WALKIN’ BY MYSELF – Chess
THAT’S ALL RIGHT – 1950
Jimmy Rogers Interview – by David Jaffe
The entire process for this interview began in April when I called Chad Kassem at Acoustic Sounds to get a copy of Rogers’ release “Blue Bird” on Kassem’s Analog Productions Originals label. We were on the phone for hours talking about Louisiana, the blues, and , of course, Rogers. Chad is from Baton Rouge and he knows how important music is to this region. He also knows the blues. If you check out the titles his company presses you can see what I mean.
Apparently, John Koenig suggested Rogers when talk with Kassem of a blues album arose. The remainder of the disc’s cast, with the exception of Rogers’ son Jimmy D. Lane, are well known all-stars. Mr. Lane also has a title out on Analog Productions. “Blue Bird” was a success, wining a Handy for best traditional blues recording. It also received a great deal of positive press (including from yours truly ) for its quality. It sounds good, too. Rogers is currently working on a record with Atlantic whose supporting cast reads like a excerpt from the pantheon of rock and roll recording greats that includes The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. I found it ironic that after his enormous influence on post WWII pop music that an album of Rogers may sell more if accompanied by the individuals he influenced, than it wold as a solo album.
That brings me to tom Radai, Rogers manager (Blues Management Group, Milwaukee, Wis. 53219) who I spoke with next, and about this very issue. His reply was “Ask Jimmy.” I did not go into the full roster of blues acts represented by Blues Management, however, Rogers must be one of their biggies.
Rogers, the name of his stepfather, was born James A. Lane in Ruleville, Mississippi, in June of 1924. Jimmy had built his first guitar from a broom stick at the age of eleven and used a shoe polish can as a slide. His first gigs were in his teens with Snooky Pryor and Robert Nighthawk. Contact with other blues musicians in Memphis (Big Bill, Joe Willie Wilkins, Robert Lockwood, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Oden, and significantly, Little walter) made an important impact on him. While working in cabinet manufacturing after the war, a co-worker introduce Rogers to a cousin, Muddy Waters.
Muddy played the slide and Jimmy the chords. Originally they were acoustic, however, Rogers, remembering Lockwood playing electric, influenced their move to amplified guitar. And so was born the Chicago sound. The first recording of their group (with Little Walter) were made under Rogers’ name in ’49 for Regal; Rogers classic “Ludella” with Sunnyland Slim (piano), Big Crawford (bass), and unidentified (drums) accompanied the side according to “Blue Bird” liner notes. This title was never released, but rather was re-recorded for Chess(1435) the following year. Sunnyland Slim had brought the group to Chess, although , shortly thereafter, Otis Spann was introduced the band and remainder is for blues history anthologies and dissertations.
Rogers sound is so pervasive that is became the sound of Chi-Town guitar. It accompanies some of Chess’ greatest singles such as “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1560), “Young Fashioned Ways” (1602), “I’m Ready” (1578), “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (1571) (by Muddy Waters), ” I Ain’t Superstitious” (1823) “Goin’ Down Slow” (1813) (by Howlin’ Wolf), “Walking By Myself” (1643), “Ludella,” “World’s In A Tangle” (?) (self), “Joliet Blues” (1443) ( by Johnny Shines), “Juke” (Checker 758) (by Little Walter), “Don’t Start Me Talking” (Checker 824) (by Sonny Boy Williamson), and “T-Bone Special” (T-Bone Walker) for Atlantic (A 1522).
Although he seems to mentioned scarcely in blues texts, Rogers is always rightly sighted as the best . Mark Humphrey (Nothing But The Blues, 1993), for example, called Rogers “The quintessential sympathetic sideman, unobtrusive but ever ready.” As it turns out , Rogers influence goes beyond singing, writing, and playing. He also, in ’47, introduced Little Walter to the South Side blues club scene, and later, to Muddy.
