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Last Link With MuddyCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1997
Rogers, JimmyThe death of the veteran blues singer and guitarist Jimmy Rogers severed the last link with the seminal Chicago blues band led by Muddy Waters. While Rogers also enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he played rhythm guitar in a group which has been described by one American writer as "the best blues band ever heard on the earth", and was the last surviving member of that ground-breaking unit, which also featured pianist Otis Spann and the harmonica virtuoso, Little Walter.
Rogers was born and raised in the blues heartland of the Mississippi Delta. His real name was James Lane, but he adopted his stepfather's surname, a move which forever confused his name with that of the pioneering country singer, Jimmie Rodgers, and the more contemporary Jimmy Rogers who had a big rhythm and blues hit with "Honeycomb" in the 1950s.
He taught himself to play harmonica and guitar, and began to play at house parties as a teenager, before taking an intinerant path northwards, working in St Louis for a time before arriving in Chicago in 1939. His early musical experiences in the city revolved around playing for tips in the bars of Maxwell Street, before Sunnyland Slim gave him "my first big money gig in 1945 or 1946."
In the course of his day job in a factory, he met Muddy Waters's cousin, and when Waters himself arrived in Chicago, they teamed up in the first version of Waters's band, using the name The Headhunters as they played around the city's club circuit. He later recalled that they would earn as much as twenty dollars a night on their rounds, which was "pretty good money" at that time.
He recorded with both Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Minnie before going into the studio with Waters for the first time in 1949. It was the prelude to a remarkably successful decade in the band, which he eventually left in 1960. As rhythm guitarist and unofficial musical director, Rogers was a crucial part of the band's raunchy, hard-driving urban sound, and of classic songs like "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I Got My Mojo Working". While it was the leader who made the greatest reputation, Rogers never seemed anything other than proud of his role in the band.
"We knew what we were doing in that band with Muddy was something different -- we took the blues of guys like Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red and put it up on the beat, and what we did would just click like a padlock. A lot of musicians didn't know the combination to that lock."
At the same time as the Muddy Waters Band were re-defining the blues idiom in a new urban configuration, Rogers also scored a number of successful records under his own name, beginning with a trio version of "That's All Right" in 1950, and was able to lead his own bands on the back of that success. His best-known hit was the jaunty "Walking By Myself", which crossed over into the upper reaches of the rhythm and blues charts in 1957.
The 1960s proved a sparse decade for the singer, and he spent much of it away from music, running his own taxi firm for a time, and then opening a clothing store which was later burned to the ground during the Chicago riots which followed in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968.
The re-kindling of interest in the authentic sources of the blues which was sparked by the British-led blues revival of the 1960s enabled him to make a return to both performing and recording. He cut the Gold Tailed Bird album for Leon Russell's Shelter label in 1971, and toured Europe with prestigious blues packages in 1972 and 1973, before once again retiring, this time to work as the manager of an apartment building.
He resumed playing yet again, however, at the behest of Muddy Waters, who recruited his old collaborator for his I'm Ready album in 1977. Rogers continued to perform on a regular basis thereafter, and released periodic albums, including Feeling Good (1985), Ludella (1990), and a 1994 album which featured his son, Jimmy D. Lane, on guitar. He remained loyal to the style which made his name, but attempted to avoid stagnation in the process.
"I'm real proud of all the things I've done in the past," he said in 1992, "but I'm really not the sort of guy who likes to sit around remembering the good old days. The music I'm playing right now is the same music I've always been playing -- I hope I'm playing it better than before, but it's still the same blues. The blues doesn't change any more than human nature does, and I just play what I feel inside, like I always did."
He was survived by his wife, Dorothy Lane, eight children, and seventeen grandchildren.