Sat, Sep 15th, 2012 8:00 pm
Johnny Rogers: Legends of CountryIf you have neither the time nor money to travel to Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, you could head over to see Johnny Rogers’ “Legends of Country” show at The Wildey Theatre.
All the big stars will be there, even some who have passed away many years ago. Johnny will have you convinced you’re hearing Hank Williams Sr. or Johnny Cash or George Jones live in concert.
Heck, George Strait or Conway Twitty or Buddy Holly or maybe even Waylon Jennings might show up. You never know.
Anyone who has heard Rogers perform will say he has a record-perfect gift for impersonating many different artists. He can conjure up Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Jim Reeves and perhaps a dozen more country legends with such skill and charm that even friends and relatives of some of the artists have told him they were taken aback by the similarity.
If the Country Music Hall of Fame ever wanted to take a show on the road, hiring Johnny would solve half their problems.
The son of a country-music radio disk jockey, Rogers was introduced to show business from an early age.
“Sundays were always a jam session at our house,” he recalls. “We’d go to church in the morning, and after we got back, people would come over.”
Folks such as bluegrass legends Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs or rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, that is. Rogers recalls as a young boy being taught “a few things on the guitar” by the Killer, who was more famous as a pianist but also played guitar as he was transforming himself into a country star.
The thing is, Rogers says, he wasn’t all that interested in a music career at that time.
“My dad bought us all guitars, but I’d throw mine under the bed rather than practice playing it,” he remembers with a laugh.
It wasn’t until Rogers was in high school that the music bug bit him hard.
He saw the film “American Hot Wax,” about the 1950s rock-n-roll DJ Alan Freed, and one of the songs featured in the film was Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”
“From the first words out of (Holly’s) mouth, that part where he goes ‘weh-uh-heh-uh-heh-ell, ‘ I was hooked,” Rogers says, mimicking the singing so perfectly that bystanders in the restaurant where the interview was taking place looked up suddenly to see who let Buddy Holly in.
As a high-school kid in the mid-1980s, Rogers became obsessed with Holly and his music, dressing like Holly even to the point of wearing thick black horn-rimmed glasses.
Time went by and Rogers continued honing his musical ability. His father helped him sneak into some Chicago honky-tonks, where he played lead guitar for country singer Jimmy Nichols.
While he was learning to sing just like Buddy Holly, he also learned he could imitate other singers so well it was almost spooky. He can do Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra, and there’s probably no one else with both those singers in their repertoire.
By the time he started his own show, he was performing a crazy mixture of Prince and Buddy Holly.
He has more of a physical resemblance to Holly, though, so Rogers went down that avenue rather than follow the Purple One.
He lavished attention upon learning the minutest details of Holly’s life and career. In time, he came to know and gain the respect of musicians who had played with Holly.
He toured Europe with Tommy Allsup, the lead guitarist with Buddy’s group, the Crickets, and a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Allsup famously lost the coin flip with Ritchie Valens to get on the plane in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1959. The small charter plane crashed early the next morning — “The Day The Music Died” — killing Valens, Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, along with the pilot.
Fifty years later, Rogers played a tribute show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake along with Allsup, who says Rogers — more than anyone else — “has the aura of Buddy about him.”
No one can spend so much time touring and playing without learning lots of songs; Rogers is no exception. Although he has mastered portraying dozens of musicians both vocally and in their mannerisms, his current Legends of Country Music tour has him focusing on performers from Holly’s era who crossed over into country music after the British Invasion transformed the rock ’n’ roll scene in the 1960s.
He usually will perform a set in the style of one performer — Johnny Cash, say — and that will lead him and the band to segue into a tribute to someone who worked with Cash, like Waylon Jennings.
Years of performing onstage have taught him to read an audience. If Waylon isn’t working, maybe Willie will — or if he won’t, move over little dog and let ol’ Hank Williams move in.
“I don’t really have a set list,” Rogers said. “The band knows all the songs, and we really just go with what the audience seems to want. I never know exactly how any show is going to go. I just want to make sure everyone has a good time.”
For tickets and additional information call 618.307.1750.
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