With all this history I needed to document the present. Next I spoke to John Ferchard about photographing the Tip’s show. John has shot for some of biggies, including USAToday. When he heard what I had in mind, he became more interested in talking chords than silver nitrate. John is an expert on the influence of the blues on the psychedelic scene of the 60’s and 70’s. The warehouse show, which, despite the small draw, was a smash. Tip’s Eddie Pierce made sure that the photography went smoothly. Therefore everything was ready for the big interview.
Speaking to Rogers, he seemed to have little sense of his own importance. He was modest and polite to a fault. This may have been the result of just finishing a tour, his birthday earlier that week, or his grandchildren playing around him ad we spoke. I caught him in an outstanding mood. He was quite jovial throughout the interview, even when I asked tougher questions. What struck me most was his tireless appreciation for those people who were interested in him and his music. At certain points in the interview I actually wished he would become moody or angry. Instead he just thanked everyone. It was a fantastic day for Mr. Rogers, myself, and interviewing. I hope is as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to do.
The Interview, Part One:
In 1994, Analog Productions released your “Blue Bird” album. The following year it won the Handy Award for traditional blues recording. Were you suprised that the public and critics liked it so much?
The No I wasn’t surprised.
Not at all?
I was glad that they accepted it. I had quite a few records out that I recorded songs and songs that I had other people, different artists, recorded. I got quite a few songs that’s scattered out here, I mean a few in the limelight and I be proud whenever they catch a hold to it. I been lookin’ for that , but I mean , sometimes they don’t and sometimes they do. So I be glad when It happens. I be proud. I appreciate that.
Did Analog Productions call you to do the album?
Oh yeah they called. I got an agent – he does that. He works on that type of situation. Yeah, and they call me like that and tell me they want me to record and if the deals right then I’ll go on and tell em.
I talked to your manager and he told me, Tom Radai, about some of the projects you are currently working on and some of the tours. What kind of stuff are you working on and how is looking right now?
Well, I’ve got a pretty tuff schedule. I just got off a tour and I’m fixin’ to head back out. I’ve got about a couple more weeks here and I’m goin’ back out to Europe again for two weeks. I got two more weeks in the last part of June and then I’m coming back and I’ve got some spots I’ve got to do here in the States. So I’m pretty well tied up right now.
Tom Radai told me abot the project your are working on with Atlantic Records.
Yeah, I got a pretty good deal with Atlantic. They found a pretty good thing. I appreciate it.
It sounds a lot like the kind of things that John Lee Hooker, and some of the other guys have been doing in the past where they get together with a whole bunch of people….
Yeah, I guess that’s about the size of It. I’m glad to do it, you know.
Yeah. Many of the elder statesmen of the blues are seenig a resugence in popularity. B.B. King has his clubs and tours regularly. John Lee Hooker records all the time now. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells have been active lately with tours and albums. The House of Blues has become a major chain. What do you think has caused this popularity suddenly?
I don’t know. If one guy do somthin’ another one tries it and it works that way there workin’ on the hand. They do that all the time. So if whatever happen you know they… one guy tries it and another guy tries it. Sometimes it works, you know. So, they just do that. Monkey see, monkey do. That’s where they runnin’. It’s not a bad Idea.
Getting back to the project for Atlantic. It has got the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal. It may include people like Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Tina Turner, Bonnie Rait. Has it been fun to work on for you?
Well that was fun. When I work with those guys like that, different artists, I know I’m a good opportunity to go in and do some sides, cut some sides, and whatever I have to do and we have fun that way. It’s a pleasure. Yeah.
Are there any suprizes on that album that coming for those people who are going to go out and buy it?
No. Well, it’s just like something that we do and, uh, and the people, they like it, then they like it
Your son is coming out with an album of his own on the Analog productions label soon. How much do you think having a father like you, an important blues figure, has influenced him?
He released on a few weeks ago so …. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. I think those things are important. I’m glad that they taken the time out to get him in there… You know he’s workin’ hard, he’s is, and I appreciate it. Them doin’ it. He works with me and he do things on his own. I mean we’ll go out and do gigs and what have you. I’m takin’ him to Europe, here on the 20th of this month. We’ll be gon’ for a couple of weeks then I come back and turn him loose again and let him do what they want to.
