One of the most distinctive artists of the 1950’s whose influence on Jamaican ska and reggae eventually overshadowed his own formidable career as a rocker which included a handful of big hits along the way for a string of big time labels.

Born in April 1928, Gordon had grown up in Memphis where he learned piano from his sister and following a three year sojourn to Chicago in the late 1940’s returned to Memphis in 1949 where he drew the attention of WDIA disc jockey and future singing star Rufus Thomas after winning a talent contest at the Palace Theater. Thomas invited the youngster on his radio program and soon got him a show of his own.

Despite the exposure there was no labels or recording studios in Memphis and it wasn’t until 1951 when David Mattis, newly arrived in town as the white program director of the black powerhouse WDIA, told Gordon about Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service and encouraged him to go try out that Gordon’s career took off.

Gordon cut his first records in February with a makeshift studio unit centered around Tuff Green on bass and the sides were sent off to Modern/RPM in Los Angeles with whom Phillips had a working relationship. Aside from inadvertently misspelling his first name, Rosco Gordon got a recording contract and his first record came out around his twenty third birthday that April.

His follow up, “Saddled The Cow (And Milked The Horse)” gave him his first national chart hit in the fall, but since Phillips had fallen out with the Bihari brothers, owners of the RPM label, after he’d sent Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” to Chess Records instead, hoping for a better deal for himself, Gordon found himself caught in the middle of the threeway tug of war. Still recording him in town, Phillips sent Gordon’s “Booted” to the Chess brothers instead of RPM.

The infuriated Biharis sent their new talent scout/musical director Ike Turner, himself a perceived victim of Phillips’s shenanigans, to re-cut the same song for them and landed a Number One hit in the process before the lot of them ended up in court where Gordon was assigned to RPM where he received all of six hundred dollars for his services.

Another massive hit followed but he never received royalties and after a stint with Duke Records, which had been started by Mattis but taken over forcibly by Don Robey of Peacock Records, Gordon ended up back in Memphis recording for Phillips’ Sun Records. Though no hits were forthcoming, he was the last prominent black artist for the label as they’d turned their attention exclusively to white rockabilly acts with potentially broader appeal.

Gordon’s hit making career seemed to be long over, despite some excellent records, when he found himself with a belated smash as the 1960’s dawned with “Just A Little Bit” on Vee-Jay Records in Chicago. Despite that renewed interest – and the massive influence his unique off-beat rhythm had on the Jamaican music scene during these years – Gordon closed out his career a few years later, moving to New York and owning a laundromat. He started a small record label at the tail end of the sixties, but didn’t cut any records himself until making a comeback in the 1980’s with the album Rosco Rocks Again.

For the last twenty years of his life Gordon got to enjoy some semblance of notoriety for his work from decades earlier, touring regularly, recording occasionally and being interviewed about his career and those he was associated with over the years.

Soon after filming a spot in the documentary The Road To Memphis in 2002, Gordon passed away at the age of 74. Though nowhere near as widely acclaimed for his achievements as he deserved, Rosco’s Rhythm, as it was known, has a special place in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.

ROSCO GORDON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(RPM 322; April 1951)
An infectious rolling groove played by overlapping instruments topped by Gordon’s rhythmic vocal is one of the more mesmerizing records to come along and every component, from the arrangement to the record’s sonic clarity and self-assured attitude, are to be envied. (8)

(RPM 322; April, 1951)
Though it contains a few interesting touches and some modest creativity and the performance itself is fine, this is a much more simplistic song than the flip side, pleasant enough in its own right but hardly groundbreaking or memorable. (4)

(RPM 324; June, 1951)
All of the influence Gordon had on ska is evident here – the fractured rhythm, the reedy sax, the loping pace – but it’s Gordon’s witty story and the way his piano takes the role of drums which set this apart and gave him his first hit. (7)

(RPM 324; June, 1951)
A more typically structured song that employs a good rolling groove while Gordon takes steps to minimize his nasal vocals with some nonsensical cries to keep his voice in the mix in between the instrumental parts that are its main attraction. (6)

(Chess 1487; November, 1951)
Technically not the official #1 hit (on RPM), but rather the superior original version cut by Sam Phillips in which Gordon’s drunken and vengeful state of mind are perfectly matched by a purposefully unsteady track on a record that’s as colorful as it gets. (9)

