Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers
A good portion of my life is spent interviewing and profiling artists and creatives of one type or another. It’s a good challenge for me to try and give readers an authentic representation of the subject and his/her persona, spirit, character, and voice without reducing them to stereotype or generic personality. I really strive to have you feel and hear the individual as I come to know them. My encounters with these talented folks are often rich experiences for the lively give and take that happens as I more or less give them free rein to be themselves. I want them to express themselves without holding back or self-censoring One of my more recent experiences along these lines was with singer Carol Rogers and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. She is all positve love, light, and energy and she has a distinctive way of expressing herself that is poetic and soulful, earthy and esoteric, all at once. I believe I’ve captured her many colors in this new cover piece for the September 2015 New Horizons. Look for it at newstands or call 402-444-6654 for a free subscription to the monthy paper. Make the call and you’ll have the issue with her story and every forthcoming issue sent to your home or business.
NOTE: For the same newspaper, New Horizons, I profiled Carol’s mother, singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers, and some other Omaha black women in music. Jeanne was the music director and pianist at one of my regular places of worship in Omaha, Church of the Resurrection.
Here is a link to that earlier story on my blog-
Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the September 2015 New Horizons
Since putting down Omaha roots again after years away pursuing her music career, free-spirited singer Carol Rogers is sure she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.
This hipster hails from a revered musical heritage family that’s done great things with their craft. Like her brothers Donnie, Ronnie and Keith, she made a name for herself here but enjoyed her biggest success elsewhere. Her big break came earning a spot singing and recording with Brazilian star Sergio Mendes. It meant performing in English and Portuguese across myriad musical styles. Her virtuosity has inspired some in the biz to call her “a vocal god.”
Her stage persona and song interpretation can be sweet, salty or sultry. She can scat, sing jazz, R&B, soul, blues, country, pop, rock, even heavy metal. She once covered “Rage Against the Machine.”
Her association with Mendes put her in the company of celebrities and dignitaries. That heady period fulfilled a lifelong desire to feed the beat-of-a-distant-drummer leanings she’s always felt.
Despite growing up surrounded by the sounds of Motown’s black divas, Rogers said, “I used to think I was Doris Day. I would come down the stairs, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ and my brothers would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs to pummel me with, ‘Who do you think you are? Wake up, you skinny chicken head, wake up.’ So I kind of lived in a fantasy land. I never really saw myself like everyone else looks at themselves. I like to do things differently. I kind of was a hippy without the drugs because I liked the way they dressed.”
“Even as a young woman I couldn’t look like everybody else. To this day I feel most comfortable when I have on lots of colors.”
Her funky sensibility extends to a window treatment in her home that has a gingham curtain with a paisley print against a red wall, though she said she’s self-conscious enough to wonder if visitors think “I’m decorating like a crack-head in a brothel.” At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to celebrate and excite as I go and come.”
It’s why after dying her hair she’s let it go gray, proudly wearing the beauty of her age in dreadlocks that frame her queenly features.
“I began to embrace my gray. It’s a crown of righteousness if it’s accompanied by good works.”
Her righteous energy found expression in a Ladies Sing the Blues concert at Loves Jazz & Arts Center when she arrived in character as an elder negotiating a walker to the stage. Once there, she shed costume, wig and prosthetics to reveal her youthful, high-octane self and sleek legs. She then proceeded to tear up the joint with a full-throated, hip-swaying, table-topping blues performance in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and Shemekia Copeland.
“Coming in with the girls, I knew I was going to break it down into something completely different,” Rogers said. “Yeah, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s what makes me different from other folks. I’m not afraid to put on fake boobs and a fake butt and act a little silly. I want to explore my uniqueness as an entertainer and to never compromise my professionalism.
“I don’t fit into anybody’s mold and I will not acquiesce.”
During the kinetic A Happening concert she did at Carver Bank with new age musician Dereck Higgins she adorned herself in head band and glitter to help affect just the right groovy mood for this retro rave.
She feels certain her bohemian spirit is divinely directed, saying. “God was deciding my mind frame to think outside the box.”
The family matriarch who made music a family inheritance for Carol and her brothers is their mother Jeanne Rogers. She was a woman who did her own thing as well. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as Carol and her brothers have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.
