Folk Musician, Storyteller
1937 - 1991
Inducted in 1998
In his 30-year career as one of the South's most well-known folk musicians, Florida native Gamble Rogers appeared as the headline performer at thousands of concerts throughout the U.S. and Canada. Long before his tragic death in 1991 while trying to save a drowning swimmer, Rogers was known as the "Florida troubadour."
Regarded as the ambassador of Florida folk culture, Rogers popularized the state's folk traditions in music, storytelling, writing and philosophical humor. Widely recognized as a guitar virtuoso, Rogers played in the finger-picking style of legendary country music artist Merle Travis. He also was heavily influenced by the guitar and vocal techniques of Woody Guthrie, whose singing voice closely resembled his own.
James Gamble Rogers IV was born in Winter Haven in 1937, the son of celebrated architect and designer, James Gamble Rogers II. Rogers was a precocious child who showed a variety of interests and talents. After high school he began what would become a four-year, checkered college career in a struggle to match his passions with his considerable aptitude.
Rogers spent his first semester at the University of Virginia, where by chance he met William Faulkner who was serving as an artist-in-residence there. Rogers had several meetings with the Nobel Prize-winning author before skipping his final exams to take guitar lessons from Charlie Byrd, a noted jazz guitarist, in Washington, D.C. The decision didn't go well with the UVA administration, and Rogers soon found himself booted off campus.
Back at home in Winter Park, Rogers spent a year at Rollins College before transferring to Stetson where he spent his final (and unsuccessful) year pursuing a degree in English, architecture or philosophy. Rogers never finished his collegiate studies, gravitating instead to a career as a musician, writer and performer.
He and a couple of his singer/songwriter friends soon left South Florida for Tallahassee, where they opened a small club they called The Baffled Knight, a name thought to have been inspired by Rogers's quixotic struggle to find his true calling. It was here that Rogers practiced his gifts in both music and language, combining them in acts he staged with his friends.
On a trip to Massachusetts to interview for a job as an architect, Rogers visited a friend who invited him to sit in on an audition with the Serendipity Singers, an up-and-coming pop group. Rogers wound up borrowing a guitar and wowing the group. He would spend the next two years on the road with them, playing lead, acoustic and electric guitars. Because of his wizardry with words, Rogers became spokesman for the group who soon got national exposure through appearances on "The Tonight Show," "Hootenanny" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."
For the next two decades, Rogers honed a career as a highly popular solo act with a growing fan base spanning the U.S. and parts of Canada. Highlights include appearing on numerous television shows, writing music for both television and film productions, serving as a guest commentator for National Public Radio and, in 1985, performing with legendary bluegrass guitarist and singer Doc Watson in Carnegie Hall.
Known less for his productivity as a songwriter than for his mesmerizing blends of music with the dramatic, forceful telling of original stories (an art form he dubbed "Southern Gothic art songs"), Rogers drew on Southern folk traditions dating to the earliest expressions of the unique region's culture and way of life.
Rogers is perhaps best remembered for his creation of "Oklawaha," a fictional Florida county. He colored his many funny and often poignant stories of life in Oklawaha with descriptions of a host of zany characters, most notably "Agamemnon Abramowitz Jones," "Downwind Dave," and "Sheriff Hutto." Throughout the 1970s, Rogers enthralled crowds at the Florida Folk Life Festival–the state's annual, preeminent folk art showcase–with his Oklawaha tales and other stories.
On a camping trip to Florida's Flagler Beach with his wife Nancy Lee Rogers (1943-2004) in October 1991, Rogers tried to help a Canadian tourist caught in heavy surf. Rogers's heroic effort to save a life is thought to have been compromised by spinal arthritis, a disease that had plagued the troubadour since his teens. Both men drowned. Rogers was 54 and at the zenith of a stellar career.
Commemorating Rogers is a music festival in his name held each May in St. Augustine, along with the Gamble Rogers Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his legacy. In 1992, the Florida Legislature changed the name of Flagler Beach State Recreation Area to the Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area to commemorate the site where Florida lost one the most talented and beloved folk artists in its history.