As professional accomplishments go, discovering Rihanna certainly ranks among the biggest achievements of Evan Rogers’ career. But it’s far from the only one.
In fact, the list is rather long. Rogers, 53, has built a remarkable resume riding the ebb-and-flow cycle of the music industry, on stage and behind the scenes. The Storrs native got started locally, performing in R&B and funk bands, before helping to revive Donny Osmond’s career in the ’80s. He toured the world with R&B act Rhythm Syndicate in the early ’90s, then played a key role in the boy-band craze that followed.
With his business partner Carl Sturken, Rogers has written and produced songs for ’N Sync, Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson. Before Rihanna — and long before “The Voice” — Rogers and Sturken found Stratford native Javier Colon and got him signed to Capitol Records.
“There have been so many chapters to this journey that sometimes it’s hard to believe,” Rogers says. “It’s like watching a movie or something: you forget that you lived through every one of them. Each one was a journey in itself. The great part about it is, it just keeps on going.”
Over the past 35 years, Rogers has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time. That’s how he found Rihanna, starting in 1978.
She wasn’t born until a decade later, but 1978 is when Rogers traveled to Barbados on a cultural exchange program with Too Much Too Soon, the Connecticut R&B group he joined after graduating from E.O. Smith High School the previous year. Though the band eventually broke up, Rogers met Jackie Jordan, the women he would marry, which has made him a frequent return visitor to Barbados.
“I’m always there, and people know I’m a record producer and a songwriter, so everyone knows someone who wants to audition for me,” he says.
In 2004, he scheduled an audition with a group of three teen girls.
“One of them is Robyn Fenty, and she stood out,” Rogers says, referring to Rihanna as she was known then. “She had this incredible presence when she walked in.”
He asked her to return the next day without the others, and was so impressed he invited her and her mother to return with him to Stamford, where he and his wife live, with the intention of turning her into a star.
“People say, ‘Did you know she would be this big?’” Rogers says. “And I always say, ‘I knew she had something really special and I thought if we could get her a record deal, she could do something.’”
After moving her to Connecticut, Rogers and Sturken spent a year honing her sound, her look and her songs — including her first single, “Pon de Replay,” which reached No. 2 — before getting Rihanna an audition with Jay-Z and music executive L.A. Reid. They signed her to Def Jam Records the same day.
“That’s a rare, almost unheard-of thing,” Rogers says.
Rihanna (whose publicist didn’t respond to requests for comment) has released six albums since, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide — not a bad discovery for a kid from Storrs whose musical taste was always a little out of step with his peers’.
“My tastes were in a different lane,” Rogers says. “Everyone else was into Elton John and I was obsessed with Stevie Wonder.”
That obsession with Wonder, and with R&B in general, is what got him started in music. Raised by a college professor father and elementary school teacher mother, both of whom loved music, Rogers began playing percussion, then singing, as a teen. After graduating from high school, his most immediate goal was joining Too Much Too Soon, a sort of local version of Tower of Power or Earth, Wind & Fire.
“For me, that was it, getting into that band,” Rogers says. “From there, I just convinced my parents that I wasn’t going to go to college. ‘Give me a year to experiment.’ I never looked back.”
When the band fizzled in 1981, Rogers landed gigs first with the Ohio funk band Dayton, which had a hit with a version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and then fronted another Ohio band, Heatwave, on a European tour. Those stints led to a solo deal with RCA Records, and to Rogers reconnecting with Sturken, who had played guitar in Too Much Too Soon. They became business partners at SRP, the production company they continue to run.
“We have a very strong partnership, and one of the reasons is that, I would say that 50 percent of us is absolutely identical, and the other 50 percent is totally opposite,” says Sturken, 56, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1978. “In terms of music, we see eye-to-eye pretty much all the time. In terms of how we do stuff, we have different methods. My weaknesses are his strengths, and his weaknesses are my strengths.”
When RCA asked them for a song for Evelyn “Champagne” King, the pair was ready with “Heartbreaker,” which ended up on the singer’s 1984 album “So Romantic.”
That led to other writing and producing gigs, for Jennifer Holiday, Cheryl Lynn and Stephanie Mills. Soon they had an even bigger client in Donny Osmond, the ’70s teen heartthrob whose career had stalled by the late ’80s.
“We got approached by Virgin Records and they said, ‘If you can bring this guy back, you’ll be heroes at Virgin,’” Rogers says.
The song they wrote for Osmond, “Soldier of Love,” was originally intended for a solo record Rogers was making. Osmond recorded it instead, taking it to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and crediting the song with reviving his career.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to say that I’ve released over 60 albums in my career and have enjoyed much success in the recording industry,” Osmond said through his publicist. “However, among all of the songs in those 60-plus albums, the one that probably means the most to me is one that Evan Rogers co-wrote called ‘Soldier of Love.’ It was considered my ‘comeback’ record. In fact, it was that record that put me back at the top of the charts when everyone said it couldn’t be done and was referred to it as the ‘Comeback of the ’80s.’”
After working for years in the studio, Rogers and Sturken were ready for another stint on stage. They formed Rhythm Syndicate (the misspelling was intentional) with other members of Too Much Too Soon, released a pair of albums and went on tour.
“It was a lot of fun, but we were staying in Holiday Inns, bunking up, as opposed to staying in West Hollywood in these nice suites, getting paid a lot of money to write and produce songs,” Rogers says.
When Rhythm Syndicate fell apart after its second album, Rogers and Sturken returned to a behind-the-scenes role, writing for the likes of Debbie Gibson in the United States and various groups in Europe, including England’s Brand New Heavies and Irish boy-band Boyzone. They came home in 1997, landing a monster hit when ’N Sync made their song “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” into a top-10 hit.
That led to work with Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore in her teen-pop incarnation and others, including early “American Idol” finalists.
“That was a great little run there,” Rogers says.
That run was another factor in the discovery of Rihanna.
“We said, we’ve worked with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, all these stars, we know what a star is, we know what it takes, we need to find our own,” Rogers says. “That opened up a new chapter for us, a new hat: record executives signing artists.”
Rihanna is still signed to SRP, which works with other young artists including Vita Chambers, another Barbadian singer; and Kandace Springs, a Nashville pianist and singer. Both acts are working on their debuts.
“I signed with him probably about a year ago, and it’s been nothing but good,” Springs says by phone from Los Angeles, during a break from writing with the producer Tricky Stewart. “He totally understands my sound. He stands up for it, he wouldn’t change it or anything, and that’s what he does for all the artists on SRP. He lets them be who they are.”
Not all of Rogers’ finds have panned out: a rock band called Urgency never took off, and neither of Colon’s two albums with Capitol attracted much attention, though Colon remains grateful to Rogers.
“He’s like a brother to me,” the singer said through his publicist. “He was one of the few people who believed in me when no one wanted to give me a chance.”
Even singers who get a chance may not wind up in the right situation, a lesson Rogers has taken to heart.
“There is a certain amount of chance to it when you come in with a new artist,” he says. “The one thing that I always notice is that as much as it changes, it still comes down to a star, a great voice, a great song. You still can’t get around for the most part that you’ve got to have that something really special.”
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