Carol’s four children “all have voices,” too. Bethany, a recording sound engineer by trade, is especially gifted. Mom proudly watched her daughter “tear it up” one Sunday at One Way Ministry Apostles Doctrine Church, where the family worships.
Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.
Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.
“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.'”
When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.
As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.
“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.
Both sides of a living room door are also chalk boards, only Rogers calls them “blessing boards. She has guests leave inscriptions and affirmations on one side and she writes scriptural passages on the other side. She calls it “seasoning” the door.
There in her home, one August morning, Rogers recounted her personal journey as an artist and a woman of faith who’s been born again. She recalled growing up in a bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.
“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.
“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”
The Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.
“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”
Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.
“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”
Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.
“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.
“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.
As a girl, Rogers was aware of the racism and discrimination that confined African-Americans to Omaha’s Near North Side.
“I didn’t venture past 72nd (Street) much.”
But she also saw how music broke down such barriers.
“Music was colorless and it brought everybody together. White folks would come into the neighborhood to play at my mother’s house. Italians, Jews were coming in. It was like a United Nations. Anybody could play, you came in.”
The diversity she was exposed to at home and at Omaha Central High School helped prepare her for the cultural smorgasbord she found with Mendes on international tours and in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.
It took a lot to finally get this restless singer to come back home to stay. She went through a stage when life was a series of gigs and parties. Then she settled down to raise her four kids as a single mom, eventually making her living as a much-in-demand vocal instructor.
She still works with artists today.
The truth is that even though Rogers is settled here now, there’s still a part of her yearning to go off somewhere. It’s why she’s in Rio de Janeiro this month working with an aspiring performing artist.
Now that she’s back home, she’s gigging at different venues around town. This is where it all started for her. Some of her earliest musical expressions came performing in youth Show Wagon concerts in Omaha city parks and in talent shows at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. She starred in Central High Road Shows. She appeared at Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha. She made her first television appearance on KETV’s Black on Black community affairs program.
The Omaha native first flew the coop as a teen with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors on a tour to Greenland, Iceland and Canada.
“I wanted to be Diana Ross,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and sing, ‘Baby, baby…’ Yeah, that was my dream.”
She never found the solo career she craved but she did tour the U.S. with C.W, McCall in the wake of the “Convoy” hit record. Chip Davis later of Mannheim Steamroller fame, was the producer-composer-arranger. Playing red-neck honky-tonks with McCall she couldn’t be out front with her big personality because African-Americans weren’t always welcomed. Receding further into the background and having her spirit dampened was killing her.
She quit C.W. McCall and returned to Omaha, where she was the area’s most requested studio background singer for records and commercials, but she once again found the city too stultifying for her free spirit. This caged bird not only needed to fly but to soar far away.
She went out to Calif. to audition for Stevie Wonder but never really got a fair shake, not even meeting the famed artist. Dejected by that experience, she despaired what to do next.
“I was very depressed here because I knew I had to do something else. I said, I need something more. A true story: I was lying in bed knowing I should go to church – I hadn’t been born again at the time – when God’s voice told me to go back to California. There was no doubt in my mind who had spoken to me. I immediately put everything I wanted in my Volkswagen and left and and I haven’t had to look back. That mission was successful.”
She managed a face to face audition with Sergio Mendes, who needed singers for an upcoming tour. It came down to her and another girl and Carol won the spot. Rogers said it worked to her advantage she didn’t realize just how big a star Mendes was before trying out.
“Naivete was the angel’s wings I floated on with him. I had no idea how huge he was, otherwise I’d have panicked. I auditioned in the latter part of June 1976 and on July 4 he called to say, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ I put the phone down and screamed.”
She said she reminded him that she’d earlier sent in an audio tape of her voice that he never acknowledged, to which he responded, “I never even listened to it and per that tape I would have never hired you.”
As the whirlwind touring commenced, she said she soon discovered like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Whew! But I was ready.” During nearly 25 years working together, she and Mendes became muses to each other.
“We fit because I was ready to totally immerse myself into something. I was fascinated with black people speaking another language. The ability to immerse myself in something and travel the world and get paid for it, well, it was a great education, it was a Ph.D.”
She got the adventure she sought but like many who get what they ask for, she found that career success alone didn’t complete her.
