It may not qualify as the eighth wonder of the world, but there’s still something amazing … almost mystical … about it, leaving it as a question that has yet to be answered.
Just how does Melvia ‘Chick’ Rodgers summon such incredible depth and power from her voice, when she’s built on such a slight and diminutive frame?
It’s almost equal to looking at the Venus De Milo while being struck squarely in the face by hurricane-force winds.
“Well, I’ve been tiny all my life. My father’s a tiny man and he has a deep voice,” Rodgers explained. “It’s hereditary … I’m been small all my life and it makes me feel good that I’ve been blessed with such a talent. It’s definitely not Memorex – it’s live.”
More than just sheer power, Rodgers is one of the most soulful singers around and she has the remarkable ability to transfer emotion from her voice straight to the heart of her audience.
Her version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is guaranteed to induce chill bumps just a few seconds into the venerable tune. When she lists off the singers that she admired as a young woman trying to find her own voice, that power is fully understood.
“Aretha Franklin, of course. And from the gospel side, Shirley Caesar. Also, there’s Diana Ross and as far as male singers, it’s always been Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke for me,” she said. “I just open my mouth and it comes out. It’s like a blend of all my influences.”
Rodgers has busily been sharing her amazing gift with music lovers everywhere in 2015, from right in her own backyard to way, way across the high seas.
“It’s been a great year. I did the Chicago Blues Festival again this year and I was also in Italy and got my first chance to go the Canary Islands in Spain,” she said. “I’ve worked more this year than I’ve worked in a long time. God is good all the time, but He’s really been good this year.”
In addition to hopping all over the globe, Rodgers has also begun work on a new recording project.
“We’ve not gotten too far into it yet, it’s still in the first stages,” she said. “We’re working on getting all the songs together.”
There’s long been an old saying along the lines of ‘you are what you eat.’ That’s probably true for all of us, but for Rodgers, you could probably tweak that phrase into something like ‘you’re named for what you eat.’
“I love fried chicken. In high school, from 10th to 11th grade, everyday – Monday through Friday – I was at Church’s Chicken for lunch,” she said. “Everybody just started calling me ‘Chick’ Rodgers because of that. That’s how it happened and it stuck.”
The daughter of a minister, Rodger’s first real exposure to music – and to performing in front of a live audience – came via the church.
“Absolutely it did. And my father was a quartet singer. Me being the oldest (child), sometimes he had to take me to his shows with him,” she said. “I just admired how he moved people (with his songs) and how the women would be shouting in the church. That made me want to sing. As a family, me and my brothers and sisters used to sing as a little group. My mom and dad used to put us on the Easter program and have us sing.”
That path of singing and performing went from the church to high school for Rodgers.
“I did a lot of singing in high school for assemblies, then I went to west Tennessee for vocal competitions,” she said. “That was when I realized that this is what I want to do. My very first trip to Germany was my first professional show. I didn’t want to have no kids, I didn’t want to get married, I wanted to be able to go and sing at any moment.”
Although she’s called Chicago home for several years now, Rodgers’ formative years were spent down south in Memphis.
“I used to work on Beale Street at this place called the Club Royale. There was this guy from Chicago that came to Memphis twice a year, because he had a farm in Mississippi. On his way back to Chicago from Mississippi, he would stop in Memphis to hear me. He did that for five years,” Rodgers said. “One time, he asked me if I would come up (to Chicago) for either his 40th or 50th birthday and sing at it. I said that I would. The club I sang in there was the Sandpiper and they received me so well that they asked me to stay another week.”
That one week quickly turned into a whole lot more and Rodgers has been a fixture on the Windy City scene ever since. Once she hit Chicago, her boundaries really started expanding at a rapid rate.
“Chicago has so many different opportunities. I got into theater and started doing plays … there was just so much to do,” she said. “I really do think that Chicago was just where I was supposed to be.”
