Gary James' Interview With
Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers began his recording career with Roulette Records in the Summer of 1957. His first record for the label went straight to Number One where it stayed for 22 weeks. That song was "Honeycomb". He followed it with another big hit "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine". From 1957 to 1960, he recorded 21 Top Twenty hit records with 14 in the Top Ten. Overall, he's recorded 45 singles which charted in the Top 40, 18 in the Top Ten, and 8 at the Number One spot. To date, twenty singles and ten albums have gone Gold on the international market for Jimmie Rodgers.

We spoke with Jimmie Rodgers about the people he's known, the places he's been, and a strange incident in December 1967, which nearly killed him.

Q - Jimmie, 1957 was a pretty good year for rock 'n' roll, but "Honeycomb" was not a rock 'n' roll song. What accounts for the song's success?

A - I think one of the things is that I was a good-looking young kid with black curly hair and the girls liked me a lot. After 'Honeycomb' came out and started to get some play, I did the Ed Sullivan Show right away and that boosted the record sales tremendously. Just one little thing led to another. Nobody could really categorize what I was doing. It was sort of a combination of country, folk, and pop. You know, I did all the rock 'n' roll shows. I worked with Little Richard, Buddy Holly, The Diamonds and everybody that was out there. We did these rock 'n' roll shows and I didn't like them. I was not comfortable.

Q - You're talking about the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour?

A - Well, I did that. But I also did 5 shows a day at the Paramount in Brooklyn. We'd start out at 9 a.m. and they'd show a movie. Then, we'd do a show. Then they'd show a movie and we would do a show. We stayed in there all day 'cause we couldn't get out. The kids would be outside by the thousands. You couldn't get out of the theatre. They'd rip your clothes off.

Q - What would you be doing in the dressing room of the theatre?

A - We'd just sit around and play songs. Nothing else to do. We couldn't get out of there. Play darts. (Laughs).

Q - Sounds pretty innocent.

A - Yeah, well, it was very innocent. We were all kids just trying to make a buck. None of us had any idea that any of this 50's music would catch on and stay around like it did. We were just a bunch of 18, 19, 20 year old young kids having a good time. We didn't have any drugs and no booze of course. Really, very few people even smoked in those days. We got out once in awhile. I used to put on an old coat and a hat and got out in the audience, but, you were taking your life in your hands. One day I got out and a cop was out there on horseback in those days. If it hadn't been for him I probably would've really been hurt, because the kids recognized me. I got behind his horse. He was up against the side of a building with me behind his horse and about 500 screaming girls trying to tear my clothes off. (Laughs). They would just go nuts.

Q - I know you were in the Air Force, but have you always made your living by singing?

A - Well, yes and no. When I got out of high school, I worked for a huge paper company in my hometown of Camas, Washington, right on the Columbus River. My mother and father worked there for 30 years. I was working there putting myself through school. Then I joined the service in 1952 and I was away for 4 years. When I came back of course I went back to singing in little nightclubs around the area. So, I did work in a paper mill for awhile.

Q - Did you write "Honeycomb" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"?

A - No. 'Honeycomb' was written by Bob Merrill, not the singer, but the writer. I think 'Honeycomb' was just a deviation for him. He wrote it for fun and just filed it away. I've only spoken to him once in the last 30 years. When I talked to him, he sounded like Albert Einstein. He had no idea of how many records it sold.

Q - How many records did it sell?

A - Well, from what I can understand, about 15 million in that 3 year period I was with Roulette. 'Kisses Sweeter Than Wine' was an adaptation by Pete Seeger. Pete didn't write it. Frankly, I don't know who did*. The music was put out by Folkways which is the company that put out the sheet music. I would have to look on the sheet music to tell you who wrote it.

Q - How did you get to record those songs? Did an A and R guy bring it to your attention?

A - No. The last 2 years I was stationed in the service, right outside of Nashville, actually in Stewart Air Force Base in Smyrna, Tennessee. While I was there, I went to work in a little nightclub in Printers Alley in Nashville. Printers Alley is sort of a real tourist place right now. But, in those days Printers Alley was just an alley that ran north-south, behind these large printing houses for the local newspaper there. There was a little club there called the Club Unique. I performed there on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. I played piano. I played guitar. I sang. While I was there, the lady who ran the club, Bobbi Green, her husband's name was Bob Green, had heard this song 'Honeycomb'. It had been recorded by a guy named Georgie Shaw, a country singer. She said you gotta hear this record. So I went out to their house and listened to it, learned it, and started singing it in the club. Everybody kept asking me to do it. Georgie Shaw's record was not a hit. 'Kisses Sweeter Than Wine', the same way. I knew the song because I collected folk music and I just kept singing it in the nightclubs I was in. When I finally had a chance to record for Roulette, which is a couple of years later, I more or less picked the songs that went over well in that little nightclub.

