"Do you like this restaurant? You know, it used to be Birdland." Johnny Rodgers smiles, drinking in any lingering musical glamor rather than his cold drink, as we sit down for a talk on a brutally hot July day. As we chat about his affection for jazz and some of his favorite musical theater writers such as the Gershwins and Maltby and Shire, a question I had puzzled over starts to get answered. Why is it that this artist's work, which is much more pop than anything else, has such broad appeal?
The more we talk, the more I see how Johnny has been a sponge, absorbing many kinds of influences while sounding extraordinarily fresh. He has been embraced by cabaret lovers and has played many of the clubs in New York since he relocated here in 2001 after making a splash in similar circles in Chicago. He was anointed with the Outstanding Debut award from MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) and was similarly recognized by The Songwriters Hall Of Fame. One of his favorite places to play is the new Birdland on West 44th Street, where he'll be performing with his band on September 19th. He'll also be there to play for Sally Mayes on August 22, easily slipping into a musical theater style. But the main focus right now is the moment he's been waiting for: his first album is about to be released (August 9 on PS Classics). It's called Box Of Photographs.
I ask how he got ideas for songs he has written, like "Midday Moon," which is moody and elusive. "One day, I was sitting in Central Park, high up on those rocks, and noticed that I could see the moon in the afternoon sky. And it just started coming to me." Is it a rule of thumb for a songwriter who doesn't know when inspiration will strike to always have a pencil with him? "Actually, I didn't have anything to write with that day," he laughs. "I figure, if I can't remember it, it's probably not worth remembering." Modesty may be his middle name. I want to talk about his energetic piano playing, but he deflects the question to rave about his band: Joe Ravo (guitar), Brian Glassman (bass), and Danny Mallon (drums). "I'm really lucky. They trust me, and they're generous with their time and talent."
Johnny has written two songs with neighbor (non-Beach Boy) Brian Wilson that salute music icons. One is a valentine to Elvis Presley's home, "Movin' Into Graceland." How did this fun song happen? "Brian is a huge Elvis fan. So we were talking and drinking a couple of Yuenglings and we basically wrote the song in an hour." They've been friends since college and never know when hanging out will end up in the birth of a song. The other tribute is a bow to the work of Simon and Garfunkel, "Here's to You"; it's not on his new album, but does appear on another summer release - In Good Company, an album of duets on LML Music by Lee Lessack [profiled in this article] and 17 different duet partners. Johnny and the band are featured on the album and he produced it, in addition to harmonizing with Lee. Johnny and Lee are both performing songs from their CDs at Tower Records at Lincoln Center in Manhattan on Wednesday, August 3 at 6:00 pm and will be touring around the country shortly. (Details at www.LMLmusic.com)
A few years ago, Johnny met singer Lina Koutrakos at the O'Neill Cabaret Symposium and made a mental note that he'd like to work with her and her album producer, Richard Barone. Box Of Photographs' title song and two others are co-written with Barone, and the tender "One More Moment" has lyrics co-authored by Lina. Of Barone, he says, "I like the way he writes pop songs. I admire the focus he brings to writing." He tells how he had fairly complex verses for what became the title song about letting go of memories, and "Richard said he thought the chorus should be much simpler" to balance that. The resulting song seems seamless.
Johnny apparently weaves in the ideas of collaborators the way he combines influences of music he heard through the years. He rattles of a long list of favorites, ranging from George Shearing to The Beatles and James Taylor. Born and raised in Miami, he went to a school for the arts and acted in local musicals before applying for a special jazz studies program after beginning college. "I went to Florida State, but that didn't work out so great. But I was singing in a choral group when I was 20 and in the jazz program. Mel Torme was coming to the school to do a special [concert] guest appearance." Torme had been a longtime favorite for his many musical talents, not just singing. "I made sure to volunteer to pick him up at the airport so I could talk to him." Johnny relates how honored he was to sing a solo in the concert, in a re-creation of one of Torme's Mel-Tones' records, "What Is This Thing Called Love?" His idol was listening in the wings and was impressed, remarking, "Hey that kid sounds just like me!" His smile fades as he remembers, "He died on my birthday."
Johnny's songs are filled with similar juxtapositions of moods, putting happy and sad recollections side by side. But the positive usually wins out. Part of that comes from his relationship of several years with singer Georgia DeFalco, who does some backing vocals on two of the CD cuts. She's also the subject of the song "Sweet Georgia Smile" which I've heard him sing around town, at The Cabaret Convention at Town Hall and live on radio's late-night Joey Reynolds Show. "I'm a really lucky guy. Most people spend a lifetime looking for someone they want to spend their lives with. I already found her." Some have thought the tune is about the state of Georgia, but it's about the state of bliss.
Other tunes on the album harken back to times when he felt lost and lonely, assuming they are even a little autobiographical. He says he'd rather let the songs speak for themselves, and he doesn't think every song should be straight out of his experience. Some of that may come from wanting to write for characters in musical theater. "I think I'll possibly - no, probably - be writing a musical when the time is right. But now I'm focused on pop music." To call his songs that seems too simple, since some are a bit poetic, richly emotional, and knowing for your run-of-the-mill modern pop song. They do have more of a reflective sensibility like some of the singer-songwriter icons of the 1960s he grew up admiring.
Many of Johnny's New York contacts came through Jim Caruso. He played for Jim's act soon after coming to New York, which led to his being booked on his own at the much-missed club, Arci's. He makes freqent appearances as the pianist for Caruso's madcap Cast Party variety shows, including some at the aforementioned Birdland. He was hired to play piano at a party at lyricist Fred Ebb's home, which led to being hired as an accompanist by Liza Minnelli for various appearances. He was a bit daunted, but remembers, "Liza told me, 'You can do anything.' She's been very supportive." He has also played for Karen Mason and Donna McKechnie "and I worked with Linda Lavin for about a minute," he says of a show he wold have liked to see go on. He's appeared with Michael Feinstein, too. Sally Mayes continues to be a friend and favorite partner; he says he feels a special thrill working with her because before he met any stars, her cast album Closer Than Ever was "a big favorite."
Although the musical theater piece he has lurking somewhere on the back burner of his brain hasn't come forth, I suspect he'll be ready. Shortly after Johnny's arrival in New York, I met him briefly when we happened to sit next to each other at a concert of Broadway songs and their history, and I noticed him writing notes furiously. We spoke about the valuable skill of being able to write in a darkened theater. I knew soon people would be scribbling notes in the dark and watching him. Soon enough, he was performing in the revue Our Sinatra, singing from the icon's repertoire.
P.S. Classics was smart enough to get Johnny to sing "Danglin'" with the band and his own arrangement, on their album of songs by Maury Yeston, and it led to their releasing Box Of Photographs on their label. A CD release party at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan on August 15 and concerts with Lee Lessack are ahead, but he also has more songs not covered there. With a bit of urging, he sings me a bit of one that confirms my hunch that he'll be writing that musical one day. Is he like other younger writers in that genre? Yes and no. He may not have that much in common with Adam Guettel, besides the fact that both of their mothers are named Mary Rodgers ... and he may not have that much in common with Jason Robert Brown ... besides the fact they both share their lives with pretty musicians named Georgia ... but, like them, he can capture emotion and put it into a song filled with observation and longing. He seems to remember feelings and reactions and can put them into eloquent phrases, even when he forgets to have a pencil in the park, capturing the moment like a camera, and thus the Box Of Photographs.
For more information on this artist and his appearances, visit www.johnnyrodgers.com.