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About The Artist
Jesse Otto Rodgers was born on a farm near Waynesboro, Mississippi to his parents, Eff and Emma Rodgers. His father was a brother of Aaron Rodgers, the father of the Singing Brakeman, the Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers. Jesse and his cousin, Jimmie, attended the same schools and worked on farms together. Jimmie gave Jesse early training on the guitar by teaching him chords.
Jesse married Effie Ainsworth when both were very young. The 1930 U.S. Census records show they were living with Effie's parents, James and Lucindia Ainsworth in Perry, Mississippi. Their first child, Jimmie O., was born during 1928. A second child, Colean (sic), was born during 1931. Jesse was working in farming and doing local entertaining around the Meridian, Mississippi area.
Some time during 1932 Jesse decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. He abandoned his wife and two children and went west to work on border radio stations in Texas and in Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. He sand and did commercials for everything from day-old chicks and harmonicas to song books and lamps on "Border Radio" station, such as XEPN, which was said to be the world's only million watt radio station.
During the time period Jesse was in West Texas, he started recording for RCA Victor on the Bluebird label. He cut his first record March of 1933, the year Jimmie Rodgers died. Jesse is on the reverse side of one Jimmie's last records. Jesse recorded 72 songs for RCA Victory from 1933 to 1960. His early recordings, primarily of railroad songs and yodeling, sound very similar to Jimmie Rodgers. His early autographs were signed "Your Texas Blue Yodeler" or "Yodeling Yours". By 1939, Jesse was heavily into cowboy/western music.
Jesse and his first wife, Effie, were divorced soon after he left Mississippi to pursue a professional singing career in West Texas.
Jesse married Lucille Carpenter, of the Houston, Texas area during the mid-1930s. In late 1939 or very early 1940 Jesse and his wife Lucille, were in Kansas City Jesse started appearing on radio station WHB.
Me also made personal appearances, guest appearances on the Brush Creek Follies in Kansas City and had a barn built where weekly bam dances were held. It was called "Jesse's Bam" and was very popular. He was there for one year and sometime during that year, he became romantically involved with a 16 year old elevator operator at the building where WHB, owned by the Earl May Organization, was located.
We learn of some of the folks that were a part of his entertainment family through little tid bits in the older publications. Nicola and Rose Fantetti noted that one such person was a teen age talent, all of 17 years old, by the name of Nancy Marie Beller. She was getting good reviews and would appear on shows as a guest artist or a solo billing when the more famous acts came to town. She made several appearances with Jesse Rogers. When she was just 15, she had an audition with WFIL, but it sounds like some of the members were against her joining due to her young age. She was from Emmaus High School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. She sang, yodeled, played Spanish guitar as well as Hawaiian guitar.
Her name was Miss Beller, and she grew up in a very poor family. In a small community of Harlem, MO just across the Missouri River from KC and she and Jesse started having an affair. She was 16 and he was 30. Jesse and Miss Beller ran away together when she was 17. Jesse divorced his second wife, Lucille and married Miss Beller around the early part of 1941. He also left WSB and went to Shenandoah, IA to work at KMA. Jesse and his new wife were in Shenandoah, with Jesse on KMA about two years.
During 1941, with thoughts of a possible career in show business for herself, Mrs. Jesse Rodgers had her name legally changed to Sally Starr. /'
Jesse s next job was with KMOX radio in St. Louis, MO where he appeared on Uncle Dick's Slack Barn Dance and made personal appearances. This was during the 1942-43 time period.
Around mid-1944 Jesse received and accepted an offer to appear on WFIL radio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Per a magazine article from 1945, the Hayloft Hoedown was go on the air on December 2, 1945. He was to be a headline star on the show that would be carried coast to coast on the ABC network every Saturday night from 11:15 to midnight.
Roger Clip was the General Manager at WFIL and felt that a barn dance type show would be successful. Jack Steck was emcee on the show, which was kind of ironic as Jack was initially against the idea of the show, feeling folks in Philadelphia would not go for it.
Other stars included the well known Sleepy Hollow Ranch gang, featuring Elmer Newman on fiddle, Julia Murray on mandolin, Monti Rosci on the accordion and Pancake Pete Newman on the bass. The Murray Sisters were a vocal team part of that group. They even had their own radio show on WFIL from 12:30pm to 1:00pm each day.
Lew Carter, the original voice of the cartoon character Popeye in Paramount Pictures, would keep the audience in stitches with his "...antics, funny songs and his sotto voce characterizations".
Pop Johnson (a well known fiddler was 70 years old at the time) who would said to be spry and witty and appeared dressed up in top hat and tails. Jack Steck, Carol and Jesse would team up on trio numbers.
The Santa Fe Trail Blazers, were led by vocalist Jack Day. Other members included Dusty Keefer, Shorty Long and Pat. Dusty and Shorty teamed up as a comedy type duo called "Rip and Zip". Shorty Long would later take over the group and rename it the Santa Fe Rangers.
Other members of the show included Carol Wynne, the Sundown Serenaders and the Chester Valley Boys backed by the harmonica stylings of Mil Spooner.
In a side note, the emcee held a "trading post" during the show in which he would ask for an unusual item from any member in the audience and if one had it, he would 'trade' for it, giving the audience member a "worthwhile prize".
Arlie Kinkade told readers that the 'live' audience for the Saturday night show at the Philadelphia Town hall was about 2,000.
Jesse also had his own radio program on WFIL, airing daily from 6:30am to 7:00am.
In 1945, Jesse made an appearance on the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago. It seems that appearance led him to a starring or feature role in a new movie being done called "The National Barn Dance" and was to make personal appearances in various cities in the East to promote the movie. However, the internet movie site does not list him as part of the cast in that movie.
