James Frederick Rodgers (September 18, 1933 – January 18, 2021) was an American singer. Rodgers had a run of hits and mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. His string of crossover singles ranked highly on the Billboard Pop Singles, Hot Country and Western Sides, and Hot Rhythm and Blues Sides charts; in the 1960s, Rodgers had more modest successes with adult contemporary music.
He is not directly related to the earlier country singer Jimmie C. Rodgers, who died the same year the younger Rodgers was born. Among country audiences, and in his official songwriting credits, the younger Rodgers is often known as Jimmie F. Rodgers to differentiate the two.
In the summer of 1957, he recorded his own version of “Honeycomb”, which had been written by Bob Merrill and recorded by Georgie Shaw three years earlier. The tune was Rodgers’ biggest hit, staying on the top of the charts for four weeks. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Over the following year he had a number of other hits that reached the Top 10 on the charts: “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again”, “Secretly”, and “Are You Really Mine”. Other hits include “Bo Diddley”, “Bimbombey”, “Ring-a-ling-a-lario”, “Tucumcari”, “Tender Love and Care (T.L.C)”, and a version of Waltzing Matilda as a film tie-in with the apocalyptic movie On the Beach.
In the United Kingdom, “Honeycomb” reached number 30 in the UK Singles Chart in November 1957, but “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” climbed to number 7 the following month. Both “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again” were million sellers.
The success of “Honeycomb” earned Rodgers guest appearances on numerous variety programs during 1957, including the “Shower of Stars” program, hosted by Jack Benny, on October 31, 1957, and the Big Record with Patti Page, on December 4, 1957. Rodgers also made several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, including on September 8, 1957, and November 3, 1957. In 1958, he appeared on NBC’s The Gisele MacKenzie Show. Also in 1958, he sang the opening theme song of the film The Long, Hot Summer, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Orson Welles. He then had his own short-lived televised variety show on NBC in 1959.
His biggest hit in the UK was “English Country Garden”, a version of the folk song “Country Gardens”, which reached number 5 in the chart in June 1962. In 1962, he moved to the Dot label, and four years later to A&M Records. He also appeared in some films, including The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, opposite Neil Hamilton, and Back Door to Hell, which he helped finance.
In 1966, a long dry spell ended for Rodgers when he re-entered the Top 40 with “It’s Over” (later to be recorded by Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, Mason Williams, and Sonny James). In 1967, he changed record labels, signing with A&M Records. It was with that label that Rodgers had his final charting Top 100 single, “Child of Clay”, written by Ernie Maresca, (who had a top-40 hit back in 1962, “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out)”.) He performed the song on several television variety shows, including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but it never became a big hit; it only reached number 31 on the Billboard charts.
On December 1, 1967, Rodgers suffered traumatic head injuries after the car he was driving was stopped by an off-duty police officer near the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles. He had a fractured skull and required several surgeries. Initial reports in the newspapers attributed his injuries to a severe beating with a blunt instrument by unknown assailants. Rodgers had no specific memory of how he had been injured, remembering only that he had seen blindingly bright lights from a car pulling up behind him.
A few days later, the Los Angeles Police Department stated that off-duty LAPD officer Michael Duffy (at times identified in the press as Richard Duffy) had stopped him for erratic driving, and that Rodgers had stumbled, fallen and hit his head. According to the police version, Duffy then called for assistance from two other officers, and the three of them put the unconscious Rodgers into his car and left the scene. This account was supported by the treating physicians who had first blamed the skull fracture on a beating; by the latter part of December, they concluded that Rodgers had in fact fallen and that had caused his injuries.
The following month, Rodgers filed an $11 million lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, claiming that the three officers had beaten him. The police and the L.A. County District Attorney rejected these claims, although the three officers (identified in the press as Michael T. Duffy, 27; Raymond V. Whisman, 29, and Ronald D. Wagner, 32) were given two-week suspensions for improper procedures in handling the case, particularly their leaving the injured Rodgers alone in his car. (He was later found by a worried friend.) Duffy had had a previous four-day suspension for using unnecessary force; he had used a blackjack on a juvenile.
The three officers and the LA Fire and Police Protective League filed a $13 million slander suit against Rodgers for his public statements accusing them of brutality.
Neither suit came to trial; the police slander suit was dropped, and in 1973 Rodgers elected to accept a $200,000 settlement from the Los Angeles City Council, which voted to give him the money rather than to incur the costs and risks of further court action. Rodgers and his supporters still believe that one or more of the police officers beat him, although other observers find the evidence inconclusive. In his 2010 biography Me, the Mob, and the Music, singer Tommy James wrote that Morris Levy, the Mafia-connected head of Roulette Records, had arranged the attack in response to Rodgers’ repeated demands for unpaid royalties he was due by the label. All of Rodgers’ most successful singles had been released by Roulette, who were notorious for not paying their artists for their record sales.
In 1993, Raymond Virgil Whisman, one of the three officers who were alleged to have assaulted Rodgers, was arrested for assaulting his wife and threatening to kill her. The arrest occurred after sheriff’s deputies stormed his house after being informed that he was holding his wife at gunpoint. Deputies found 11 rifles, 4 shotguns, and two handguns in the home. Whisman was charged with two counts of assault and two counts of making terroristic threats.
Rodgers died on January 18, 2021, at the age of 87.