Street signs point to Jimmie Rodgers Avenue

Camas' N.W. 10th Avenue now bears name of city's own, decorated singer-songwriter

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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CAMAS — The street on the hill was Jimmie Rodgers' not-so-private play zone, remembered as a place of excessive childhood derring-do.

It was there, at Northwest 10th Avenue, where the singer-songwriter behind such hits as "Honeycomb" and "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" would take his soapbox racer to the top of the hill and zoom down it like hell on four wheels. Even as a youngster, Rodgers knew there'd be one of two outcomes on that street.

"I'd either get killed on this street," Rodgers said with a chuckle, "or I'd have my name on it."

On Friday, the latter came true in front of dozens of fans and family, when Camas Mayor Scott Higgins unveiled the street's new honorary name: Jimmie Rodgers Avenue.

People who knew Rodgers during his days growing up in Camas, where his mother Mary was a much-beloved piano teacher, reminisced among themselves about the old days, when the well-coifed crooner was little more than a neighborhood sharpshooter, slinging rocks into streetlights.

"I remember playing in the woods up here with him," said Lyle Sanders, who was playmates with the young Rodgers.

He recalled one winter day in 1943, when the sled Rodgers was on careened out of control, sending him flailing upside down into a ditch. The street was a place of endless adventure for a young Rodgers, but it would be in East Coast recording studios where he'd find his success.

Rodgers graduated from Camas High School in 1951 and attended Clark College. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War, returning briefly to Camas in 1956.

He remembers working in the mill — No. 15 paper machine was his station — but yearning to make it as a singer. He began his career in the Northwest, playing venues in Vancouver, Portland and Seaside, Ore. In New York City, he signed with Roulette Records, where he cut the single for "Honeycomb." He'd later have a string of 23 gold records.

Long-time Camas resident Lois Evans-Mills recalled when that first hit song started receiving significant radio play. It became the talk of the town.

"It was an exciting time," she said. "He was a local boy making good. We were so proud of him."

Sandy McCausland, who's owned Rodgers' childhood home for the past 23 years, said Rodgers even left a permanent mark on the modest house. Down in the basement, there's a carving of his initials.

The idea for designating a ceremonial street name in Rodgers' honor was originally pitched by Marquita Call and Sharon Ballard, owners of Ballard & Call Fine Art Gallery in Camas. The Camas City Council approved the honorary naming in January.

Camas means so much to Rodgers, Call said.

Nowadays, Rodgers doesn't do much singing. He's suffered from spastic dysphonia since the 1980s. The disorder creates spasms in the larynx, inhibiting his ability to speak loudly or sing.

He's semi retired, has five children and four grandchildren and lives in California near Palm Springs with his wife, Mary, who accompanied him to Camas Friday. Even with his voice problems, he books several gigs a year in venues across the country.

Rodgers stays active. He's working of his third book in addition to music for animated movies. There's also been talk of filming a Hollywood film based on his autobiography "Dancing on the Moon." The book tells the story of Rodgers' life in Camas, his experience in the music industry and the debilitating beating he received in California in the 1960s.

From 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Rodgers will be signing copies of his autobiography, "Dancing on the Moon," at Ballard & Call Fine Art Gallery, 408 N.E. Fourth Ave.

Reflecting on his career and the support he continues to receive from his hometown, Rodgers said he's a lucky man.

"I love this town," Rodgers said. "These people are great."


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.