifestyle. His health worsened, but he managed to keep up with his recording schedules. In January, he cut seven sides in San Antonio, among which was his now famous ‘T.B. Blues’. (Four recordings, including an alternative cut of that song, were unissued by RCA-Victor and remained so until released by Bear Family Records in 1992.)

He moved his recording centre to Louisville, where, on 10 June, he made his only recordings with a female vocalist, one also being the only gospel number that he ever recorded. Sara Carter (a member of the Carter Family, who had also made their first recordings at the same Bristol sessions as Rodgers) duetted on ‘Why There’s A Tear In My Eye’ and ‘The Wonderful City’, to the accompaniment of Maybelle Carter’s guitar. Two days later, Peer recorded two novelty items containing vocals and dialogue in ‘Jimmie Rodgers Visits The Carter Family’ and ‘The Carter Family And Jimmy Rodgers In Texas’. Among the more serious songs were ‘When The Cactus Is In Bloom’, a self-penned number that evoked Rodgers’ love for the Old West. He made 12 recordings in Dallas during a five-day period in February 1932, which included the prophetical ‘My Time Ain’t Long’ and ‘Blue Yodel #10’. A plan for Rodgers to tour the UK was never finalized, since his health prevented him from making the trip. In August, he travelled to Camden and with a backing that included Clayton McMichen and Slim Bryant, he managed 12 further recordings. Two of the numbers, ‘Mother, The Queen Of My Heart’ and ‘Peach Picking Time In Georgia’, were written by Bryant and McMichen, respectively, and both have subsequently become country standards. He also recorded ‘Whippin’ That Old T.B.’ - a brave but overly optimistic number. Two weeks later, Rodgers went to New York, insisting that Bryant accompanied him, and with other musicians, he made four recordings, including ‘Prairie Lullaby’ and his delightful version of ‘Miss The Mississippi And You’.

A promised network show on WEAF New York failed to materialize and his health had deteriorated so much that he was constantly taking painkillers and alcohol. He refused to surrender to his illness, and is quoted as telling McMichen: ‘I want to die with my shoes on’. In late 1932 and the spring of 1933, Rodgers’ desperate need for money saw him alternate periods of enforced rest with appearances in tawdry venues in Texas, even appearing with vaudeville acts between films in nickelodeons. While living in San Antonio, he did for a time manage a weekly show on KMAC. In February 1933, he collapsed in Lufkin and was rushed to the Memorial Hospital, Houston. Realizing that money to support his family was still vitally needed, Rodgers contacted Peer and persuaded him to bring forward the proposed summer recording session to May. Realizing the financial and health problems involved, Peer agreed to pay Rodgers $250 dollars a side for 12 recordings. On 17 May, with only his own guitar, he recorded four songs in New York, including ‘Blue Yodel #12’ and another Western-orientated number in ‘The Cowhand’s Last Ride’. The following day he added ‘Dreaming With Tears In My Eyes’, ‘Yodeling My Way Back Home’ and ‘Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel’. He had to be carried out of the studio; after two days’ rest, he made recordings of ‘The Yodeling Ranger’ and ‘Old Pal Of My Heart’. Four days later, he returned to the studios. On the first three recordings, ‘Old Love Letters’, ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’ (its bluesy sadness has led many devotees to rate this one of his finest works) and ‘Somewhere Below The Dixon Line’, he had Tony Colicchio (guitar) and John Cali (steel guitar, guitar, banjo) providing instrumental backing.

