Boy wonder and Miami native Johnny Rodgers.
Boy wonder and Miami native Johnny Rodgers.

The Prodigal Piano Man

"When Liza found out that I could sing and dance, she pulled me off the piano," Johnny Rodgers recalls. "Now I play one of the Williams Brothers in her show based on Kay Thompson." The Miami native, taking a quick break from working on his latest album, is speaking with New Times on his cell phone from a recording studio in New York City. Managing a double career both as leader of his own band, and now as a Liza Minnelli sideman and collaborator, Rodgers is versatile, to say the least.

In fact, he says, his latest recordings show more of a rock influence. His current set list already features some bona-fide original rockers like "Miss Dixie" and "Moving into Graceland." And like Rodgers's rollicking 2005 solo debut, Box of Photographs, the new disc is being produced by veteran singer/songwriter Richard Barone. Rodgers hints that Barone's role will be expanded on this one.

Barone is Rodgers's true modern-day muse. In the Eighties, Barone led a group of hyperactive New Wave rockers called the Bongos, who were generally well regarded by critics and achieved some popular acclaim by opening for the B-52's on a national tour. After the Bongos broke up, Barone released a dozen recordings, all featuring his trademark wordplay and percussive sensibilities. Lately he has been co-writing and producing with the Johnny Rodgers Band, a fact that clearly pleases its leader. "He's an artist and a producer, which works great for us," Rodgers says.

Rodgers's composing work, meanwhile, is winning the artist further favor. Just last month he was bestowed with the highest songwriting prize he's received: winner of the Americana/folk category of Billboard magazine's World Song Contest. He's not surprised by the classification. "I write what the song dictates," Rodgers explains, adding he's always loved great music "regardless of the genre." And, yes, there are plenty of musicians who try on every conceivable style just for the sake of it. With the Rodgers Band, the difference is a deeper involvement in the arrangements and a sense of ease that results in an organic sound, with the tune and lyric as kings.

Growing up in lush Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest, Rodgers took his musical yearnings downtown, where he studied at the New World School of the Arts. That led to his acceptance into the University of Miami's School of Music. After completing his studies, ready to go pro, he packed his bags and headed for New York City. There he found success on the nightclub circuit with his combination of rock and roll sensibilities and polished technique.

But Rodgers is a traveling man. These days, whether with his own combo or with Minnelli, he spends most of the year on tour around the world. But this week, in what he has dubbed "coming home week," the Rodgers Band will be performing at three charity events in South Florida. The group will also perform both the U.S. and Canadian national anthems at the Heat vs. Raptors game March 5. Rodgers wraps it up March 14 with a Minnelli performance at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood.

The Kay Thompson part of Minnelli's show pays tribute to her godmother, best known perhaps for her series of children's books featuring the diminutive hotel-dwelling New Yorker Eloise. Rodgers's role onstage deals with the part of the story in which Thompson collaborates with crooner Andy Williams and his brothers, as she leads her successful touring cabaret act in the late Forties.

And despite his harder-rocking intentions, on the new album Liza does indeed make an appearance, in a duet with Rodgers. Another important nod to the past: The tracks mark the final recordings of Minnelli's longtime musical director, Bill "Pappy" LaVorgna, who drummed for her mother Judy Garland, as well as dozens of other luminaries. LaVorgna died at age 74, just a few weeks after sitting in on drums for a Rodgers session.

With so much going on these days, there are few dull moments for Johnny Rodgers. And with the hard work from those school years in Miami paying off, there's an air of triumph in his return to South Florida. "Home to Mendocino," the composition from Box of Photographs that won him the Billboard prize, features a chorus that repeatedly announces, appropriately, "I'm comin' home."


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