Johnny Rodgers

May 16, 2010

“What a Wonderful World”

Oak Room at the Algonquin  –  May 11 – 29

Set Johnny Rodgers near a piano and Pow!, it’s a concert, a vigorous, touching, enthusiastic musical mélange of Americana. From Memphis to St. Jo, with the snap of Chicago, easy Southern charm, New York energy and St. Louis rhythms—there’s that crazy mixed-up American spirit and the multifaceted Johnny Rodgers to deliver it. With a smokin’ band behind him, Rodgers is as home-grown as a pot roast dinner, adding some red-hot sauce just to spice things up.

If you only hear him swing through the earthy 1954 Ray Charles jump blues hit “It Should’ve Been Me,” written by Memphis Curtis, you might easily pinpoint Rodgers as a rhythm ‘n’ blues man. But listen on. Quickly he is as settled-in and committed as Louis Armstrong with the show’s title song, “What a Wonderful World” (Bob Thiele and George David Weiss). With an amiable grin promising some mischievous fun, he pounds out the rhythm and satire in Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and delivers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” with a nice ‘n’ easy drawl.

Comfortably at home at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room Supper Club, he starts with a bass accompaniment for a rhythmic ride with Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer’s “Too Marvelous for Words,” dizzying with more tongue-twisting extra lyrics than you ever heard, like “tin-tin-nabulous” and “colossable” because anything less would just be “apathistical.”

“Huggin’ and Chalkin’” (Clancy Hayes, Kermit Goell), recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, is a good-humored novelty song about a willing 300 pound gal that Rodgers delivers with zest, a real crowd-pleaser. A tune about obesity might be politically incorrect today, but not in 1947. For Carol Hall’s catchy “Change in Me,” guitarist Joe Ravo tucked his bright red silk handkerchief into his guitar as a mute, giving a Memphis banjo sound. Just perfect.

But that’s not all. Rodgers is an award-winning, versatile songwriter. Picture plopping a jaunty ’40’s porkpie hat on his head as he jives through “Take Another Chance on Love,” mixing rhythms and rhymes and building the energy. Completely different moods infuse the emotions in “One More Moment” (written with Lina Koutrakos) and “Sweet Georgia Smile,” a lovely country pop song in waltz tempo. Like “The Best of You in Me” (with Richard Barone), a tribute to his parents, these contemporary, intelligent ballads are naturals for other singers to consider. Rodgers’s “She” rides on sinuating samba rhythms with no-muss, no-fuss lyrics clearly spelling out what “She” is all about: “I and my and me/She says she loves you but she really loves…she.” I love the lyrics in this tune, like the line “She’ll clip the green right off like a bonsai tree.”

Rodgers has a personal charm, and a smooth silky Tormé tone, with dashes of Art Garfunkel and James Taylor. Apparently a fan of Sammy Davis Jr., arguably the greatest entertainer of the last century, Rodgers evokes the spirit of Davis’s outstanding pre-Rat Pack days with “The Birth of the Blues” (Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown), not mimicking the 1955 version, but celebrating its unforgettable verve. When Rodgers zooms into his keyboard, all the influences of the American jazz/pop/country/rock songbook add up to the fresh signature of Johnny Rodgers.

The rest of this tight band includes Brian Glassman (“‘Mud Man”) on bass and percussion, Danny Mallon (“Mad Dog”) on drums, percussion and vocals, and Joe Ravo (“Cotton Eye Joe”) on guitar. With Johnny Rodgers (“Poppy Sunshine”) at the helm, this charismatic group is about to bring the American popular songbook around the world. Now that’s diplomacy.


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