Rodgers had to rest on a cot during the recording, and, with only his own guitar, he cut his final song, ‘Years Ago’. After the sessions, Rodgers visited Coney Island pleasure beach; on his return to the hotel, he attempted to walk from the car but collapsed onto a fire hydrant after a short distance. He apparently told his brother-in-law, Alex Nelson, ‘Let me take a blow’. Later that night, he developed a bad cough and began to haemorrhage badly. A doctor was called, but before he arrived at the hotel, Rodgers had slipped into a coma. He died in the early hours of 26 May, having literally drowned in his own blood. His body was taken by train to Meridian, where hundreds of mourners met it at Union Station in Meridian; on 29 May, his body lay in state. He was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, next to the grave of June, his baby daughter. After Rodgers’ death, his wife and daughter suffered severe financial problems. When it was discovered that Carrie had cancer and was in need of major surgery, friends started a fund to help with the costs. However, the treatment failed to halt the cancer and Carrie Williamson Rodgers died on 28 November 1961. Rodgers’ daughter, Carrie Anita Rodgers Court, died from emphysema in San Antonio on 5 December 1993 and was taken to Meridian, where she was buried next to her father. She had requested that only Jimmie’s recording of ‘Sleep, Baby, Sleep’ was to be played at her funeral (the second song he had recorded in Bristol in 1927, it was one he had often sung to her in her childhood).

Following Rodgers’ death, RCA Victor released very few of the unissued recordings, the last single being in 1938, to mark the fifth anniversary of his death. In the early 50s, no doubt through Peer’s efforts, RCA released four 10-inch albums of his recordings. In 1956, they released the first 12-inch album. The interest it raised and the sales led to the release of seven more by 1964. In 1987, the Smithsonian Institution produced a boxed set of 36 recordings and later RCA released a boxed set in Japan. In the early 90s, Rounder issued a series of compact discs and cassettes, which included some alternative takes. In 1992, Bear Family released a definitive set of six compact discs of Rodgers’ work. Among the countless tribute recordings that have been made over the years are those by Gene Autry (probably the first Rodgers soundalike in his early days), Bradley Kincaid and Ernest Tubb. In October 1936, even Mrs Carrie Rodgers made a recording, when, with Ernest Tubb accompanying her on Rodgers’ guitar, she rendered the rather maudlin ‘We Miss Him When The Evening Shadows Fall’. Probably the best tribute is the long ‘Jimmie Rodgers’ Blues’ by Elton Britt, which cleverly uses the titles of his songs within its lyrics. Later, several artists, including Hank Snow, Merle Haggard, Wilf Carter, Yodeling Slim Clark and Australia’s Buddy Williams all recorded albums of Rodgers’ songs.

Naturally, there has also been much written about the artist. In 1935, his widow, with some persuasion and assistance, privately published her account of Rodgers’ life. The book attracted little attention either then or in 1953, when it was reprinted to coincide with the first Jimmie Rodgers memorial celebration in Meridian (both Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow were greatly influenced in their early careers by Rodgers and the two singers worked together to establish the annual Meridian memorial event). It was reprinted again by the Country Music Foundation Press in 1975. Carrie Rodgers’ book tended to avoid any controversial subject matter, but it does offer some insight into his family’s lifestyle. Mike Paris and Chris Comber published a far more interesting volume in 1977, but the definitive book on the artist is undoubtedly the 1979 volume (revised 1992) written by Nolan Porterfield and published by the University Of Illinois Press as a volume in their series Music In American Life.

Jimmie Rodgers’ influence on subsequent American (and other) artists is incalculable. Many of the top stars, including Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb started their careers virtually as Rodgers impersonators before developing their own styles. During his lifetime, Rodgers was not termed a ‘country music singer’, since the category did not truly exist at that time. He sang a mixture of folk ballads, blues and vaudeville and even semi-risqué numbers, such as ‘Frankie And Johnny’, which in his hands, became the accepted fare of not only the first generations of country music listeners and record buyers, but also those that have followed in the years since his death. Over the years, there has been a considerable amount of discussion concerning Rodgers’ contribution to country music, a contribution that has seen him named as the ‘Father Of Country Music’ and elected as the first entrant to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville on its foundation in 1961. There is no doubt that, in his relatively short career, he established styles that many have followed. He was one of the first to successfully master the art of recording, his mournful yodel was magnetic to many people’s ears and he was a very proficient entertainer, who loved to be in front of an audience.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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