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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R.I.P. Willie 'Duchie' Rodgers

The singer and guitarist was a staple of the Milwaukee soul scene

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Milwaukee's Willie "Duchie" Rodgers estimated that "maybe over 1,000" musicians had gone through his band, Black Earth Plus, since its early-'70s inception. Rodgers revealed that tidbit in a spring 2009 interview with producer Chris "Godxilla" Taylor, excerpted at the end of the singing guitarist's final album, Heat. The 59-year-old Rodgers died of an arterial rupture earlier this month.

"Duchie was much more interested in performing than recording," Taylor says. With regular dates over the last few years at such venues as Northwest Side clubs ARJ's and Gene's, Downtown bar John Hawks Pub, Pewaukee's haute Piano Blu restaurant/lounge, a jazz festival in Nebraska and places in Las Vegas, he kept an active concert schedule. Before Heat, with its often brilliant melding of old-school adult R&B sensibilities and Taylor's hip-hop influence with occasional smooth-jazz accents, Rodgers' previous commercial release was 1995's six-song EP I Kissed You in the Right Place with fellow Milwaukeean Johnnie Mills as Du/Jon. Several tracks intended for Heat's follow-up, including the Mamas & the Papas and Rod Stewart covers, are available as free downloads on Taylor's website, www.godxilla.com. Despite Rodgers' small catalog under his and his band's names, Taylor says, "There were hundreds of releases he had a hand in."

Rodgers started amassing his protégés early on. "I put my first band together when I was in junior high school," Rodgers said. That act, The Motions, which would morph into The Soul Aggressors before becoming Black Earth Plus, fit the late-'60s/early-'70s template for youthful groups like the Jackson Five. "We danced," Rodgers recalled in his interview with Taylor. "If you didn't dance, you didn't get a gig."

Those early days produced a few singles, including Rodgers' arrangement and instrumental contributions to local vocal group Brothers By Choice's "You Think That I'm a Fool" and the first Black Earth Plus waxing, "How Can You Say You Love Me." Those can be found on YouTube, but it is the song "Milwaukee" that became a point of pioneering pride for Rodgers. The mid-'70s jam "was the first rap record ever, other than Gil Scott-Heron and James Brown," he claimed of the Black Earth Plus 45.

Between those halcyon days and the return to Milwaukee that distinguished his later life, two years of Rodgers' time was spent recording and touring internationally with Edwin Starr, the late, erstwhile Motown artist. That affiliation brought Rodgers global travel and a memorable incident playing with Aretha Franklin when her guitar player fell ill. In different contexts, Rodgers worked with other greats such as Isaac Hayes, Al Jarreau and Gerald Levert.

More international touring on behalf of the U.S. military spread his name, as did his distinction of playing every Summerfest. Not many years ago, a spell of bad health almost nixed that annual destination. "I didn't think I was going to make it, and other people around me didn't think I was going to make Summerfest," Rodgers recalled of the experience, "but I was blessed by the man upstairs."

Speaking of whom, Rodgers not only got his start singing in his parents' congregation, but lately had also been involved musically at Ebenezer Church of God in Christ. Apart from all his musical involvements, Rodgers also worked as manager of a Curative Care Network group home for disabled men. As for the residents there, Rodgers' publicist Terri Algaier says, "His death has left a huge void in their lives."

Both publicist and producer spoke of a man generous with his time and affection. Says Algaier, Rodgers' friend of 25 years, "He never greeted me without a hug, and never left without telling me he loved me. He was compassionate and caring, and it is very hard to imagine not hearing that deep baritone laugh."

Taylor recalls of the artist old enough to have been his father, "He just wanted people to hear his music. It was just about pleasing people through song."

Rodgers' own estimation of himself jibed with those assessments. "The most important thing about me is that I care about people," he said in his 2009 interview, "and I try to express it through music because I know music is universal."