(Chess 1487; November, 1951)
An utter mess of a record, as future star Bobby “Blue” Bland wrote a far too simplistic song and contributes some atypically awful uncredited vocals which clash mightily with Gordon, while the band contributes nothing of merit to distract you from the noise. (1)

(RPM 344; December, 1951)
The more widely credited hit version of the record is slightly inferior because Gordon doesn’t quite sell his drunken state of mind with the same all consuming conviction although Ike Turner’s band backing him is a little tighter than the Chess version’s unit. (8)

(RPM 344; December, 1951)
A startlingly intense performance from Gordon and the band on a song that suggests violent retribution of some sort without lyrically confirming it may be too harrowing a sound for 1951, but it’s a harbinger of things to come in rock down the line. (6)

(RPM 350; March, 1952)
Probably the definitive Gordon song, a huge influence on Jamaican ska and a great tale with some potentially troubling undercurrents that add to the intrigue all of which plays out over an intoxicating rhythmic blend of piano, drums and horns. (9)

(RPM 350; March, 1952)
The intoxicating interlocking rhythms – horns, drums and piano – lay the basic blueprints of funk, while Gordon’s off-key swaying vocals are disarmingly enjoyable even as they teeter on the brink of collapse as he pledges his devotion to the title character in charming fashion. (8)

(Duke 101; May, 1952)
The crudity of the title gives way to a different kind of crudity on the record, as the music is fairly raw but nothing compared to the aural depiction of actual sexual release in the latter part of the song itself, stripped bare and reveling in its shameless conquest. (6)

(Duke 101; May, 1952)
An uninspired, generic song with little structure and even less musical sharpness, as the band sounds inebriated while Gordon’s vocals are hardly distinctive enough to right the ship as usually is the case, making this a rather obvious throwaway track. (3)

(RPM 358; June, 1952)
A minor regional hit recycles some of his past glories melodically and rhythmically, but Gordon remains an effective storyteller with a style that is very endearing and so while this is hardly his freshest piece of material, it is still enjoyable. (6)

(RPM 358; June, 1952)
A very poignant song about being sent to die overseas features a sneaky good melody but Gordon doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull it off and the spoken mid-section is pretty stilted, even if the sentiments themselves are heartfelt. (4)

(RPM 365; August, 1952)
A rare and very welcome uptempo stomper from Gordon who shows he can handle this kind of record well, barreling along with confidence on a song about sex that gets its point across with a melody that will be subtly adapted in the future for an even bigger hit by a bigger artist. (7)

(RPM 365; August, 1952)
Though the song as written is sort of sloppy and unfocused, that’s nothing compared to the excruciating sounds being produced by singer and band alike who are never on the same page, out of step, out of tune and out of their minds to think this was worth releasing. (1)

(RPM 369; October, 1952)
Despite a few elements that show potential, the trademark off-beat percussion clashes with his similarly quirky vocal stylings while the melody gets lost in the shuffle resulting in a record that sounds like it’s constantly fighting itself. (3)

(RPM 369; October, 1952)
Unless it was deliberately done as a way to poke fun at pop music where this cover record was drawn from, this is a mess as Gordon can’t stay in tune and his drunken warbling overwhelms the few moments where the composition’s melodic charm still clings to life. (1)

(RPM 373; November, 1952)
Though Gordon sounds as cockeyed as always he remains musically focused throughout this song which features a good story, some colorful spoken asides and a really tight multi-layered arrangement highlighted by some echoing drums behind him. (7)

(RPM 373; November, 1952)
Sort of a run of the mill song and performance where nothing he does is bad, but nothing is very inspired or fresh either and the way in which he drags it out vocally to cover for the thin lyrics gives it the sense that it’s just filler material. (4)

(Duke 109; November, 1952)
Shedding that cracked vocal style he’d made famous now that he was free to sing without it on a new label, Gordon shows he’s up to the task with a good song, strong performance and a great driving track by he and The Beale Streeters. (8)

(Duke 109; November, 1952)
Though the bitter tears he cries while denouncing all women for the duplicity of one is hardly an appealing trait, he sells it convincingly and The Beale Streeters understated arrangement works very well to make this more palatable than its contents would suggest. (5)