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DUKE 101; MAY 1952



Some people are magnets for controversy and in virtually all cases it is their own fault as the offending parties have neither the ethics, discipline or intelligence to avoid trouble and eventually they’ll have to answer for their crimes.

But in Rosco Gordon’s case, while he was certainly at the center of a whirlwind of accusations of double-crosses and malfeasance being tossed around, the singer might be the only innocent party involved.

First it was the deception of Sam Phillips which caused Gordon to be used as the rope in a tug of war between Chess Records and RPM Records. Now, having gotten stiffed on royalties from each of those labels, he finds his way to the newly instituted Duke Records in Memphis run by a reasonably honest total novice who will soon lose his company – and his artists – to yet another record biz criminal.

When surrounded by so much corruption it’s a wonder that Rosco Gordon lived to tell about it.


Parkin’ In the Dark
Not that this should be taken as condoning the reprehensible actions of the guilty parties by any means, but it’s entirely possible that if gangsters, lowlifes and cheats didn’t take over Duke Records with threats of violence the record label itself might not have survived even two years despite a roster of budding stars.

Such was the vile landscape of the independent record biz in the 1950’s, where integrity was an aberration and quite possibly even a detriment when it came to finding success.

That didn’t mean there weren’t some who went into the field with the best of intentions, such as David Mattis, the program director at Memphis’s famed WDIA, the first radio station in the South to be aimed entirely at black audiences, featuring African-American disc jockeys and announcers which was almost unheard of south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Mattis though was white, a former Army Air Corps instructor during World War Two who turned to radio announcing after the war, landing at WDIA in the early 1950’s where his rigid standards but genuine concern for the talent endeared him to the soon to be singing stars B.B. King and Rufus Thomas who were working as dee-jays on the station. King unabashedly called Mattis “his mentor”, praising him for always taking time with him to improve his technique.

With this background it probably didn’t seem like that big a step for him to go from nurturing black talent on the air to recording them in the studio and selling the records, in the process giving unknowns the chance to be heard while also trying to ensure they were not going to be taken advantage of as they would with the more established companies.

Rosco Gordon told him bluntly that he was “getting hosed” by both Chess and RPM and so it was only natural that Mattis try and remedy that with the first release on Duke, the brazenly crude Hey, Fat Girl, for which Gordon was paid in cash up front.

Of course in starting this label Mattis was ignoring his own conflict of interest with his radio duties while also potentially violating Gordon’s existing contracts in the process, which shows that try as you might to be honest, in the record biz honesty often had more to do with intent than with results.

Gonna Buy Me A Car
The one thing that Sam Phillips, Leonard Chess and the Bihari Brothers had all benefited from that David Mattis, at this stage, did not, had nothing to do with righteousness and everything to do with content… as in they had gotten some great original compositions from Rosco Gordon along the way.

Not all of them had been hits of course, but most were worthy of scoring big.

For the inaugural release of Duke Records however (initially labeled R1 in the first printing, but switched to 101 so people wouldn’t know it was their first release), Gordon supplied Mattis with a slightly lesser composition, the dubiously titled Hey, Fat Girl.

It’s safe to assume that in naming it this they probably eliminated at least half of the potential sales, as what female would dare bring such a record to the counter and risk having a wiseacre suggest that the record must’ve “spoken to her” from the racks.

They probably didn’t have much luck making up those sales with the other side of the gender coin, for heaven help the boy whose girlfriend saw such a record sitting on his bureau and had to endure hysterical charges from his sweetie that he was somehow referring to her in listening to such a song.

Subtlety therefore probably is not going to be a hallmark of this record which means Gordon had better make it plenty funny to distract from the possibility of offending anyone within earshot.

He doesn’t manage to pull that off, as this merely uses the title as a means of addressing her, never once trying to inject humor into the mix. Luckily for him the rest of the song is decidedly more inspired than that crude term of endearment, as it features a pretty decent rhythm track – piano and thumping drums – which is also musically crude but all the better for it, really driving the song in ways a more full arrangement would fall short in.

The sax solo however is far too wheezy and at times seems to be missing as many notes as it randomly hits, but the saving grace – as usual – is Rosco Gordon himself whose slightly off-beat vocals and engaging charm makes up for a lot of the technical shortcomings found within thanks in large part to a rather unexpected subject matter.


Happy As Happy Can Be
Maybe you felt that our references to the record’s crudity was a negative but in the end that crudity winds up providing the best moments, just not in quite the way we anticipated, as it expands upon the vague theme of hooking up with this pleasantly plump girl and takes the narrative to a logical conclusion for real life but certainly not for commercial records made in 1952.

For those not seeking to be incriminated, skip this next section, because once we’ve reached the instrumental break Rosco figures he’s got a few seconds to kill and, blinded by lust, tears off his pants and starts going at it with the aforementioned girl. I mean literally too!

We know this because Mattis – being a radio man by trade where getting the news is of paramount importance – lets the tapes roll as Gordon achieves a rather obvious extended orgasm on record. By the sounds of it so does his cohort who joined in on the fun, my guess is the drummer since he seemed to be the other one laying out a proper beat as it were.

There’s no two ways around this. That’s what’s happening, it’s plainly obvious and easily verified by his breathy grunting coming through the walls before trailing off to a post-coital moan which exclaims the virtues of Hey, Fat Girl… indicating we have yet another satisfied customer.

Yup, three and a half decades before Tipper Gore slapped warning labels on rock records for indecent content, Rosco Gordon released one that was downright obscene.

Way to go, Rosco!!!!

No doubt about it, Duke Records – as long as they can avoid being taken over by hoodlums and stay out of prison on morals charges – is off to a rousing start!


(Visit the Artist page of Rosco Gordon for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)