My ears were assaulted by a cacophony of blaring traffic horns like angry saxophones and choirs of animated conversation.
My eyes were blinded by motion and light. Brightly backlit advertisements for products and places that I was being told I absolutely needed in my life if I hoped to survive.
My nose drew in the cool night air, colored with a mixture of aromas my brain was sifting through and identifying as a World’s Fair of cuisines cooking around me.
Foods and spices, exhaust and perfumes, tobacco and garbage, desperation and dreams.
The energy of over 1.5 million human souls coursed through my consciousness as some of their bodies brushed by me in the determined dance ritual of an unrelenting and constant mass commute.
Total. Sensory. Overload.
In other words, just another Monday night in midtown Manhattan.
I was walking into Iridium, an amazing jazz club that hosts the best of the best in music. This night was no exception. Anticipation filled the air as we all awaited the entrance of a great man and his invention, creating music that would fly from the stage into our ears, and then out into the universe, vibrational energy waves traveling farther than imaginable and living on forever.
I had been invited there by the star himself.
He was down to earth and funnier than most comedians I know. He was kind and inspiring, encouraging me in my musical endeavors.
He was the Wizard of Waukesha.
He was Les Paul.
And tonight he was ready to play.
He was strumming. He was picking. He was laughing. He was swinging. He was on fire!
He was… inviting me up to play piano and sing?
Once in a lifetime. I will cherish that musical moment together forever.
One year later, he passed away.
Now keep in mind, I did not know what Waukesha was and why he was the Wizard of it when we finally had the chance to get to know each other.
I also did not know at that moment what an important part of my life Waukesha was going to become.
That year I was living in New York City in the throes of rehearsing for my first Broadway show, “Liza’s At The Palace,” starring, of course, the amazing Liza Minnelli.
I had been living in New York City for quite some time, after growing up in Miami, FL, and attending 4 colleges in 6 years… it’s a long story for another time.
I had been working with Liza for over a decade, first as her pianist and accompanist and featured guest, then as a singer/dancer/piano player for the Broadway run, both of which offered me the opportunity to learn different skill sets from a genuine entertainment legend, from the best seat in the house.
And beyond that, she is a true friend.
Liza taught me so many valuable lessons that I think of to this day.
And our classroom was sold-out stages all over the globe.
We even recorded a duet together which is being officially released very soon.
Photo: Bill Westmoreland
The DVD of the “Liza’s At The Palace” is available through PBS.
Liza would tell me stories of her Uncle Frank (yes, Sinatra), Dean, and Sammy. Liza actually stepped in for Dean and toured with Frank and Sammy for years in a concert titled “The Ultimate Event.”
She learned from the best also, and was so very kind and generous in sharing those lessons with me. I am forever grateful.
So it’s really quite a natural and organic process for me to pay homage to the Rat Pack. Not only are they a part of history, but in many ways they are directly a part of my personal musical history.
YouTube Clip Featuring Liza Minnelli with Johnny Rodgers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5itHAAgLQYU
After the Broadway run, my NYC band, the Johnny Rodgers Band (clever name, I know) traveled for six years as Ambassadors of American Music for the US Dept. of State.
Once more, I packed my bags and traveled all over the globe, playing in Embassies, military installations, small villages, and just about anywhere else you can imagine.
The Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, Russia, Belarus, Malaysia, Cambodia, Petra… the list goes on and on.
What did I learn? Good people are good people, wherever you may find yourself on this little ball of dust. Music builds bridges between those people.
Felix Mendelssohn, the great classical composer, once said, “Music is a much more precise language than words.”
I have found this to be absolutely true.
In the words of Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man.”
At some point I realized that although I loved living in Manhattan, I was feeling the need to spread out a bit. My tour schedule is ambitious at times and I have to travel to do what I love. But I needed a home base that would offer me a respite from the road.
I tried many places, moving from New York to Nashville, Nashville to Chicago, Chicago to Waukesha. My beautiful wife, Stephanie, was born and raised in Waukesha. She comes from great stock, and I am grateful for how supportive and loving my extended family is. I’m a lucky guy.
Once I found Waukesha, “Guitar City,” the birthplace of my fast musical friend, Les Paul, a feeling washed over me.
It was a strange feeling, a feeling that I’d not felt since I grew up in Miami.
It was calm. It was peaceful. It was gorgeous. It was full of musical history and energy.
It was home.
And it feels so good to be home.
Discover more about Johnny at johnnyrodgers.com