Remember the first time you heard Carly Simon’s Anticipation, Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls, James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend? That music, those performers, take an inexplicably direct path to our hearts and guts. I’m not talking about the where-was-I-when syndrome, which is something else entirely. Or the die-hard-fan-through-the-years, a kind of enjoyable fascination, arguably the kind of feelings The Beatles or Stones elicit. These others are artists who make us sway, nod, smile, move, listen. The music is unabashedly sentimental (not saccharine;) accessible, real. Johnny Rodgers’s music is like that.
Grandma Brown, who always wanted to be a Ziegfeld Girl, picked out melodies on the piano for four year old Johnny to sing. K-K-K-Katy, beautiful Katy/You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore (Geoffrey O’Hara) rang through the Rodgers house in what one can only imagine were tenuous high pitched tones. “I always wanted to perform.” Ambivalent about piano lessons, it was not Johnny but his sister who convinced the family to buy an instrument. “She took a piece of cardboard, drew piano keys on it and played at the kitchen table until my parents gave in.” He studied classical piano for a year, but stopped when he lost an adored teacher.
Beginning in 7th grade, then high school, Johnny took ballet, tap (his parents set up a piece of plywood on the grass so he could practice) and jazz dance, voice, and finally found his way back to piano. His teacher, Mrs. Warren, assigned Bach. Johnny would show up with The Root Beer Rag by Billy Joel or an Elton John number. “We negotiated.” He’d win competitions without practicing. “She’d pull her hair out.” Every year he’d perform in musicals. Paula Wayne, who’d starred in Golden Boy (Lee Adams/Charles Strouse) with Sammy Davis Jr., was a valued mentor. At Carnegie Mellon Pre-College Summer Program, Johnny wrote his first song, We May Be Young, But We’re Not Blind. He still excels in love songs.
There followed four colleges in six years, beginning with a scholarship to Florida State’s prestigious Musical Theater program. Unfortunately, the head of the program was on sabbatical, Johnny felt the syllabus was redundant, and— he was lonely. “I didn’t wear a watch or go to class.” Next was a year at community college.
While home, he auditioned for The Musicana Supper Club in Boca Raton, but didn’t get the job. Undaunted, Johnny slipped his resume and headshot under the hotel room door of the booker, with a note asking if they’d please consider seeing him again. He got hired. In our youth/We are driven by a hunger/For the big, important things we will do (One More Moment–Johnny Rodgers/Lina Koutrakos) Certainly talent and charm contributed to the outcome, but Johnny Rodgers’s singular tenacity is a force with which to be reckoned.
The Jazz Program at the University of Miami followed, then Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where he completed his education. “They were tough on me; I still struggled with authority, but I met incredible musicians.”
When a friend from Michigan moved to Chicago, Johnny followed. “It was a good place to hone my craft before coming to New York.” A kind of out-of-town tryout. Billy Stritch and Jim Caruso caught his act at a piano bar. Afterwards, Johnny approached Stritch, of whom he was a fan. Apparently, Caruso later asked Stritch who Johnny was. The response: “I don’t know, but you’d better get his number.” Caruso remembered Johnny and when Stritch was next unavailable, he called the young musician. It was 2000, time to relocate to Manhattan.
Johnny played at Brandy’s Piano Bar and Arci’s Place. He accompanied singers, got session gigs, and did songwriting workshops. The Eugene O’Neill Cabaret Symposium and ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop were invaluable learning and networking opportunities. Jim Caruso introduced him “to everyone in town.”
In 2005, funded by an ASCAP Award and his devoted parents, Johnny made plans to record his first CD, Box of Photographs. The producer had to be something special. Johnny fixed his sights on Richard Barone, a successful singer-songwriter, arranger, producer, director (and fellow Floridian) whom he admires. Barone was BUSY in capital letters, but Johnny was determined. He literally “stalked” his prey, turning up everywhere Barone was with a wave, a cheerful hello, and a demo. There was simply no denying him. Barone produced the recording and later Bound Together (The Johnny Rodgers Band) and Let’s Make a Date: Johnny Rodgers and Liza Minnelli. They began to write with one another.
At one of lyricist Fred Ebb’s Christmas parties, Liza Minnelli saw Johnny perform. She was doing Liza’s Back at the time and asked him to do some vocals. He ended up running the rehearsal. Minnelli invited him to entertain at parties with her band and when accompanist and music director Billy Stritch wasn’t available to do a benefit, asked him to substitute. “We get to the gig and she says to me, honey, watch my ass for the tempo.” He went on the road with Minnelli for three years. “She’s the real deal. I’d venture to say I learned more from her than any single educational institution or person in my life; more about how to share with an audience, to reach them.”
