*It was sometime in 1978, just after midnight at Total Experience Recording Studios in the heart of Hollywood, and through gigantic wall sound monitors, D.J. Rogers was blasting a track called “Love Brought Me Back.”
The singer/songwriter/keyboardist had invited me and Bobby Holland—fledgling Soul Newspaper music journalist and the paper’s staff photographer, respectively–to hear his new music, and we were eager to oblige.
We didn’t even bother to drop off our dates. After taking them to a concert at the Roxy Theatre, we simply brought the ladies with us to the studio.
D.J. didn’t mind. The more ears, the better. In the studio, there was just the five of us—six, if you count Gap Band bassist Robert Wilson, quietly intoxicated more than any human should ever be, who periodically wandered in and out of the studio to take an approving listen.
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The then portly Rogers, in a wine colored, long sleeve button down dress shirt and gray slacks, alternated between sitting behind the studio sound board turning knobs and occasionally standing up and rocking to the music, occasionally firing off soulful vocal ad-libs with the groove.
And “Love Brought Me Back” was quite the groove. A mid-tempo arrangement driven by a chugging, funky rhythm section and a choir’s worth of joyously singing background session voices, all of it accented by dramatic, majestic strings charted by virtuoso arranger Jerry Peters, “Love Brought Me Back,” was more than the title song of D.J.’s fifth album and his first for Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White ’s Columbia-distributed ARC label; the big, anthemic track represented the jubilant declaration of one man’s resilience through funny money, bad record deals and assorted personal woe, to rise back up.
The lyric said “Love” brought him back, but since D.J. never wrote a secular song that wasn’t a lyric away from being uncut gospel, you knew who he was really singing about.
Recorded in parallel “Woods”—at Total Experience studio, owned by black music impresario, the late Lonnie Simmons, D.J.’s manager at the time, in Hollywood, and Ike Turner’s legendary Bolic Sound facility in Inglewood–the album was going to be D.J.’s undisputed breakout. At least, that’s how Bobby and I felt that night, and we told a beaming D.J. as much.
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I love DeWayne Julius Rogers. I say this in present tense because, while he passed away on August 22, D.J. hasn’t gone anywhere. Through eight R&B albums, plenty yet-to- be-released R&B material and extensive recorded work in gospel genre, Mr. Rogers is still here, moving and inspiring us with his music.
Here, I choose to honor D.J. by sharing parcels of memories I have of the man.
First: freely I admit that over the years, during the hundreds of times I’ve played D.J.’s sentimental “Say You Love Me,” I’ve often listened through tears. Who wouldn’t want to feel about somebody what D.J. expresses in the song?
While “Say You Love Me” has been recorded by Natalie Cole and Jennifer Holliday, unwittingly, it’s D.J. himself who keeps his song from being covered over and again.
That’s because a cover can’t do “Say You Love Me” justice. What appears simple is a masterpiece of subtle, intricate chording and the melding of a capable rhythm section, sweetened by the harmonics of one Keith Hatchell on bass. That arrangement possess a feel that will remain elusive.
And then there’s D.J. Explaining and pleading, his folksy, impassioned delivery transforms often downright corny lyrics into sheer, unmitigated swooning romance. Again: who wouldn’t want to feel that way about somebody?
D.J. was down to earth. Funny. Kept me laughing throughout our 1975 interview at RCA’s Hollywood building. The label had just released It’s Good To Be Alive—featuring “Say You Love Me”—D.J.’s second album after he’d released his first on songwriter Leon Russell’s Tulsa-based Shelter label (where he worked with a fledgling Gap Band; it was D.J. who introduced them to Lonnie Simmons, who in turn launched Gap, downsized to Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson, into a run of hits), and he was hopeful.
That year I was at the Troubadour in West Hollywood when D.J. and his band nearly burned the place down during a rollicking, two-set one-night-stand. Onstage, you couldn’t fuck with D.J.
He’s from the church. That’s all you have to say, really. If you’re a musician in the church, you learn how to make people feel the Spirit. That ability is indispensable.
From Los Angeles, his father was a minister and singer. D.J., self-taught on piano, nurtured his skills in various choirs, including that of the legendary Reverend James Cleveland.
And Rogers was a masterful squaller—that time-honored, soul-stirring vocal technique passed down through black gospel lineage over the centuries.
Best described as a cross between the sound of a guttural shout and someone trying to clear their throat of phlegm while somebody is choking them (okay, so it’s not the best description), a great squaller, like a gale force wind, can set a listener back on their heels. D.J. would unleash his squall during “Bulah Jean,” his churchy, drama-filled, heart-tugging show-stopper about a poor, saintly childhood friend, and bring the house down.
In L.A. I’d go see Rogers anywhere: the Simmons-owned Total Experience nightclub on Crenshaw Blvd; The Name Of The Game Jr., over on Slauson (I think)—and always left a venue pleased and ever astounded by D.J.’s gift.
Often referred to as the west coast’s Donny Hathaway, vocally Rogers could “run” his ass off. I was at the Shrine Auditorium in 1977 when, during one of those zillion-R&B-acts-on-one-bill shows (Ohio Players protégé band funk band Faze-O opened the evening, playing their hit “Riding High”), an up and coming Peabo Bryson was closing his set with “Feel The Fire,” when out of the wings, mic in hand, emerged D.J. Rogers. The two went toe-to-toe trading thunderous vocal runs and ad-lbbs (“OoooOOOOhhhhh!”… “OOOOooohhhhhh!”) like two soul singing gunslingers. It lasted all of a minute. The Auditorium was on its feet.
Not only a perceptive singer, writer and keyboardist, D.J. was also a great bandleader who trusted the players he chose.
“D.J. would just let me go,” says the legendary bassist Keni Burke, whose artful moaning, bending and string-popping holds down the funky bottom on D.J.’s “Love Brought Me Back.” An alumnus of the iconic ‘70s sibling group The Five Stairsteps (“Ooh Child”), Burke went on to become a solo artist and producer whose 1982 hit, “Risin’ To The Top,” is one of the most sampled tracks of all time.
“He inspired the musicians he worked with,” says Burke, “because he’d let you do your thing. The rhythm track on ‘Love Brought Me Back?’ We cut that in one take. D.J. rehearsed us a few times, and then we recorded it. He didn’t spend time doing something over and over; you wanna capture that fire on the track. I loved D.J.; he was like a big brother to me.”
Indeed, both gospel and secular music communities revered Rogers. Among the great players who insisted D.J. guest on their recordings–Patrice Rushen, who duets with Rogers during the wicked prowl, “Givin’ It Up Is Givin’ Up” from her 1979 album, Pizzazz.
Alas, Love Brought Me Back, a vital LP in the Rogers canon, wasn’t the commercial success it deserved to be. That—the idea that an artist as brilliantly talented as D.J. never broke out—is not only Rogers’ story, but the unfortunate tale of a multitude of deserving acts whose recording careers were shortchanged by a music industry that historically took more than it gave.
Thankfully, an often dastardly business didn’t stop D.J. Rogers from creating work that every true lover of soul music deserves to hear.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]