The Brain-Injured Pop Star: Jimmie Rodgers

October, 2015

He had made his mark at age 24 when his first single, “Honeycomb,” sold a million copies in the United States. He quickly followed that with two more million-sellers, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again.” From that point onward, the pop singer Jimmie Rodgers was never again confused with the Depression-era country singer of the same name.

Jimmie Rodgers in 1968. Photo: NBC Television, Public Domain
Jimmie Rodgers in 1968. Photo: NBC Television, Public Domain

The pop-singing Rodgers scored a fourth million-selling hit in 1957 with “Secretly.” Then came a 10-year dry spell, after which he was involved in an altercation with police that just about ended his career. On a December night in 1967, he was found unconscious in his car near the San Diego freeway in Los Angeles, bleeding from a five-inch skull fracture. Rodgers alleged he had been “worked over” by an off-duty policeman who stopped him at an intersection. Police maintained that Rodgers was drunk after attending a party, and that he injured himself when he got out of the car and fell hitting his head.

It took three surgeries to repair the brain damage, and a steel plate was wired into his skull. Rodgers was in hospital for a year and in recovery for five years after that. “I was a mess,” he told me when he appeared at a Calgary nightclub in 1975. “I weighed 118 pounds, had no sense of smell or taste, and was covered with support braces.” He sued the City of Los Angeles for $10.2 million, claiming he had been beaten by police, though he admitted he had no specific memory of the incident. He settled for $200,000.

Rodgers told me he was satisfied to accept the smaller court settlement, because it helped take care of his medical bills. He didn’t hold a grudge against the police. The experience had brought him closer to God, and given him a chance to reassess his life. He was working a lot for his church and trying to make a go of his second marriage. The first had collapsed long before the incident with the police.

Rodgers said the altercation with police caused him to lose his memory “but the music came back: most of the songs I had been doing fairly frequently.” When he did try singing again, he wasn’t happy with the results. “I think I went back to work too soon after the operations, when my voice wasn’t too strong. Now it’s getting to be a lot better. I feel strong and my voice feels good.”

When he took to the stage, the only sign of physical impairment that I could see – and I had to watch closely to notice it – was when Rodgers stepped on a microphone cord. This was enough to throw him slightly off balance because of the disruption to his central nervous system. Aside from that, it was hard to detect any indication of after-effects from an incident that had left him with double vision and poor balance for a year.

His health problems got worse after he left Calgary. He began having epileptic seizures on stage. But he didn’t give up. Against the advice of his doctors, Rodgers stopped taking medication and – as he said to an Associated Press reporter – “relied on my inner strength alone.” He began a self-directed rehabilitation program of running and lifting weights. He also derived strength from his Christian spiritual work. “The Lord has really blessed me.”

It took several years but eventually Rodgers was able to perform without having someone help him up on stage. At that point, however, “the business quit calling.” Plus, he began to suffer from spasmodic dysphonia, a vocal disorder that took away some of his range. “The only thing I really feel sad about is that I feel now I’m a better performer than I ever was before,” he told the AP reporter. “Now I know how to handle an audience, how to deliver a song. Now is the time in my life I’d like to be able to really sing well. And I just can’t do that.

He was still able to “grab onto a song” and sell it to an audience, he said. “But for adding certain understated features to the melody, I just don’t have the voice for that anymore.”

At age 66, Rodgers said he had just about given up thoughts of performing because of his declining health. However, when his wife Mary became a featured singer-dancer in a seniors’ show presented daily at a theatre in Branson, Missouri. Rodgers couldn’t resist an invitation from the producers to make a guest appearance at each performance. Though his voice was weak, he could still manage respectable versions of his old hits.

With a new lease on performing life, Rodgers continued to sing professionally into his late 70s and early 80s, even after undergoing open-heart surgery. At last report, according to his website in 2014, he was living in southern California and had published an autobiography, Dancing on the Moon, that he hoped to see made into a movie some day.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015

Brian BrennanBrian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.

Visit him at his website,

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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