What about growing up arround some of the other blues men that you have recorded with? How do you think that has influenced him? How do you think that growing up arround yourself and the other important blues men of your time has influenced him?
Oh, he’s proud of it. He’s been foolin’ around with it for a long time. All the chances he’s had in his life, bein’ around different artists, different musicians. He likes that and he likes that Jimi Hendrix style. He likes that, yeah. But it’s ok, you know. It’s rock ‘n roll, or whatever they call it. He likes that.
He even covered one of Jimi Hendrix’s old tunes on the album. Who do you see coming up today as the net great bluesman? Or do you see anybody?
Well, they just like old man river – they just keep flowin’ along. I don’t really who’s gonna’ end up when. I bet he’s doin’ a wonderful job. There’s Luther Allison and there’s… some of these guys… all those blues players now they’re takin’ off after my material now, other peoples material… Lonnie Brooks is a friend of mine, too. He’s out there, too. I’m glad to see them all. Somebody is tryin’ to keep the blues around goin’. That’s what I’m proud to see.
Who were your influences when you were youg?
Well, there’s a variety of blues players: Big maceo, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson. All those guys. I mean they were out there before my time. Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, T-Bone Walker, all those guys. They were pushin’ that stuff for a long time. And then we come in, me and Muddy Waters, Little Walter. When we came in there and put this new different sound in there an’ just kept on workin’ with it. And then we came out with something that’s really goin’, doin’ alright so… Excuse them, they just my little grand kids. (Laughs) They just playin’ around here. (Laughs)
How many grandkids do you have?
I’ve got two. Two little girls. One’s about 11 and one’s about 4.
You must be proud?
(Laughs) Yes. I’ve got a little crowd over here. They’s up there tryin’ to do something, I don’t know. It’s just alot of fun to have them around.
Were there any musicians in your family?
No, there wasn’t any musicians in there. They liked music, but there was nobody takin’ the time out to really try to get into it. I was the first one that did anything with it.
Who do you listen to now when you sit down at the radio?
There is so many of them out there these days so I just… I like B. B. King, Lowell Fulsom, those guys. I like Robert Cray and some other guys that I like what there doing. One is just like the other one to me. I just proud and I appreciate all of them. John Lee Hooker, all those guys.
John Lee Hooker once said in an interview that he liked to listen to Eric Clapton (Sterophile, February 1997), and the interviewer was really suprized by all that. He said that Eric Clapton is not the blues; eric clapton is an immatator. John Lee Hooker said yeah, i know, but i still like to listen to him.
Yeah, well he likes those licks, I guess; he puts through I guess. Yeah, that’s o.k., that’s the thing about it. He’s o.k., I mean, and he’s a nice guy, too. He plays a different style. He does his thing, That’s what’s important.
What do you think of the current state of the blues today? There are all of these “prodigies,” young white suburban kids who don’t really play the blues per se? What do you think about this?
They want to play the blues. They study playin’ the blues. They’re tryin’ to play the blues but they got a long ways to go. They got a lot to learn about that.
What do you think they are missing?
One thing about it, they don’t understand, they don’t feel it, they don’t know what it’s about. They just hear the sounds of the blues and he thinks he got it . Try every craft. He’s (Clapton) a good player… rock ‘n roll guitar player, a fantastic musician is my opinion about it. I been knowin’ him a long time. Mick Jagger, he’s a rock ‘n roll player. And we get together and we have a lot of fun together sometimes, all of us. So when we get together we come along and let the hair down and play the blues then. That’s when they works with me. I appreciate them coming down and getin’ in the ball game. I like that.
What do you think that you could give to them, to teach them, the young kids, what the blues is really about? Or do you think it’s just something they have to learn?