At some point in 1946, Jesse took a vacation with Mel Foree and impressed columnist Juanita Milligan ("South Of the Mason-Dixon Line") who spoke of meeting Jesse. She said he was known as "America's Best Dressed Cowboy" and believed it after she saw some of his outfits he wore visiting various local radio stations.
During 1946, Jesse was hired to star as Ranger Joe on "The Western Balladeer" show on WPTZ-TV (CBS). The show was sponsored by Ranger Joe Cereal, the first pre-sweetened cereal for kids with premiums such as Ranger Joe cups and cereal bowls and ranch money. It required Jesse to make numerous personal appearances as Ranger Joe with his horse Topaz.
Buddy Starcher reported in his column of January 1947 that Jesse had moved on to radio station KMOX in St. Louis, Missouri. He was said to be taking Rusty Marion's spot on the Uncle Dick Slack show. A Pe-Ru-Na brochure mentions he was the emcee on some of the KMOX shows and was also appearing on the Saturday night show "Old Fashioned Barn Dance" that aired from 10:30pm to 11:30pm.
In 1947, Matt Pelkonen wrote that Jesse had released a new tune on the Cowboy Records label, "A Rose, A Smile, A Tear". That label was owned by partners James E. Myers and Jack Howard. One of the releases on Cowboy was reviewed in Billboard. For "Mollie Darling", they wrote "...Ditty so-so, effort ditto". The flip side was "That's What She Wrote" and they noted that it showcased his vocals better and a "slight improvement" over the flip side. However, we read in Billboard that the tune Matt mentioned may have actually only been one written by Jesse that was to be included in a new song folio published by Jack Howard. The title was slightly different - "A Rose, A Smile, A Prayer". That same 1947 article noted he had recorded a tune, "Mary From Maryland" with the Saddle Sweethearts of WNAR for the Sonora label.
Jesse also had a radio show on WJMJ called "Suppertime Jamboree". Sally Starr was also involved with this show.
In 1949, Dusti Lynn wrote in her "Trail Dreaming" column for National Hillbilly News that she had spent about four months in the Philadelphia area and had guested on the Hayloft Hoedown program as well as playing a role in Jesse's NBC television show "Silver Saddle Ranch" that seemed to be a kids' show based on what we read.
In 1950, Joe Edison was the manager for Jesse Rogers according to one article we found.
Jesse composed and/or collaborated on many songs during his career including "Hummin' to my Honey", "Sleepy Little Wrangler", "The Sun Goes Down", "I'm Glad I Found Out About You" and "Why Can't Our Worlds Be The Same?" During the latter part of WWII, Jesse corwrote "Send This Purple Heart To My Sweetheart" and sang it on "Saludas Amigos", a national radio program out of New York City. Later he co-wrote "Jukebox Cannonball" with Rusty Keefer and Wayne Barrie. Jesse recorded the song in the early 50s. It was also recorded by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen in 1952 and again by Haley and the Comets in 1979.
Bill Haley is one of many nationally famous artists that Jesse and Sally were closely associated with. Haley's biography, "Sound and Glory" indicates that Jesse Rodgers played rhythm guitar in one of Haley's early bands. Circa 1948, Jesse and Sally were often guests on a radio show hosted by Haley called "Western Swing Hour" on WPWA, Chester, PA. April 16, 1949, Jesse took part in a radiothon hosted by Haley to raise money for Cancer research.
Jesse became more involved with Ranger Joe and had less time for Suppertime Jamboree. Sally became more involved and eventually took over Suppertime Jamboree as a country music disc jockey. During this period Jess and Sally went on tour including a stop in Nashville where, Jesse appeared on WSM's Grand Ole Opry. He made an extended tour to Canada without Sally and became involved with yet another woman.
In the meantime, around 1950, perhaps due to her popularity on "Suppertime Jamboree", Sally was offered and accepted an afternoon show on WFIL- TV (ABC) as host of "Popeye Theatre" a kids show with cartoons and live appearances by famous guests. Sally had many years of success around Philadelphia and New Jersey as a western cowgirl personality.
In 1953, it was being reported that Jesse and his wife, Sally Starr, had opened their Twin Lakes Hillbilly Park that was located on Highway 73 between Marlton and Berlin, New Jersey. At that time Jesse was recording for the MGM label. Don Larkin told readers that Jesse had appeared on his Hometown Frolic show airing over WAAT.
Around 1954, Ranger Joe Cereal Co. decided to change to a different kid's character and Jesse lost his job as Ranger Joe. He also experienced other serious problems - he and Sally were divorced - he left Philadelphia and worked other smaller radio jobs and appearances while working his way west, stopping at KMOX in St. Louis on the "Old Fashion Barn Dance" for a while. He then went on to Houston, Texas, did local entertainment, became a disc jockey and bartender.
In a rare example of a personal appearance not living up to expectations, we learned that opening day at Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Pennsylvania was not good in 1955. Bill Haley and the Comets along with Jesse Rogers and his wife Sally Starr were a couple of the stars that were to appear. Smokey Warren mentioned that poor promotion was partly to blame.
Around 1958, Jesse Rodgers was one of several artists promoted by Bill Haley and Jack Howard, through their music publishing and label ventures. Bill Haley and the Comets backed Sally Starr on her 1948 LP, "Our Gal Sal" for Haley's Clymax (sic) label and again later on a single called "Rocky the Rockin' Rabbit".
His health began to fail seriously during the 1960's and Jesse died in Houston, Texas in December 1973.
Credits & Sources
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