It's easy to underestimate the role of rhythm guitarists in blues simply because at their best, they remain unobtrusive and in the background. Their job isn't to impress with flurries of notes or stabbing leads, it's to complement a featured artist by accenting where necessary and Jimmy Rogers excelled as a sympathetic and an incredibly important sideman. Much like Robert Jr. Lockwood, who is held in the highest regard today for what he contributed to the recordings of Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, or the many others, Rogers spent a great deal of time adding considerably to the polished outcome of Muddy Waters' Chess singles, away from a spotlight that could have shined brightly on his impressive skills had luck been more on his side. He managed to come front and center for that particular label as early as the summer months of 1950, going on to wax a healthy dose of fully-satisfying blues for that imprint, his activities as a perfect foil for others often found him residing in the background. When MCA/Chess issued these complete recordings of Jimmy Rogers in 1997, his legend began finding its deserved recognition, although much later than many others he traversed the same territory with. However late that notice might have been served, it is spoken loudly here with 51 tracks and over two hours of surging yet reflective blues, including a healthy dose of alternate takes, played by one of the finest guitarists the genre ever knew. Rogers might well be more esteemed for his role as a backing guitarist on the records of others more than as an artist in his own right, but regardless of that possibility, there can be little, if any doubt, that he was one of the progenitors of Chicago electric blues guitar. His loping patterns, deft leads, and unerring ability to weave seamless fills around harmonicas, pianos, and other guitars are as solid as they are perfect, whether assisting Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson, or working his own magic as a featured bluesman.
Much like Little Walter, Muddy Waters, or countless others, Rogers (born James A. Lane on June 3, 1924 at Ruleville,MS) began playing in Chicago on the corners around Maxwell and Halstead streets after settling in the Windy City in the early 1940's. His recording legacy began there as well, cutting for the shoestring Ora-Nelle imprint in 1947 and later for the Regal label in 1949. Rogers met Little Walter earlier in the 1940's when both were still in the South heading toward Chicago, although separately, and wound up meeting again in the Windy City, where they hooked up with Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster, later calling themselves the Headhunters. Foster had secured a recording deal with the small Parkway label, and in 1947, with Waters and Jacobs by his side, they cut a rousing two-sided Delta anthem, Rollin' And Tumblin.' Waters was under contract with Aristocrat, run by the Chess brothers, who were less than pleased to hear his slashing slide guitar on another imprint and Muddy was coerced into recutting the title for Aristocrat. With Aristocrat's better distribution and connections, Muddy's less-enthusiastic version successfully buried Foster's, and Leroy seems to have parted a short time later. Rogers and Little Walter stuck with Muddy, and when Aristocrat became the Chess logo in 1950, this small crew began cutting some of the toughest blues in Chicago, with Ernest "Big" Crawford supplying the slapping acoustic bass. Jacobs exited the Waters outfit following the success of Juke in 1952, and Rogers maintained his position as second guitarist behind Muddy for a number of years, all the while bolstering his own career and reputation by cutting solid titles for Chess.
"The Complete Chess Recordings" is a two-disc collection that kicks off with That's Alright and Ludella, both cut in August of 1950 and issued as Chess 1435. With Jacobs adding tasteful, unamplified harp and Crawford holding the bottom end, Rogers exudes a strong sense of maturity, his voice as perfect a tool as his potent guitar, and this pairing was the most successful single in Rogers' well-peppered catalog. In October of the same year, they returned and waxed another marvelous coupling which became Chess 1442; matching Goin' Away Baby, now regarded as a classic, and the pensive Today, Today Blues. January of 1951 found Rogers re-entering the studio, this time with a full band consisting of Ernest Cotton on tenor sax, Eddie Ware's drilling piano, Crawford's bass (although Willie Dixon is a strong candidate), and Elgin Evans offering the relaxed drum work. The World's In A Tangle and She Loves Another Man both hit the market as Chess 1453 soon after they were waxed, while I Used To Have A Woman was shelved for a time. All three tracks are solid efforts and show a cohesive unit playing in a more relaxed style than what Muddy was cutting at the time. Cotton's tenor work flows smoothly and Rogers plays solid rhythm patterns, while Ware throws in two-fisted patterns from the piano bench. In July of '51, the team headed back in for another session, minus Cotton, but with Little Walter back in the fold, it proved a superb decision. Although known for his creativity and leadership with harmonicas in hand, this time Jacobs doled out gripping, distorted guitar figures over the slow groove of Money, Marbles, And Chalk and offered strong rhythm parts on the rippling Hard Working Man, featuring more of Ware's pounding piano. Jacobs returned to his regular duties as perhaps the most powerful harmonicist in Chicago for an astounding slice of work on Chance To Love, a slow and riveting blues which remains as one of his finest efforts in a catalog full of incredible sides with solos bursting with energy and creativity. Rogers supplies excellent vocals and more textbook guitar patterns for My Little Machine, a sexually charged nugget where Walter drops another well-timed and gruff-toned harp statement to the mix.