Q - When did Roulette Records catch your act?

A - There was a man by the name of Chuck Miller who recorded for Mercury. Chuck had a record out called 'The House of Blue Lights' which was a huge hit for Mercury Records in those days. Chuck walked into this club one night an heard me. He told me he was gonna set up an audition for me with Roulette Records in New York. Roulette Records was an affiliate of Mercury. So, through one hook or crook or another, I managed to work my way back to New York City and auditioned for Roulette. The first song I sang for them in the first part of 1957, was 'Honeycomb'. They basically said, don't go any further, that's great. They took me in at 2 a.m. after Chuck had been recording some things. I went out and got me a 6 pack of beer 'cause I was so nervous. I drank a couple of beers, recorded 'Honeycomb' and it became a hit. It was Number One in 4 weeks.

Q - Your bio says, "During his rise, Jimmie Rodgers' reputation proceeded him." What reputation was that?

A - It was a good one. It wasn't a bad one. When my career started, I was married and had 2 kids. I was a very responsible kid. I really was. I worked very hard to keep that marriage together even though the marriage finally did disappear. My wife was sick. She passed away, my first wife. We were married 12 years. She died in brain surgery. I supported her and took care of her, but, I didn't live in the house because her mother, father, and brother all moved into the house. So, I moved out. Her life was a tragedy. I didn't mess around with girls on the road. I was called the 'Angel of The Road' in those days. I didn't play any of the games basically.

Q - Your bio goes on, "Always aware of his image, he stayed aloof from the inquiring eye of the press and kept his private life his own." So, the press was looking for any hint of scandal about you?

A - They sent people into my hometown to try to find something on me, 'cause I wouldn't talk to 'em. I saw a Headline one time and it said 'Jimmie Rodgers New Love Affair'. I bought the paper and of course it showed me and my little daughter.

Q - Did you know Buddy Holly?

A - Oh, sure. We hung out together for months at a time. I knew him really well.

Q - What kind of guy was he?

A - He was real sort of quiet. He was quite country, although I think he was from Texas somewhere. He was a long, tall drink of water. Great big Adam's apple, and was not as popular then as some of the others were because Buddy was not really good looking. His records were popular, but he wasn't as popular with the young people then, as he is say now.

Q - What would you two guys talk about backstage?

A - Oh gosh, I have no idea. (Laughs). I've got a book I saw in my garage signed by Buddy from one of the old shows we did when he said, 'Dear Jimmie, nice working with you.' Buddy was a nice man. The Crickets used to fight like hell. They were called Buddy Holly and The Crickets in those days. Buddy not so much. But the guys in the band tried to kill each other about once a day. They finally left Buddy. Then he went on later on as Buddy Holly. They were just unhappy. First of all the record company hardly paid anybody. All they did was call you and book you on the road. It was nothing for them to call me and say you're going to London tomorrow, so pack your gear.

Q - Did you know Bobby Darin?

A - Yeah. I knew Bobby before he recorded. Bobby would stand out in front of the Brill Building, summer and winter, in New York and he'd hawk records. He had a whole armload of 'em. He used to cut demos that would sound like me or Buddy Holly or whoever he had to imitate. He was very talented. He'd work with these writers and they'd come up with these songs and he'd hand 'em to us on the streets. I believe he recorded the 'Splish Splash' demo for Fats Domino and he didn't do it. So, he did it himself. He was always a performer more than a singer. Bobby and I were close friends for years. I was in Vegas at Caesar's Palace and he was just down the street at The Sands the last time I saw him alive. We had breakfast together one morning and talked about old times. But, I didn't know Bobby was sick, he didn't tell anybody. We didn't know he had a bad heart.

Q - Did you know Elvis?

A - Oh, sure. I knew him very well. He was at Twentieth Century Fox when I was out there. In fact, I looked a lot like him. I was smaller, but, we had the same kind of look in those days. They had talked at one point of maybe having me play his brother in a film. He recorded a song I wrote called 'It's Over'. He had that in his album he did in Hawaii in the 60's. I met him many times. He came to see me at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles when I worked there. He was really quiet. A nice guy.

Q - What happened to you on that night in December 1967?

