October 12, 2008
“Foxy Girls From Oakland” Singer Rodger Collins Records New CD After 30 Years
By Angela Woodall
In his heyday, singer Rodger Collins rocked like Little Richard. He also extolled the virtues of this city's ladies in his classic song "Foxy Girls from Oakland."
Back then, when those foxy girls were "struttin' down East 14th," as the song goes, Collins drew crowds that rivaled the big-name acts he once shared billings with: Ike and Tina Turner, Redd Foxx and Elvis (yes, Elvis Presley).
His 1967 single "She's Lookin' Good" -- "You wear your wig, now, you wear your dresses tight. You're wearing your foxy fur when you step out late at night." -- was like an anthem to all the true, fine mamas in the East Bay, as a reviewer once put it.
Without recording a full-length album, people lined up around the block to see him because, Collins said, "I really enjoyed what I was doing and people connected to that."
Then, a few years later, after releasing "You Sexy Sugar Plum" in 1973, Collins bowed out of show business.
More than three decades later, he has put down a dozen tracks on a new album -- "Through My Eyes" -- and is stepping slowly back into the limelight.
The songs on the CD are not about Oakland, where he has lived since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And these days, at age 68, Collins' hair is flecked with gray. But he can still hit the notes high and low, as he did over a cup of tea at Kincaid's on an October evening, sounding like James Brown one minute and bluesman Robert Cray the next, with some Gene Autry yodeling and Grandmaster Flash mixed in for good measure.
The traces of Collins' boyhood, spent between Santa Ana, Texas, and San Francisco's Fillmore district, are in his music. His influences include Ray Charles, Beyonce and Cannonball Adderley. He began his stage career with a talent contest pantomiming a Chuck Berry record and impersonating Elvis Presley right down to the toes. Then he won a five-year scholarship to study drama at the Actor's Laboratory in San Francisco. He applied the pantomime skills he picked up to his musical performances. "I got people to see the lyrics, the story," he said.
Collins' star didn't rise as quickly as he might have originally imagined, but it was enough to get him noticed by Fantasy Records.
"I refused to get caught up in the whirlwind of the music industry by finding a niche," he said. It wasn't the right niche for Fantasy's focus, however, and Collins and the company parted ways.
Eventually, Collins bowed out of show business, drawing the curtain around his private life. "I am more in control of my life now." That was not so easy at the height of his career. Now, he said, he is not at the mercy of the press or the recording industry. He controls the product and the money generated by his music.
Collins stopped recording but continued writing songs for performers: "The Fix-It Man,""The Danger Isn't Over" and "The Boom Boom Song." He wrote two songs for the 1972 film "Black Girl."
The new CD "confounds expectations," Collins said. The songs range from a funk-country-and-western hybrid stoked "In My Wildest Dreams" to the bluesy "Nailed to the Floor" -- all reflecting a particular take on a mixture of influences in what the musician calls the "Rodger Collins genre."
A remix of his classic "She's Lookin' Good," which has been covered by other singers over the years, also is included.
"I might be anywhere when a song comes to me," Collins said.
But try to sit down and nail a song's worth of verses and he might just get stuck. "I can't write it if the song (doesn't come) to me. The time has to be right. That's just what comes out."
What came out when Collins set foot in the studio to record "Through My Eyes," sounded like "an old man out of breath." So he started running up and down the Cleveland Cascade steps at Lake Merritt.
It was fine if it took 20 takes to get the sound he wanted. He knew it had to be good to compete with the best.
The songs, he said, give hope to people.
More recently, he released a single online, "I'm Standing up with Barack Obama." Not for Obama, but with him, Collins emphasized, reflecting his meticulous care with words that shows in his lyrics and his image. "I like to be straight ahead and universal," he said, wearing a Windbreaker and an Obama baseball cap.
"That's why I'm called the universal man," he said.
"If I can reach a wide spectrum of people with what I do then I feel I am musically successful."
Just making the CD, he added, was "a testament to not giving up."
Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or [email protected]
Originally published by Angela Woodall, Oakland Tribune.
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