J.T. Brown, a tenor player usually paired with Elmore James, joined the Rogers' outfit for a February 1952 date which offered Back Door Friend, paired with the previously mentioned I Used To Have A Woman for Chess 1506. Crying Shame, another slow mover, was ditched until Chess unleashed its Vintage LP series nearly two decades later, and Rogers tosses out effortless rhythm guitar behind Brown. August of 1952 saw Rogers back for more work, this time with Po' Bob Woodfork, a little-known yet solid guitarist who sadly recorded very little. A.J. Gladney and Willie Dixon make up the foundation and Rogers pours out brilliant vocals for the wonderful Mistreated Baby and What's The Matter, another tandem that finally appeared on a double-LP Rogers' long-player (1976's Chess Blues Masters Series). The Last Time features Jimmy doubling his own voice in an early piece of engineering science and its partner on Chess 1519 was the slow Out On The Road, laced with distorted guitar, and in May of 1953, Little Walter was back for more shimmering harp on Left Me With A Broken Heart and Act Like You Love Me, a storming shuffle. The first month of 1954 saw Rogers joined by more of Chicago's blues kingpins; Odie Payne supplying the behind-the-beat drumming and helped along with Muddy's guitar, Jacobs dishing out more greasy harp, and Little Johnny Jones or Henry Gray handling piano duties. From this session came the now classic Chicago Bound, a perfect example of a rollicking Windy City blues (close to autobiographical, although based on Memphis Slim's 1947 "Harlem Bound" and personalized by Rogers) and the slow drag of Blues All Day Long. April dished out another classic, this time Rogers' reworking an old John Lee Williamson number into Sloppy Drunk, a blazing Chicago boogie. February of 1955 offered the first of two takes of You're The One, a previously unreleased in the U.S. version with Francis Clay drumming, and then from December came the second-and-issued attempt, with Robert Jr. Lockwood assisting on guitar and Fred Below clobbering out the backbeats, coupled with Blues All Day Long for Chess 1616. Disc One shuts down with Walter Horton serving up shattering harp for If It Ain't Me (Who Are You Thinking Of), cut in the latter months of 1956.
Disc Two picks up where we left off, an October session from 1956 with Walter Horton, who managed what he always seemed to do best; save his best work for someone else's session and Walking By Myself features a tough harp solo with thick and greasy tone. December of that year found Rogers helped out by Jody Williams who offers searing guitar figures on I Can't Believe and One Kiss, both paired as Chess 1659. In some camps these are considered throw-away tracks, yet there are plenty of supporters who find them engaging and exciting, even if not the straight-head blues Rogers was so well-equipped for. Horton accents perfectly in the background and Jody Williams is allowed plenty of space to concoct a couple of careening solos that add considerably to the more commercially acceptable tracks. What Have I Done and Trace Of You come from September of 1957, and while there seems to be confusion as to whether Little or Big Walter supplied the harmonica, aural evidence leads many to believe it was the smaller-sized of the two possible harp slingers. Paired as Chess 1687, the latter finds a new ingredient in Rogers' work, background vocals, and again, while hardly straight blues, these two, and My Baby Don't Love Me No More show Rogers' ability to change his appearance and come across as a wide-ranging artist. Those efforts returned in a session from May of 1958 which found Mighty Joe Young handling lead guitar chores while Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, and Odie Payne made up the remainder of the band. Don't You Know Baby and This Has Never Been, a slow effort with interesting studio banter between Rogers and Leonard Chess, were first issued on the long-out-of-print Vintage Series LP, while Looka Here was previously unreleased, as was Don't Turn Me Down, a curious piece in that it features syrup-drenched saxophone which is completely disregarded in the session details. What may well be Jimmy Rogers' best-known track, Rock This House, was cut in February of 1959, and features the highly-rewarding guitar of Reggie Boyd, a lesser-known legend around Chicago, and his fleet-fingered six-string efforts add to the relentless swing of this title and the humorous My Last Meal (previously a regional hit for one Harmonica Harry, written by the also curious Jack Hammer, cut October 5, 1956 and issued as OKeh 7404). You Don't Know and Can't Keep From Worrying both stem from November of 1959 and Rogers is aided by Little Walter's tough harp work, while Fred Robinson and Luther Tucker share guitar duties. Otis Spann's gripping piano efforts are well-placed, and Willie Dixon and George Hunter nail down the rhythm chores.
