Jimmie Rodgers, the pop star from Camas who worked in the local paper mill before his sweet voice brought success in the 1950s and 1960s with hit tunes like “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” died Monday.
He was 87 years old and living near Palm Springs, Calif., according Sharon Newberry Martell, one of several Rodgers relatives who still live in Camas.
“He was so talented, and he had such a beautiful, crystal clear singing voice,” Martell said.
Rodgers’ mother taught him music while he was a child, and his voice soon shined forth at community gatherings. He attended Camas High School and Vancouver Junior College (Clark College) before going to work at the Camas paper mill; while he knew he loved music, he wasn’t sure he could make a living at it.
Rodgers was drafted into the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, but was only transferred as far as Nashville, the home of country music. That was a fateful move, his daughter, Michele Rodgers, said from Nashville during a telephone interview, because he got involved in the local music scene there.
The legend is that local folks were knocked out by Rodgers’ talent and took up a collection to send him to perform on TV’s Arthur Godfrey talent show, Michele said, where he immediately got signed to Roulette Records.
Rodgers’ first big hit, the boppy singalong “Honeycomb,” came in the summer of 1957, swiftly followed by “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again,” “Secretly” and “Are You Really Mine?” He made the rounds of TV variety shows with these hits in the late 1950s, and he scored several more before his career started to slow down.
Another series of successes came in the late 1960s with more mature material, like “It’s Over” and “Child of Clay,” but those were Rodgers’ final hit songs.
His life took a hard and violent turn after that. In 1967 Rodgers suffered serious head injuries in a mysterious roadway incident in Los Angeles that he couldn’t remember, other than being pulled over by a car with flashing lights. Lawsuits and countersuits alleged police brutality and slander, but all were dropped when the city of Los Angeles settled the matter for $200,000. While the incident remains ambiguous, some industry insiders have claimed Rodgers was attacked by hired thugs — who were off-duty police officers — for demanding the royalties he was owed by Roulette Records. Roulette was notoriously tied to the New York mafia.
Rodgers recovered from those head injuries, according to Michele, but had to endure three brain surgeries. His clear, sweet singing voice was eventually blocked by a vocal-cord problem called spasmodic dysphonia. That’s when he got into songwriting and record production, said Michele, who benefited from her father’s expertise as she launched her own Nashville-based music career. He also developed heart and kidney problems — as well as COVID-19 at the very end, Michele said.
Rodgers was a kind, energetic, attentive father who loved puttering around outdoors, Michele said. He wrote an autobiography, published in 2010, called “Dancing on the Moon.” And he returned to Camas in 2013 to watch his home town add the honorary name “Jimmie Rodgers Avenue” to Northwest 10th Avenue.
“It was quite a life,” Michele Rodgers said. “Amazing highs, tragic lows and everything in between.”