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Nashville Sound: Jimmie Rodgers

January 13, 1999

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) _ Jimmie Rodgers is shaking hands and posing for pictures, just doing what a performer does after a show in Branson, when he hears: ``I thought you was dead!″

Rodgers just laughs, and so does everybody else. After assuring the elderly woman who said it that he’s not, they chat amiably for a moment, then it’s on to meet other folks.

Later, he laughs again when the subject of his death is raised.

``I do get that quite a bit,″ the 65-year-old Rodgers says, smiling, in a dressing room interview at the Country Tonite Theatre, where he has just appeared in a nostalgia-filled song-and-dance show called ``Golden Girls U.S.A.″

He gets it quite a bit because he almost did die once, on a San Fernando Valley street in California a few days before Christmas 1967 _ when the handsome pop star with the signature song ``Honeycomb″ and the honey-smooth voice to go with it became a victim of ``road rage″ before it had a name.

Rodgers had pulled his car to the side of the road, thinking it was a friend following him home from a party and flashing his lights at him. It turned out to be an off-duty policeman.

``Apparently I’d made him mad, cut him off or something, and he hit me,″ Rodgers says.

After he recovered, he filed a lawsuit, and after five years of litigation the Los Angeles Police Department settled out of court.

``For a pretty good sum of money,″ Rodgers says now. ``And I went on with my life.″

In the attack, Rodgers was hit with a blunt instrument that caved in the right side of his skull.

One of the brightest careers in popular music was bludgeoned as well.

Rodgers defined overnight success when ``Honeycomb,″ the first song he ever recorded, reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1957. Seventeen gold records and four gold albums followed over the next 10 years. He got his own TV show on NBC. and he succeeded as a country-pop crossover star, with such songs as ``Kisses Sweeter Than Wine″ and ``Oh-Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again.″

For a while after the attack, it looked like he might resume his career.

Within months of undergoing brain surgery, and having taught himself to walk and talk again, he was back in the studio, recording the hit album ``The Windmills of Your Mind.″

But he tried to do too much too soon.

``I had a seizure on stage in Seattle in 1969 and another in San Francisco,″ he says now. ``And then the business quit calling.″

Years of slow, often painful rehabilitation followed. He finally made a more or less full recovery, also learning to fly, taking up skydiving and becoming a physical fitness fanatic who ran as much as 13 miles a day.

And, from time to time, he tried to revive his music career, but with little success.

To this day Rodgers has constant physical reminders of the attack.

He still has the pompadour he had when he became famous in the ’50s, but the full head of hair that hides the huge metal plate in his head has turned to gray.

He can chuckle about being unable to pass through an airport metal detector unnoticed.

Less funny, though, is the spasmodic dysphonia, a vocal affliction he believes stems from his brain injury, that began to affect him in the early ’80s. Twice-a-year medical treatments help control it, but it has robbed him of some of his range.

``The only thing I really feel sad about,″ he says, ``is that I feel now I’m a better performer than I ever was before. 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. ...

``Being able to grab onto a song and really do it, I can still do that,″ Rodgers explains. ``But being able to add certain understated features to the melody _ I just don’t have the voice anymore.″

But on the whole he says he couldn’t be happier with the way things are going. Long after giving up any thoughts of returning to the stage, he stumbled into the ``Golden Girls″ show two years ago after his wife, Mary, became one of its featured singer-dancers.

The half-hour he does to close the first set was so much fun this past season that he’s looking into doing his own show at a small Branson theater starting next spring.

Meanwhile, he’s 140 pages into an autobiography, and there’s talk of making his life story into a movie. Rodgers says he has never been keen on dredging up the details of the attack for a film, although he may reconsider when he finishes the book.

Whatever he decides, he says, he is well beyond any anger over the blow life dealt him.

``Oh, I got mad at God, I got mad at everybody at times,″ he says. ``But bad things happen to all of us, and if you dwell on these things you’re in trouble. So I don’t dwell on it.″

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