“I went through some things in L.A. Severely depressed for some years. Working top dollar but depressed because something was missing – I was separated from the Lord. I was still traveling with Sergio when I was reborn in 1980 coming off a long tour in Japan.
“I baby sat a friend’s house and I needed something to read, so I went to a bookstore and got Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. I read it and knew that when Jesus went to that cross he died for me, too, It absolutely blew me away. I spontaneously started writing Christian songs.”
The words and music came flowing out of her as if supplied by a higher source.
“You see, when you’re first born again the Lord sojourns with you and he talks to you. Today, my faith is now seasoned with trials and rejoicing in trials.”
She found great satisfaction teaching at a prestigious L.A. performing arts school. At a certain point she developed a sort of alter ego for her teaching role – Mama O.
“Mama O came about when I needed an identity to separate me from the students. Everybody respects mama, so I decided I’m going to be Mama. And Mama what?. So, Mama O, in deference to my time in Brazilian culture.
“That got to my psyche so powerfully that I felt more powerful as a teacher. I’m not just Carol Rogers, no, I’m Mama. When Mama tells you to do something, you better do it. Mama won’t loan you no money, because I’m not that kind of mama. Mama might give you a little lecture because that’s what mamas do. But Mama’s going to show you how it’s done and Mama’s going to ask you to do it exactly.”
She said that bigger-than-life persona is “the rock side of me, the metal side of me.” Since relocating back to Omaha in 2013, Rogers said, “Mama’s a bit quieter here because nobody believes her. After I start teaching again (which she plans to do at the collegiate level) I would like to be called Mama O again.”
Even with work and faith, the L.A. scene became trying.
“California became my Canaan experience. Friendship is hard to find. Backsliding is very easy. But if you’re called and you know you’re born again, nobody can pluck you from God’s hand. Now, the deeper story. Everything closed for me in my life. You know when God closes a door but opens another? That’s exactly what was happening to me.”
She said though she was “a favorite, award-winning” teacher at the school where she taught, she endured a backlash from administrators because her forceful personality made her stand out. Students asked for her specifically.
“Kids would come thousands of miles from Europe, India, Japan and say, ‘We want Mama.’ They called me Mama. They were told, ‘Well, she’s taken, you can’t have her.’ I said, ‘Fix it, give me some more hours.'”
The young singers she worked with on all aspects of performance represented many vocal-music styles and Rogers determined she wouldn’t teach something unless she could do it herself.
“I had to do it all, even heavy metal. How can I tell to do something if I don’t show you I can do it? I was adamant about that and it set me apart from my contemporaries at school and for that reason the director of the school said, ‘You’re an easy target, we want everybody to be alike. But you stand out like a sore thumb.'”
As her situation there became tenuous, she was touched by students siding with her. But each time she spoke out, tensions only increased. She felt like the administration wanted to dampen her originality in order to make her conform.
“When my job began to become corporate, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t exercise my God-given uniqueness.”
So, she left, and in 2013 she finalized her move to Omaha.
“I didn’t want to come back to Omaha but I knew i had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian. I needed to be here in all of the Midwest’s mystery and awe and hummingbird moths and thunderstorms. I was telling my daughter during a beautiful thunderstorm that the lightning was God’s paparazzi.'”
She said she never imagined her two children living with her would ever take to Neb., but they have.
“They both marvel at the thunderstorms and the cicadas in the trees and the squirrels and wild turkeys running around. My oceans are the cicadas at night, the diminuendo and the crescendo.”
It’s not just her family who’s fond of Midwest living.
“If I describe this place to my Calif. friends – ‘Everything I need for a taco is running around free ‘ they think it’s paradise.”
She’s disheartened though Omaha now suffers from inner city woes like persistent gun violence that didn’t really exist back in her day. Like many from her generation, she longs for a return to the It-takes-a-village-to-raise-child culture she grew up in.
With some perspective now, she feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.
“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”
Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.
“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”
As if dealing with her mother’s odyssey were not enough, Rogers no sooner got situated here than the home she inherited from her suffered a disaster while she was away.
“I came back to find the pipes burst over the winter. The water in the basement was up to my knees. Then the tears began to roll because I’m thinking, You don’t know how much insurance will pay off. That winter was so terrible that they couldn’t get to me for five days. By the time they got to me this place stank of mildew and mold.”
