This article appears in July/August The Encounter.
Something in Jeanne Rogers broke. It fissured slowly, building and building until it exploded into one moment. That moment came in 2007 in the piano room, where she had sat side by side with her daughter, Carol Rogers, for so many years.
“At last, my love has come along/my lonely days are over/and life is like a song.” The Etta James music drifted over Carol with an ironic sort of hopelessness.
Her mother was not playing the requested song.
A look of incredulity and sorrow passed over Rogers’ face. Jeanne noticed, and her fingers stopped on the keyboard.
“Guess I’m not good for anything anymore,” Jeanne said. She walked away, shut her bedroom door, and wept.
Rogers’ heart shattered, seeing her once proud mother struggle with the music they both loved. Growing up in north Omaha, their house was a like a “nightclub 24/7.” Music was a connection in a city filled with prejudice, and people of all races flocked to the Rogers’ home to sing, jam, and dance.
As a Central High student, 16-year-old Rogers flew to the Arctic Circle (“probably as the token black person,” she says, laughing) with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors tour. She later studied music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but felt she was destined to leave and do something amazing.
Four years later she auditioned for Stevie Wonder. She recorded one song, was not hired, and did not even get to meet Wonder. Depressed, desperate, and distraught, she moved back to Omaha. Rogers heard God’s voice late one night telling her to go back to California, and a week later she packed everything she owned into her Volkswagen to audition for Trini Lopez.
At least that was what she thought. It turned out to be for Brazilian jazz singer Sergio Mendes. Rogers was soon selected to be one of “Sergio’s Girls.” Disciplined and focused—she’ll sing something 100 times just to get to the right spot—Rogers picked up the mixed style with ease.
“He (Mendes) is a genius, and a genius doesn’t let things slide,” she says. “I appreciated that.”
Rogers sang around the world.
“It was my finishing school,” she says. She grew up in the limelight, learning embarrassing life lessons along the way.
Rogers greeted King Hussein of Jordan with a hair pick in her Afro. She laughed so hard she could barely perform.
She jokingly mimicked Frank Sinatra while on a Brazilian state visit at the White House during Ronald Reagan’s term. “I did it my way,” she crooned in a Sinatra parody.
“Psst—Frank. . .look,” one band member whispered.
“Old-blue-eyes has better things to do,” Rogers said. She turned, shocked to see Sinatra standing behind her. He just laughed.
At the same event, she placed her makeup bag and silver stilettos on top of an antique piano. She saw the eyes of the security guards widen and heard audible gasps from the room.
“It was Martha Washington’s piano,” she recalls. “I just felt so at home.”
Rogers called friends in Omaha from the White House but no one believed her.
“If you are calling me from jail, you better not be asking me for bail money.”—Click.
“Are you drinking?”—Click.
She had the chance to again perform in front of Stevie Wonder. Rogers felt she wasn’t worthy to touch the hem of his record sleeve, but after hearing her smooth vocals he wanted to steal her away.
She was surrounded by glitz and glam—John Travolta’s birthday party, Bruce Springsteen’s gala, even getting flown to a private island in a helicopter.
She was also a single mother, and needed at home. So after 25 years with Mendes and 12 releases, including the Grammy Award-winning Brasileiro, Rogers called it quits. She became a vocal instructor to celebrities and continued to record albums.
“She is a real pro, one of the best,” Omaha pianist-composer Chuck Marohnic believes. “I just think she’s a treasure. Omaha is lucky to have her.”
While living a dream life with the stars, she, along with her siblings, kept a close eye on her mother. Rogers didn’t want to “uproot this old tree” and move Jeanne to California. Instead, she came back to Omaha in 2013 to be near her mother, currently at Douglas County Health Center.
Now 60, Rogers has time for herself. Snow showers replaced sunny skies. Her fast-paced, action thriller life became a slow motion picture.
Her hair is a mass of silvery dreadlocks, her posture elegant, and her face still smooth. She even started dating again. Perhaps her “lonely days are over” but Rogers refuses to settle for anything less than the best.
Her jazzy tone now has a gospel-like soul to it. She takes a sip of her Bloody Mary (with a bit of “stank” in it like her grandmother taught her) and smiles. Last night at Omaha Lounge, she sang from the heart. Even though her mother brought her back to the open plains of the Midwest, music will always be the catharsis, the glue that holds everything together.
“Music,” Rogers says, “is the thing that keeps me alive.”