Back in New York, Johnny accompanied Minnelli to a dance class and found himself taking part. “Honey, I had no idea you could do this!” she gushed. The next three years, with Stritch back at the piano, Johnny became a singer and backup dancer in what eventually was known as Liza’s at The Palace.
In November 2010, chosen from 132 applicants, The Johnny Rodgers Band traveled to Southeast Asia and The Pacific Islands as ad hoc ambassadors for The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tour activities included public concerts, master classes, lecture demonstrations, workshops, jam sessions and collaboration with local musicians. Eating fried tarantula “it tastes like bacon, but the body’s definitely the part you want to go for. The legs still contain some of that matted furriness,” was the least extraordinary of often life changing experiences. All four men agree on the trip’s lasting effects. The trip was such a success, The State Department’s Musical Overtures program has asked the group to do a four week tour of the Middle East in September/October 2011. They can’t wait. “I can’t think of a better way to learn how people are really the same all over the world. We all have heart, passion and music as common ground.”
Johnny Rodgers has performed and recorded with Michael Feinstein, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, Stephen Schwartz, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Liza Minnelli, among others. He composes, arranges, accompanies various cabaret and jazz luminaries, and even does his own charts. In September 2010, Motherhood, the Musical, co-authored with Sue Fabisch premiered in Florida. Songs include Nothing But the Best (For My Baby), Costco Queen, Minivan, and The Kids Are Finally Asleep. There will be six more productions before the end of the year and an additional eight in 2012. A book musical based on Liberace’s life (with Barbara Carole Sickman and “Our own personal Yoda, librettist Roger O. Hirson) is in development. Too Much needs to go over the top!/Too Much kicks out a hit from a flop!/Too Much was in my ridiculous but so meticulous plan/Too Much made me the star that I am. (from Liberace) And the band has completed recording about half of a new CD of American Standards. There are upcoming tour dates including a headlining appearance at The Yellowstone Jazz Festival.
“I wanna change the world, make it a better place, to reach people I never thought I’d have the opportunity to reach, to make music that moves people, to make time for my family. I want it all.” Odds are this man with his heart on his sleeve will get what he wants or burst trying.
Johnny met percussionist Danny Mallon at a session demo for an emerging artist. “I was playing shaker in my right hand, djembe drum in my left hand, a stick in my right foot shoe playing agogo bells, caxixe shaker rubber banded on my left foot,” Mallon recalls.The two musicians hit it off and discovered they were neighbors. At some point Johnny agreed to cat sit. “On the refrigerator is this scrap of paper saying something very zen. The true path to happiness…I was like wow, man, he’s gonna be some kind of guru.” Mallon is, in fact, extremely calm and easy going. The opposite proved to be true one evening after a late rehearsal, however, when the band was taunted by a bunch of generation X toughs. His reflexive, protective, pointedly wild behavior deemed him forever Danny Mad Dog Mallon to his band mates.
Danny, in turn, recommended guitarist Joe Ravo, now Cotton Eye Joe Ravo. “Joe has kinda got a little furry brow and whenever a lovely lady goes by, his face goes like this…” Johnny demonstrates a provocatively raised eyebrow. “There’s also the song, Cotton Eye Joe: I would’ve been married a long time ago if it wasn’t for Cotton Eye Joe…and Joe’s had a few ladies.”
Bassist Brian Glassman had been playing for the legendary Margaret Whiting at Arci’s Place (no longer in existence) when Johnny asked whether he’d do a duo with him at Arci’s. Glassman is the only band member not living on the Upper West Side, but in New Jersey. He’s also the only father. When rehearsals are called at the spur of the moment, the other musicians can easily get together, while Glassman has family commitments, parking karma with which to cope, and the enormous bass to tow. “I can’t make rehearsal or I come later, so my name is mud,” he explains, “Brian Mudman Glassman.”
And Johnny Poppy Sunshine Rodgers? An Eastern European friend of the band commented Johnny looks like the sun with his hair all spiked up and he’s like sunshine when he sings. Poppy, because he looks a little like Robin Williams in Popeye, but Popeye didn’t really go.” I’m told a future recording will be : Poppy Sunshine’s Goodtime Piano Band.
All unattributed quotes are Johnny Rodgers www.johnnyrodgersband.com
Read Alix Cohen’s review of The Johnny Rogers Band at Iridium, Winter Sunshine, Courtesy of Johnny Rogers.
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Band photo, clockwise from top right: Joe, Johnny, Danny, Brian