His name has lit up Broadway marquees. He has performed alongside such notables as Liza Minnelli and specifically for such artists such as Billy Joel while singing the piano man’s own material.

But Broadway/pop/jazz/name-your-genre singer Johnny Rodgers sounds most excited to talk about his audience in 2011 in Djibouti, a small northern African nation — one hardly on the everyday cabaret circuit.

“It’s one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had,” Rodgers said, speaking from his rural home outside Waukesha, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb. “My music is not so much about ever trying to be famous or chasing any such attention. It’s more about just bringing people together. And everyone there greeted us with such open minds and open hearts.”

Rodgers, whose trip was part of his six-year, global role as an ambassador of the U.S. Department of State, brings his worldwide wisdom to his Cabaret at The Commons concert at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12 in downtown Columbus. The 75-minute show, “Legends of American Music,” links with his first album of that name and highlights covers of artists from Louis Armstrong to Jerry Lee Lewis to James Taylor.

Story continues below gallery

And for those who have seen some Broadway-only vocalists never quite fit their disciplined voice to flowing blues or pop-rock material, know that the 42-year-old Rodgers can shift from one style to another rather convincingly. With this in mind, The Chicago Tribune once said of him, “Few soloists of his generation are as (vocally) persuasive.”

The piano player recalled that when he began taking music seriously in middle school in his Miami hometown, nearly every style and rhythm fascinated him.

“I couldn’t choose just one,” Rodgers said.

He has become so versatile that now on his to-do list is a hip-hop project with an artist in Cambodia — again of spinoff of his ambassador efforts.

Rodgers graduated college with a jazz studies degree in 1998. Four years later, Minnelli discovered him at a party and took him on a worldwide tour and later used him as a singer, dancer, songwriter and musician in her Tony Award-winning show, “Liza’s at the Palace … !”

“She fulfilled my dream of being in a Broadway show,” Rodgers said. “She taught me so many things. And she was the one who wisely advised me, ‘Always surround yourself with people better than you are and you will have more of an opportunity to continue to learn and get better every day.”

Minnelli has gushed when she has introduced Rodgers and his band at gigs. In one such online clip, she recalled one aspect in particular when she first heard him.

“What was astounding is that he could do anything,” she said. “And he could do it better than almost anybody else.”

Rodgers spent 17 years based in New York.

“That was a wonderful energy to be a part of with so much culture,” he said.

Then Rodgers moved to Chicago.

But after his marriage three years ago to wife Stephanie, he moved to her family’s hometown, giving him more stability and even tranquility when his annual, 26-week travel schedule allows him to be home.

Make no mistake, Rodgers loves such down time. However, he sees his calling, especially his globetrotting responsibilities, as a joy.

“When we were in Egypt, they didn’t quite have an appropriate word for concert,” he said. “So they called our show a hefla, which means party (in Arabic).

“I like to think it’s just like a party — one where I just happen to be the emcee.”

An eclectic show

Who: Singer and pianist Johnny Rodgers performing “Legends of American Music” at the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s Cabaret at The Commons series.

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12.

Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St. in Columbus.

Food and drink: Optional three-course dinner available for $18 for those with $55 and $35 tickets. Must be ordered in advance.

Tickets: $20, $35 and $55, available at 812-376-2638 or thecip.org.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.