Jack Rodgers said he remembers snapshots of his musical career – memories of those he met along the way, and the lessons he learned from them.
The 93-year-old Hillsboro native and country-western star said he remembers the first time Richard Nixon walked through the double doors of a resort saloon in the deserts of California, and asked him to play “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.
“He was a real nice guy,” Rodgers said.
He said he remembers when Elvis Presley asked him, “Where do I go from here? I’m just a man – but they put me on the stage as a king.”
He said he remembers when Redd Foxx limped onto a Los Angeles nightclub stage and worked him into a comic routine.
“Poor guy,” Rodgers said. “Died broke.”
He remembers watching talented stars and good friends shoot to the top of the charts, and plummet back to the bottom after vanity and ego got the better of them.
Rodgers said he also remembers when that same ego left him, and when he moved back to Hillsboro in the 1980s – the same home he left nearly 40 years before with only a suitcase, a guitar and $35.
Rodgers has been singing ever since he can can remember.
“It’s just something I started off with,” he told The Times-Gazette. “I did it as a kid… I was always kickin’ around with guitars.”
He said his first show was a music contest at Bell’s Opera House in the 1930s – which, he proudly recalled, he won. After that, it was just a matter of making the right connections.
Rodgers befriended Merle Travis, a country-western singer from Rosewood, Kentucky, who told him to audition for King Records and WLW in Cincinnati. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Rodgers worked with a few different groups and gained popularity as a country-western artist as his music worked its way through the airwaves and record stores.
“In show business, you have to take it step by step,” he said. “Then you’re a star.”
By the time World War II ended, Rodgers was a solo act. Around that time, he said, Travis told him he should move to Los Angeles, where all the talented young people went. So he packed up and left for the West Coast.
Rodgers spent the next 30 years in show business – and, to him, it was definitely a business. He didn’t care much for being a star, he said. He just wanted to play music and earn a living.
“I loved it. I just loved to play,” he said.
During his career, he said, he met just about every popular Hollywood star you could name, describing them as “just people I met in the business.”
Over the years, he watched those same people become consumed with what he described as “the vanity of the star.”
“It’s the ego… thinking they’re better than the audience, when really, they’re just walking around on a stage and entertaining,” he said. “What I say is, you are just a human, beating the trails of life. You go to the bathroom, you eat, you sleep, just like everyone else.”
Rodgers said the idea goes all the way back to Genesis.
“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” he said. “Nixon, Elvis, all those guys are dead now. The life I’m living, the things I’ve done, it all just goes back to God.”
Rodgers said a fire in June destroyed some of the belongings he uses to remember his career, but he still has those mental snapshots he’ll never forget – like the time he performed at Disneyland and saw Walt Disney himself giving a young Ronald Reagan a tour of the place.
“These are little things that you pick out of your life, you know?” he said. “And this has been my whole life.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.