They called him "Midnight Cowboy" because he was a ranch hand who dressed like a cowboy. But for those who knew his music, Andy Rodgers will always be considered the "Granddaddy of the Blues."

The well-known blues musician and local legend died Saturday at Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding due to complications from diabetes. He was 82.

"He's an unsung hero of the blues," said longtime friend Clay Thompson, who worked with Rodgers in the Brownsville Blues Festival. "If there's a blues heaven, he's the conductor of the band."

Although Rodgers played guitar, he was most famous for his harmonica and Delta sound. He recorded two albums, 1993's "Freight Train Blues," and 1995's "Chicken Thief Blues," so named because he used to steal stray chicken in his youth.

"He knew harmonica better than anyone I've ever met, and he played the guitar like John Lee Hooker until he couldn't play anymore," said Thompson. "He used all his fingers to play guitar. It's an old style; it's called the piedmont style of blues and very few people understand and know the style. When Andy passed, a certain amount of that passed with him."

Rodgers was born in Liberty, Miss., and was one of 18 children born to sharecropper parents. He began performing professionally when he was 11, and at 12, he left home and rode the rails, drifting from one job to another. He played for pennies on a street corner or bar, fought rounds as a boxer and lugged blocks of ice up the stairs of New York City buildings.

He cleared out swamps for transmission lines and later worked as a cowboy and hay hauler in Fresno County, a career he continued in the Butte Valley and Gridley, where he would live for more than 50 years.

It was while working on the ranch that he acquired the nickname "Midnight Cowboy," a name which he later gave permission to be used in a book and movie by the same name.

A fire forced Rodger and his longtime companion, Georgie Ann Wadell, 56, from their mobile home in Gridley two years ago, and the couple later moved to Fall River Mills, where they lived until his death. The fire also destroyed much of Rodger's archived music, biography and genealogy research.

"The fire took a lot of the wind out of his sails, because he lost everything," said Thompson, who saw Rodgers for the last time about two years ago on the Fourth of July, shortly after the fire.

"He was doing terrible. He was going to play a set and he didn't have a good amplifier. Then a little boy comes up to him and asked him why he was wearing tennis shoes instead of cowboy boots. If he was supposed to be a cowboy he should be wearing boots," added Thompson. "But he had just lost everything in that fire and that really bummed him out. He needed new boots. 'I got to have some real boots, because I can't be the cowboy without the boots.' I sure wanted to get him a new pair of boots."

Rodgers was a two-time winner of "The Gong Show" (1976 and 1977) and has played with Bill Cosby, Box Car Willie and such country greats as Roy Acuff, Rose Maddox and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. He was also a great storyteller, said Thompson, and often told stories about meeting other legends such as B.B. King and Bo Diddley.

"I think he believed he was the best harmonica player that ever lived," said Thompson. "Andy could play. He could top anyone, anytime, and he never made a big deal out of it."

Rodgers is survived by his sons, George Lewis Jamison of Yuba City, Leon Rodgers of Fresno, Johnathan "Jody" Rodgers of Fresno, Bailey Rodgers of Maryland, W.D. Buck Berry of Fresno, Andy Rodgers of Oroville, J.B. Rodgers of Chico and Yoseb "John" Afsharzabeh of Chico; his brother, James Rodgers of Los Angeles; and three sisters, Alice Pattie and Bessie Jean Williams, both of Baton Rouge, La.; Emma Jean Austin of Clovis and Bessie Jean Williams of Baton Rouge, La.

He is also survived by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 400 Spruce St., Gridley. A visitation will be held prior to the services from noon to 2 p.m. at the church.

A memorial trust has been set up at Gold Country Bank in Gridley for donations, which will be accepted under the Andy Rodgers, Midnight Cowboy account, number 5402051.

Appeal-Democrat reporter Ching Lee can be reached at 749-4724. You may e-mail her at clee@appeal-democrat.com

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