Jesse Otto Rodgers (1911-1973) born near Waynesboro, first cousin to Jimmie Rodgers, began singing on Mexican border radio stations after relocating to Texas. He wrote songs and recorded for Bluebird Records in the mid-1930s, briefly as a blue yodeler similar to Jimmie, but soon in his own Western style. He was a successful cowboy radio singer, children’s television host, and country-boogie style recording artist for two decades after World War II, based in Philadelphia, PA.
Born March 5, 1911, on his parents’ farm near Waynesboro, Jesse’s father, F. G. (“Eff”) Rodgers, gave up farming not long after Jesse’s birth to work on the Illinois Central Railroad along with his brother Aaron, the father of celebrated Singing Brakeman-to-be Jimmie Rodgers. Jesse would recall being taught his first guitar chords by first cousin Jimmie, who was thirteen years older. After his mother died in 1923, Jesse spent some time with relatives in Texas, but was back in Mississippi, married and beginning a family by 1928, working on his in-laws’ farm in Perry County. Pulled toward a musical career, inspired by Jimmie’s extraordinary success, Jesse began work on the Texas-Mexican border-based “border blaster” radio stations XERA and XERN in 1932, as both performer and announcer. When Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933, RCA Victor’s Bluebird label signed Jesse as a potential successor who would record similar material. Jesse could sound remarkably like his cousin, and such songs as “Yodelling the Railroad Blues,” and the use of musicians Jimmie had worked with, such as Hawaiian Charles Kama, accented the connection. Between 1934 and ’37, forty Jesse Rodgers records in this mode were released by Bluebird, Montgomery Ward, and as far away as Australia on Regal Zonophone.
Emerging as a talented and distinctive guitarist and songwriter in his own right, a singing cowboy when that image was at its height of popularity, from 1938 through 1944 Jesse recorded western songs for the Sonora and Varsity labels, the labels now spelling his name “Rogers,” likely to suggest a similarity to Roy Rogers, while working for a succession of radio stations in Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis as an on-air performer and announcer, including a stint on the celebrated WLS National Barn Dance out of Chicago. He became a popular live attraction in the regions where he broadcasted.
Jesse’s move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1945 jump-started his national career anew, first as the host of a local daily show on WFIL radio, then as a cast member of “Hayloft Hoedown,” heard nationally every morning on ABC radio. Signed again by RCA Victor, he was successful with singles ranging from “Blue Christmas” to “Hadacol Boogie” backed by his band the ’49ers. In 1949, he was the lead in a live television Western, “The Western Balladeer,” which led to his hiring as singing cowboy adventurer “Ranger Joe” on a filmed network action series aimed at 1950s children, and featuring his trained horse Topaz. Musically, Jesse continued to modernize, appearing on the MGM, Cowboy, and Arcade labels singing boogie and rockabilly numbers such as “Jukebox Cannonball” before emphysema forced his retirement in 1963.
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