BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

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):

ROSCOE’S BOOGIE
(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)

CITY WOMEN
(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)

SADDLED THE COW (AND MILKED THE HORSE)
(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 its 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)

OUCH! PRETTY BABY
(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)