When Rodgers hits the stage, fireworks are bound to go off. She’s part ministry, part night club and one limitless bundle of energy on the bandstand. it’s usually not long before she has her audience eating out of the palm of her hand. This is even more remarkable when Rodgers reveals a part of her personality that many may have missed.
“I used to sing all the time, but I was shy. When I got ready to audition for the USO tour of Germany (on her first professional gig), this guy (involved in the tour) came up to me and said, ‘Chick, you have a beautiful voice, but you need to get off that microphone stand and engage your crowd.’ He told me what to do, and ever since I saw that it worked, that’s what I’ve been doing,” she said. “He told me to make sure to find someone in the crowd to sing to and to take that mic off the stand and move around the stage. I mean, it didn’t happen overnight – it took years of experience for me to get where I am. It’s something I’ve had to work at.”
The incident that really set the wheels in motion for Rodgers to become one of the brightest stars on the soul scene took place back in the late 1980s in Memphis. It was there that she went from being a face in the crowd to the talk of the town, overnight.
Rodgers was in the back row at a Patti LaBelle concert when the star of the show innocently asked if there was anybody in the audience that could sing.
That led to …
“I was way, way in the back and was with my God sister and her husband. When she (LaBelle) asked if anyone could sing, three guys (out of the audience) went up there. She was like, ‘No, no. I need some real singers,'” explained Rodgers. “So my God brother picked me up and literally put me up on the stage. He pushed me, so I had no other choice … I had to do what I do or fall-out.”
Rodgers didn’t ‘fall-out’; instead, she delivered a rendition of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” that left everyone in attendance – including LaBelle herself – speechless.
“I took the mic and she looked at me like, ‘You can sing? You’re too little.’ I opened my mouth and sang and then I got nervous and tried to give her the mic back and she was like, ‘No! Hell No. You go ahead and finish this !#*! song!’ So I did,” Rodgers said. “That’s how that happened. I was not going to go up there, because like I said, I was shy. If my God brother had not picked me up and put me up there, I just would have sat quietly in the back. It hit the newspapers the next day with an article about what happened.”
One of the things that has sat Rodgers apart from other talented vocalists is her refusal to get pigeon-holed into one style or one form of music. Sure, she can belt out the blues with the best of them, but when you get down to brass tacks, she really doesn’t consider herself to be a ‘blues singer.’
“I didn’t want to be considered strictly a blues singer, because I love and can sing so many other different styles. I just didn’t like the idea about singing about how pitiful my life has been,” she said. “I didn’t want to sing that kind of blues. I wanted to sing soul music. So I was able to mix different styles and still be able to work on the blues circuit.”
It was when she first hit Chicago and started trying to find a steady gig that Rodgers learned that her mix of styles was welcomed with open arms by the movers and shakers on the scene, although a few other artists didn’t share that same thought process.
“It was when I first went and auditioned at the Kingston Mines for a job when I first got here. My first songs at the audition were “Dr. Feelgood” and Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train To Georgia.” He (the club owner) heard those songs and hired me on the spot,” she said. “I got a lot of mouth about that from some of the other female blues singers who said, ‘She ain’t singing no blues … that’s soul music. How is she going to get a job in a blues club singing that stuff?’ Well, I told them up front, I’m not a blues singer, per-say. I can sing the blues if that’s what the job calls for, but I can do so much more than that, too. Just don’t look for me to do a whole set of the straight delta blues … no way. I don’t sing like that.”
According to Rodgers, the message contained within the song is what matters most at the end of the day.
“Blues has a message, too, but soul music is just powerful … I mean, I really can’t explain it. But let me say this – what comes from the heart, reaches the heart. And if you sing soul music, it has to come from the heart. That’s the way I relate the power of soul music,” she said. “I sing from the heart and in order to get it over, it has to have a message. Nobody wants to hear about people being depressed. People want to hear songs that are uplifting and talk about love. People want to hear inspirational music. That’s what I sing.”
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015