The true goldmine begins with track 15 and continues through the 26th and final cut, a treasure trove of gems that were either left in the can as unissued, or at least unissued on these shores (the British led the way in the reissue stakes for a long time) and the fun starts with a previously unreleased version of Ludella. While this was the spelling of the title on Chess 1435, both versions here are curiously spelled Luedella and the unissued take stops short just as Little Walter is closing out a fine unamplified solo, and makes way for an alternate reading of Act Like You Love Me from May of 1953. After the many years of research and vault digging, certain details are still left open to discussion and the possibility of the two Walters reappears here, yet it sounds unmistakably like the littler of the two candidates. What Have I Done finds the shelved version seeming to hold a bit more urgency than the issued take and it's taken at a slightly quicker clip while Little Walter's solo comes across as a bit less developed than his effort on the released version. The alternate take of Trace Of You heard here appeared on Jimmy's long-gone Vintage LP and the balance of the remaining seven titles are all available for the first time. Bristling versions of Don't Turn Me Down and This Has Never Been stand well next to another listen to Rock This House with a steaming solo and flowing chords from Reggie Boyd's guitar, and while Jimmy's vocals come in a bit out-of-whack after Boyd's first ride, the band recovers and finishes off with power. My Last Meal returns at a sharper pace and with a different ending yet is no less interesting than the earlier track and Boyd spouts another well-timed foray while the alternate take of You Don't Know includes a small slip at the beginning where everyone charges on making up for the miscue. Little Walter turns in another shattering harp break here and the closing track is another fine reading of Can't Keep From Worrying with Luther Tucker providing stellar guitar fills over Jimmy's earthy vocals and Jacobs' smoldering harmonica.
Of the many less-heralded players who made considerable and indelible contributions to blues recordings in the 1950's, Jimmy Rogers' name remains near the top of the list, yet he was already residing in Chicago during the late 1940's and early 50's. When the old molds cast by the Bluebird stable of artists were being broken, a small group of players were essential in reshaping blues to fit the more modern and louder times; Johnny Young, Moody Jones, Snooky Pryor, Muddy Waters, Baby Face Leroy, Little Walter, and more among them were beginning to turn heads with a more raucous approach.
One of the often overlooked items that set Jimmy apart and helped make him a more commercially appealing artist was his incredibly clear, distinct voice and a way of phrasing that was second to none. While Muddy shouted his blues in the older Delta tradition, though updated with amplified guitar, Rogers sang in a style that was as comfortable as a Sunday afternoon porch discussion with friends, and his words were easily understood. While this might have helped make his blues more digestible to the masses, Rogers unfortunately missed out on the fame found early by Waters, later became disillusioned with the business following a number of soured deals and missed opportunities, and retired from his chosen trade as one of Chicago's finest blues guitarists. Being a devout family man with mouths to feed and children to clothe, Jimmy took on numerous roles including taxi cab driver and clothing store operator, among various other sidelines and didn't return to music fulltime until the late-1960's. Recognition built as did Rogers' career and Jimmy went on to record a number of fine projects that lasted right up to his December 1997 death, not long after this definitive set found its way to the market. Thankfully, most of his excellent catalog is currently available on CD.
"The Complete Chess Recordings" of Jimmy Rogers offers breathtaking sonics and includes a 16-page booklet with liner notes by Mary Katherine Aldin, and complete session details with all known dates, personnel, and original issues of these sides, many which have gone on to become classics covered numerous times by more modern practitioners. While his close friends were more noticeable frontmen like Muddy Waters and Little Walter, both who helped reinvent Chicago's blues, Jimmy Rogers accepted a role that kept him out of the spotlight for a good portion of his career, playing guitar behind the scenes, but his efforts in back of others were no less important in the new and growing form that began echoing from neighborhood taverns and record labels in the Windy City. Simply put, while Muddy was reinventing the role of bandleader and Little Walter was taking the harmonica to new and unheard of heights, Rogers was either comfortably in the background adding considerable depth to recordings with his highly rhythmic guitar playing, or waxing brilliant slices of his own music where he allowed others to bask in the spotlight. For those unselfish acts alone, he justly deserves placement in the upper-echelon of blues heroes for his remarkable additions to the genre.
Special thanks to Jack Van Camp and Stephen Davidson who generously helped with session details and liner notes.
Also to Robert Campbell who offered the use of Chess 78 images from the Big Joe Louis collection at:
and a nod of thanks to Ricardo Reccioni for providing invaluable information.
Photo of Jimmy Rogers (with Nick Moss in background) kindly provided by Jack Van Camp.
Blues Records 1943-1970 - Leadbitter and Slaven (Volume Two) - Record Information Services
All Music Guide to the Blues - Edited by Erlewine, Bogdanov, Woodstra, Koda (2nd Edition) - Miller Freeman
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