Wednesday, October 3, 2012
BILLIE ROGERS: BIG BAND PIONEER
However, for the most part the big bands were segregated. It was nearly unheard of for a woman to be a part of a band unless she was the vocalist. Band leader Woody Herman broke down that barrier when he hired female Billie Rogers to not only sing for the band but play a mean trumpet.
Billie Rogers was born on May 31, 1917 North Plains, Oregon. She was a member of the trumpet section and featured soloist with Woody Herman from 1941 to 1943. She led her own band in 1943, then at the end of that year, joined the Jerry Wald band and remained a member until October 1945, when she left to form her own sextet. Rogers is credited as being the first woman to hold a horn position in a major jazz orchestra.
Woody Herman discovered Rogers in August 1941. After his band had finished for the evening at the Palladium Ballroom Cafe in Hollywood, Herman had gone to a small Los Angeles night club where Rogers was singing and playing trumpet. Impressed, he asked for an introduction. Sammy Cahn, the songwriter, did the honors and, within a few minutes, Herman hired her to be a member of his "Blues on Parade" band. She made her debut with Woody's band at the Panther Room of Chicago's Sherman Hotel.
Rogers grew up in Washington state, then in Missoula, Montana. She was raised in a family of musicians. Her father, William Cody Smith (1885–1970), played banjo. Her mother, Bertha Emde (née Fleming; 1892–1976), played seventeen instruments, proficiently – predominantly ragtime piano and accordion. Her older brother and mentor, Lester Smith (1913–1936), was proficient on many instruments. According to Billie, his sudden death affected her for years to come. Her younger brother, Kenneth Gaylord Smith (1920–2005), played sax. She also had a younger sister, Alice V. (Mrs. Olaf Hemnes; 1924–1996). And, she played in vaudeville and theater bands. Billie is reputed to have perfect pitch. Rogers studied music at the University of Montana.
Rogers met Jack Archer (1909-1962) while performing with Woody Herman. She and Jack married on April 21, 1944, in Chicago. Jack built a career as a booking agent, initially for big bands in the one-nighter category, but in the 1950s while with Shaw Artists, he moved into promoting R&B - which was a new genre of music at the time.
When Rogers met Jack, he had recently received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army (1943) and, that same year, had become the road manager of the Woody Herman Orchestra. Billie left the Herman band on October 27, 1943, to form her own band. Jack, who at that time was engaged to marry Billie, also left Herman to manage her band, which he did from July 22, 1944 until the end of 1944, when the group disbanded. Overlapping with his responsibilities managing the Billie Rogers Orchestra, Archer was handing bookings for Mills Music, staying on until January 8, 1944, when he then became head of the one-night band department at General Amusement Corporation, a position he held until July 22, 1944.
When his wife's band broke up, he went back to booking bands at Frederick Bros. Archer was responsible for booking a strong R&B line-up, which included The Platters, Dinah Washington, and The Drifters. Archer suffered a slight heart attack in April of 1958 and he passed away of heart problems four years later. Billie Rogers basically retired in 1947 to raise a family, and she has not looked back at show business. Amazingly Billie is still doing well and recently moved to be closer to her family. I got in touch with her via email, and just by our communication back and forth I can tell how much life Billie Rogers is full of. Retired for over sixty years now, Billie is probably not even aware of what a pioneer among women in entertainment she was and is...
UPDATE: Sadly, Billie Rogers passed away on January 18, 2014. I wish I would have gotten to know her more...