All I can do is run and tell them what it is. You really got to live it, man, to know anything serious about that type of situation. You got to know what you doin’. You got to get the real problems like I did, and it’s kind of hard ’cause it’s so much happenin’ out there – there is so much out there to listen to that keeps you confused. So they just playin’, entertain’, that’s what they’re really doin’. I don’t knock ’em cause that’s the way for everybody out there like that. But I appreciate bein’ around them and they knows me and they respect me and I respect them. We gets along like that.
Do you think that, for all the kids who are just starting right now, the best way to learn what the blues is really about is to live it and to play it?
Yeah. You got to understand it, and that is kinda hard for a youngster to understand, and what’s the blues is all about, man. It’s really amazing, you know, what changes you, what challenges you have to go through. That type of situation that’s not so nice. Things changin’ so fast, so movin’ so fast. It’s kind of rough to take a child out and stir the blues. You got to really study that stuff and work on it. You got to nurse it and roll it around, play with it and nurse with it and figure out. It’s a big job. They don’t want to take the time to out to really learn it. They just run across it and run over it with out goin’ and they think it the blues, but it don’t be. It may be somthin’ else but it’s still entertainment. That’s what I say about it. And I appreciate them at least trying.
A few people have, in various articles and interviewes, that rap is blues for the kids who live in the cities today in the same way that the blues was for the people in the rural south. Do you agree with that?
That rap stuff is like the poems that they makes it up . All that stuff is like the little poems people have been reciting for years long before my time. And they put them in songs and the beat bounce. And some of it make sense and some of it really don’t make sense, but they say it and get by with it . So, I mean, I’m really not a fan of it ’cause I don’t understand what they’s doin’, what they’re talkin’ about, really. But I mean somebody listens to it and they get by. It don’t bother me. That’s where that go.
When you started recording it was the heyday of many of the great Chicago blues lables like Mercury, Vee Jay, Chess, Cobra. It was a period when blues was becoming electric: Muddy, yourself, Wolf, T-Bone. What do you remember most from that time?
Who do I remember most? T-Bone Walker was a real admirer of mine. Memphis Slim, all those guys was, I liked what they’s was doin’. I enjoyed all those guys – Walter Davis ‘n on down. St. Louis Jimmy. All those guys back there. (Laughs). Yeah, I recorded with Memphis Minnie, too, back way back when. Memphis Minnie,… all years ago back in the late 30’s and early 40’s.
What’s your favorite of your own recordings?
Well, the one that sells the most. (We both laugh.) One that sells the biggest, the biggest record. That’s the one that’s mine, that’s mine, yes. “Walkin’ By Myself,” “That’s All Right.” The idea of musicians has changed. That was really hard work, really hard work to do that.
Was it fun though? Was all that work fun?
It fun? Yeah, it was fun! It was stiflin’ some time, an’ sometime you’d turn around and it’d be fun, you know. It was work, all a days work. Days and years, all that stuff. (Laughs.) Yeah, I puts in a lot of hours, see. That’s what I did and I enjoyed every bit of it.
If someone asked what the best record you ever made was, what would you say?
Well I, I really wouldn’t know. I made some nice ones, though. I don’t know, which one was the best. I wouldn’t say that. But I made some nice ones. “That’s All Right” was a big one, “Ludella.” A whole lotta’ records I made I made hits out of ’em. A whole lotta’ of stuff. I did some for Muddy Waters, I did some for Wolf and Willie Dixon. A lot of those guys. A whole lotta’ songs for them.
I heard a blues guitarist once talk about how he used unusual fingerings because they helped him keep the time when he played. Do you do that?
Yeah, I can. Playin’ the bottom along with the lead, the rhythm. That’s good work, a pretty good work out. Ya gotta git yourself geared up to that effect and it works out OK.
I read once that you like to play at Lilly’s on Linclon ave. Do you….
You talkin’ about Lilly’s on the side. I played there and Alice’s Review… I played a lot of places in Chicago: Zanzibar on the West Side of Chicago, Smitty’s Corner. I played a lot of different clubs in Chicago.
