(Pictured: Jimmie Rodgers, on the right, with the Everly Brothers, 1970.)
I follow a lot of creative people on Twitter, and several of them have said that creative work has been difficult during the last year, between the pandemic, the political upheavals, and everything else in the world. It is a measure of my relative privilege that I have not experienced this myself . . . until recently. Since early in 2021, it’s like a door slammed shut or a spigot turned off. I wrote Sidepiece posts after the attack on the Capitol and the inauguration, but that’s it. At this site, the pace will pick up a little next week, as I have a bunch of stuff in the can I wrote around New Year’s. Until then, and beyond that, who knows.
It has occurred to me that I never said anything about Phil Spector after his death a couple of weeks ago. There are lots of people in the world who fashion themselves as mad geniuses but few who come by the label honestly. Nobody disputes that he was a terrible human being. Nobody should dispute the power and beauty of the records he produced, his influence on producers and performers who followed him, or the fascination of his strange life.
It is the official position of this website that we should not judge the value of the art by the character of the artist, or there won’t be anyone left but Christian rockers and the boring young singers Nashville extrudes these days. But not everybody agrees. I saw the following take after Spector’s death: “We shouldn’t play his records anymore. Let him be forgotten.” Easy to say, but desperately unfair. Darlene Love told Rolling Stone (in a piece I’m not linking to, since RS is now paywalled and I’m pretty crabby about it) that Spector gave her “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and with it, her career, and why would she give that up? Even Ronnie Spector, who knows better than any of us how rotten Phil was, separates the man from the music she made with him. If artists intimately connected with him believe their work with him should still be heard, who are we to say they’re wrong?
Also: I didn’t hear anybody suggest we should stop listening to “Instant Karma,” All Things Must Pass, or the Ramones’ End of the Century—only the girl-group records. And that opens an interesting window into gender politics, I think, but we ain’t going there today.
“OK,” as I frequently say to my students, “new topic.”
Among performers who first made their mark in the 1950s, only a handful still walk among us. One of those performers died last week: Jimmie Rodgers. He is not the Singing Brakeman, one of the founding fathers of country music. This Jimmie Rodgers scored a handful of hits in the late 50s that made it into the good times/great oldies pantheon for a while, and anybody halfway conversant with the early rock ‘n’ roll era should know them. “Honeycomb” was a #1 hit; “Secretly,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” all made the Top 10; “Bimbombey” peaked at #11. All of them came in 1957 and 1958.
(Two of Rodgers’ songs were adapted into commercial jingles embedded in baby-boomer DNA: “Honeycomb” was used to plug Post’s Honeycomb cereal, and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” was the basis for the slogan “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s.”)
Once the hits slowed down, Rodgers remained visible, largely on TV variety shows. In typical turn-of-the-60s, cash-in-with-the-kids fashion, he got lead roles in a couple of movies, as a Civil War soldier in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and a World War II dogface in Back Door to Hell. In 1967, Rodgers was seriously injured in a beating incident, which he blamed on the Los Angeles police but which may have been ordered by mobbed-up record executive Morris Levy after Rodgers insisted on royalty payments he hadn’t received. In 1969, he starred in a summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show on which Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner were regulars. Rodgers continued to record through the end of the 1970s and to perform for a few years after that.
Jimmie Rodgers was 87; Phil Spector was 81. Their deaths, coming close upon those of contemporaries Hank Aaron (86), Larry King (87), and Gregory Sierra (83), add to the number of icons we leave behind on the ever-more-distant shore, as we sail on.