There was insurance but it didn’t come near to covering the damage.
“I didn’t know what i was going to do but I knew God didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”
She attributes providence with bringing the home from disaster to rebirth and the blessings that came with it.
“A Christian couple to whom the Lord has given many gifts love my vocal ministry and they gave me $50,000 to put this house back together. The demolition guys came in like piranhas and took everything down to beams and joists. I could see the attic from downstairs.”
She was put up at a Residence Inn for five months while the heavy work was done. The result is essentially a brand new home.
“Everything is new,” she said. “As the guys were installing the appliances I was crying. Why? Because God has granted me favor beyond favor. The Lord impressed upon my heart the scripture that says, ‘In Christ, all things become new.’ It just doesn’t mean your spirit – you can get some new stuff, too. That’s OK.”
She’s given the home a Biblical name.
“I call my home Lazarus Resurrected because by the time they got to it, it stank, but Jesus resurrected it. My mission statement of this home is to serve. Just like my mother’s house did but with a little bit more decorum. Can’t just anybody get in and out of here.
“And once music begins I’m sure I’ll have more people coming through. Inevitably the basement will become my kick-it space like it was once before. I’ll be able to put instruments down and not fear water finding it’s mark again.”
Playing hostess will be new for her, she said, “because in L.A. I was too busy to have company. I’d come home after driving to and from and would want to collapse. So I’m learning hospitality and welcoming it. I look forward to it because this house is blessed, it’s anointed. It’s blessed me. It was an inherited blessing from my mother, it has to continue and it will. My kids are here.”
She feels blessed, too, whenever she takes the stage.
“In this day in age when you’re inundated with the electronic ability to insulate yourself, I never ever count it anything less than a privilege to be heard by a live audience. That being the case, I have to prepare. I’m not so fast at learning things anymore, so it takes a long time to prepare these days,
“Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to share my feelings and my life experience through my singing. Sometimes my nerves derail me but usually that means I needed to pay a little bit more attention to details.”
Just as she’s most alive when she freely expresses her uniqueness, she helps voice students find and nurture their own uniqueness.
The student she’s working with in Brazil has all the necessary vocal chops, Rogers said, but needs confidence in herself and in her ability to perform in front of live audiences. Rogers draws her own vast experience to try and get students to look at performing as a collaboration or communion. She likens it to a figure eight.
“The band is behind me and at the apex is me and then the audience is in front of me. Everything they do when I’m on stage comes through me and it’s just a circular exchange of credibility – we believe you, we give you our energy. And the band’s supporting me. What a privilege to have people backing me. They’ve got my back.
“To be in front at that apex, sharing it and feeling it come back to me through them is such a high. That is what I really concentrate on. It’s cathartic, especially as I’ve learned to sing the blues.”
Hanging on a wall of her home is a metal artwork depicting an after the club scene with unmanned band instruments and overturned chairs. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture her at the apex with a hot three-piece band behind her and a live wire crowd in front of her.
Rogers still records from time to time. On a 2011 visit to Omaha she met local jazz pianist, composer, arranger Chuck Marohnic at Countryside Community Church when she insinuated herself into a piece he was playing. He immediately asked her to be one of the singers from around the nation lending their voices to his Jazz Psalms Project that features original music for all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.
“I’d never been asked to do something like this before,” she said, referring to jazz arrangements of scriptures. Ironically, her mother introduced jazz tinges to traditional hymns at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha when she was music director there.
For the Jazz Psalms Project Rogers said, “We did everything live. Oh, what a high. And the guys were great, including Chuck at the piano. It was absolutely amazing all of us playing together.”
Upon return from her coaching stint in Brazil she’ll no doubt grace various nightspots with her unique talents starting in the fall.
It’s a good time for Carol Rogers. She’s more comfortable in her own skin than she has been in a long while.
“Being home has helped. Having two of my kids here has helped. Also seeing God work miracles, ah, that’ll make you get your head right.”
This ever curious searcher just wants to keep creating and stretching herself. Her exploration, she said, “never done.”
Just don’t ask her to stay in the shadows.
“I want my light to shine.”
Follow the artist at http://www.carolrogersmusic.com.