Do you have any favorites?
We’ll be at one an’ I like the other. I like it when were havin’ fun. We weren’t makin’ too much money but we were havin’ a lot of fun!
Is there a favorite part of the country or world that you like to play in?
I doesn’t matter where I go now. I go so many places that one is just like the other. The people comes to have fun and it turns out and it works good. We just have fun, that’s the way I do. Nothing special about it.
Who has the best audiences?
They have ’em all over, man, they do things. Wembley Stadium in London, that was about the biggest indoors festival that I ever did in my life and I really enjoyed that. We’ll do it again as soon as the opportunity knocks. I’ll do it. That’s in London.
Do you have any tunes you like to play onstage?
Well I plays what the public asks me for, mostly. We make out a schedule and we stick with it. We go through ’em that way.
Do you listen yo yourself, or your old records?
Well, I be listenin’ to myself all the time, that’s me.
Do you like to listen to the old Jimmy Rodgers records?
Some of the stuff, yeah.
How does your new material sound different from your old work?
Well, it’s arranged different and they’s more equipped with the material and equipment they’s working with now. Makes it really different from a worked when we were really gettin’ it together, back there 25 or 30 years ago.
Are the content of the songs different now. I mean, do you write about the same things?
Well in different way different matters, but it all adds up to be the same thing, you know. It comes out as blues. That’s the way I feel about it.
Jack Dupree was a boxer and then leadbelly had all kinds of odd jobs. What would you have been dong if you had not have been a blues singer?
I don’t know, maybe gambling. (We both laugh.) Something. I don’t know. I just took to the music and that was my thing. I enjoy it and when you got something you enjoy you just try to stick with that. That’s what I do. I have fun and if you can’t dig the blues you must have a whole in your soul. (Laughs.) That’s the way I feel about it.
Did you have the same kind of problems with recieving your royalties with chess records and arc music?
I been through that. I’ve been through those same channels. They have finally got it ironed out a little bit. They’s kickin’ in pretty good now.
Because Willie Dixon had notorious problems. Bo Diddley has been real vocal about…
He had problems for years. I don’t know how he’s doin’ now. I haven’t seen those guys in a good long while. Willie died. Bo, I don’t see him too much. He do a lot a traveling around the world. I know that. He’s comin’ in and I come in later and he’s gone. That’s the way it goes.
He was in New Orleans right before you got here.
Oh, he was? Well that’s good and I’m glad to hear it.
Would you like to get together and record with some of the guys you recorded with back in the day?
If they had something I wouldn’t mind doin’, well, I wouldn’t mind doin’ if they’s was OK. I don’t really think about that stuff. I be so busy tryin’ to take care of my own thing…
Do you think it would be fun to play on stage with them again?
Oh, well, every time I get a chance to play with some of those guys I enjoy it. It takes you back, you know.
All the memories?
Blues is really closely identified with the south: Memphis, Jackson, Houston, New Orleans, the Delta. Why do so few blues musicians seem to tour here any more?
I don’t know.
Is it money?
It may be. I don’t know. I go where my agent sends me and, whatever. I like to play in the South and as much as I do in the North or anywhere. But the don’t must be with the money for it. That must be the problem. I think that’s what it is. I guess to go in the South somewhere, I mean, I enjoy it. It’s fun.
Because I’ve seem more blues musicians play in Los Angeles than I’ve ever seen here.
I’ve been seen in California for a long time. The West Coast. I’ve been doin’ that for years. All up into Canada and places like that. I’ve been runnin’ that for years and years…. So, I be one place and somebody else be someplace else and I don’t know. Someone says Ko Ko Taylor came through. That’s nice; it’s good to see them. That’s good. All that stuff is wonderful. The same in Europe. The same places are… I go to Europe and the same guys have been through there.
Sounds good. Thank you for all of your time. I appreciate it very much.
It was fun. Like I said, if you can’t dig the blues you must have a hole in your soul.
David Jaffe (November 1997)