A - I was working with A and M Records at the time. I had recorded the "Child of Clay" album. I was working with a guy by the name of Alan Stanton who was a producer in town. The day that that (mysterious incident) happened, I worked with Alan during the day. Then I went out to Twentieth Century Fox and did a meeting. They wanted me to play the lead in Finnian's Rainbow for the film. I had been writing a show called 'The World Through The Eyes of Children' which was a musical for the movies, with my conductor. I called him in the afternoon and said there's some people that want to hear the show. He's a wonderful piano player. I said, 'Why don't you meet me in town and we'll play the music for it?' And so we did. After that, being close to Christmas, I wanted to go out and find something for my wife. She happened to be in the hospital at the time. So, we went shopping and ended up at a bar about 10 at night. I remember sitting at this bar, having a drink, and ordering some food. Then, somebody said, 'Well, let's go over to this house, somebody's having a party and they want to meet you.' So, we went over there. At about 1 a.m. I said 'I have to go home. I've been on my feet all day. I'm not a drinker.' I probably had three drinks, which is two drinks more than I usually would have. So, I was driving my car and my musical conductor Eddie was driving his car. I started off across the valley, going to my home in Granada Hills. I drove across the San Fernando Valley and it was cold and windy. I just turned off the freeway and some guy pulled up behind me. I was about 2 miles from home. Somebody pulled up behind me and started blinking their lights.

Q - A bright light?

A - Real bright. Like a train light. It was white and bright. I pulled over to stop. I thought it was Eddie Samuels who was my conductor. He was staying at my house at the time. It wasn't Eddie. It was some other guy who walked up to the window. I rolled the window down and started to say something 'cause I didn't know who this person was. He hit me with something. I guess it was a tire iron they figured out later. When he swung through the window, I got my arm up and he broke my arm, my right arm. He hit me in the side of the head so hard, the left side of the skull, that it split the skull on the right side. Can you imagine? So, that was it. Eddie came back looking for me, 'cause he'd driven to my home and I didn't show up. He knew the road that I always came home on. He found me in the car. Just as he was pulling up, he saw a police car pull away. He saw a white Volkswagen pull away behind the police car. Then he found me laying face down in the front seat of the car. He was the one that saw the police car. The guy in the Volkswagen was an off duty policeman who had stopped me, for whatever reason.

Q - You don't know the reason?

A - No, I don't. He said I ran him off the road. But, I don't believe that. I never saw him until the lights went on. He evidently hit me and then got scared, went down to a phone booth and called the police. He was off-duty at the time and called two guys who were on duty. They came out, took a look, and they all split. They just said, 'Let's get out of here. This guy's dead.' So they left. Samuels just happened to see the police car leave. He reported that to the Sheriff's Department after I was put in the hospital. Why were police there? What happened? There's been a lot of dialogue about it over the years. I tried to get it into court, but, in those days you could not sue the police department and be successful. No attorney would take the case. They just would not take a police case like that.

Q - There was some talk of Organized Crime being involved, because of your association with Roulette Records. Now, what would Organized Crime and the Police have against Jimmie Rodgers?

A - Nothing really. That's why I don't believe that. I left Roulette in 1960. I got along with 'em alright. But, they never paid anybody. I had an accountant go ahead and go over all their books. They owed me at that time, probably a million dollars or more. In those days, a million dollars was like ten million dollars now. I had management and accountants go in there and they found so many sets of books that it's impossible to figure out what they really owed. So, we left the company and the company went on selling my records. I went with Dot (Records). I had absolutely no contact with them until 1967, and I left them in 1960. We had no words, no problems. I didn't sue them. I didn't go after them. I didn't do anything. I knew their reputation. I knew it wasn't a smart thing to do. So, I just stayed away from them. I did what I always do. I went on and did my own thing and minded my own business.

Q - You have your own theatre in Branson?

A - Well, I did have when I first came here. Then I lost my voice periodically and I haven't been able to sing for 3 years, so I closed it up.

Q - What was wrong with your voice?

A - I'd been having voice trouble for quite a few years, but I just pushed it too hard working two shows a day down there. I got some therapy and it's starting now to come back.

Q - CBS has the script of your life. They're going to make a mini-movie out of it, are they?

A - Yeah. The life story was written by Bill Blynn, who's a wonderful writer. He wrote the screenplay for Roots, Brian's Song and several other fine pictures. The script has been submitted to Craig Anderson Productions which is an affiliate of SONY.

Q - It's going to get made then?

A - I think so, if they accept the script. We'll see what happens.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" was written by Paul Campbell & Joel Newman

Jimmie Rodgers
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection