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RPM 322; APRIL 1951

 
 

 

Last month came a record which not only would top the charts, becoming one of the most iconic releases of the year, but which also had major repercussions for three different record labels.

The first was Chess Records, the company which got that hit, their first #1 no less, giving them the notoriety that would soon make them serious players in the field, a position they held for the next two decades.

The second label, Sun Records, wasn’t even in existence at the time, but which came about after the prolonged dispute over who had the rights to the songs cut in Memphis Recording Studio convinced Sam Phillips to go into business for himself rather than sell the results of sessions he conducted to outside parties.

The third company in this tangled web of deals gone awry was the Modern/RPM labels of Los Angeles who got screwed by both Leonard Chess and Sam Phillips, yet in the short term made out okay thanks to the artist who tends to get lost in the shuffle of all this drama.
 

 

All Last Night
Before anyone starts feeling sympathetic towards the Bihari brothers whose handshake deal with Phillips was violated by the soon-to-be Memphis power broker when he sold Rocket 88 to Chess rather than tell Modern about it, let’s remember just who we’re talking about here.

Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari were three of the most reprehensible people in the business, stealing writing credits for every single artist on their labels… men who were so unethical that they actually cannibalized their own companies later in the decade to sell cut-rate albums comprised of their recorded history which wound up eventually costing them their artists and sinking the whole damn outfit in the process.

So don’t weep for any of them for there are NO good people in this story. Not Chess, not Phillips, not the Biharis, not Ike Turner who broke off his association with the first two in protest over being denied what he viewed as his rightful credit for that hit and headed to the third in this unholy trio.

Well… actually, there may be one good person to emerge from all of this… Rosco Gordon, who became the next pawn in the three way tug of war between the battling factions and all HE did was want to make some records.

Gordon first recorded for Phillips in February, a few weeks before Ike Turner rolled into town with Jackie Brenston and cut their immortal side. Because he had yet to have any deal with Chess in place, Phillips sent the tapes to the Biharis who were impressed with what they heard and put out Roscoe’s Boogie soon after the blow-up over Brenston’s hit occurred. Gordon would unwittingly find himself caught in the middle of all this, which is what he gets for trusting any of these no account crooks in the first place.

The story will have many more twists and turns in the months to come and rest assured all of the label owners will come out of the ordeal without any integrity to their names, but for now we’re concerned with this record on this label by this artist which should be more than enough to keep you riveted.
 


 
 

I Love To Hear My Baby Call My Name
Give this much credit to Sam Phillips, he was always a great engineer, a talent that was evident from the start as his records had a clean, crisp and deep sound, all of which benefits Gordon who right away is showing his unique style with a herky-jerky rhythm that is almost hypnotic.

The drums are the focal point during the intro, seemingly coming at you from out of the darkness, slightly ominous but infectious all the same. Gordon’s piano seems to creep up behind them before a stark saxophone joins in playing a single note in triplicate, its foggy tone adding immeasurably to the atmosphere.

All of these instruments are layered on top of one another, each sticking to their own distinctive pattern irrespective of the others, but when combined they create a different sound altogether, one that bobs and weaves in rhythm as Gordon’s inimitable voice slides in on top of it all. It’s an ingenious arrangement, one reminiscent of Johnny Otis’s work on Joe Swift’s That’s Your Last Boogie, but with an even lighter touch.

Like a lot of artists we’ve covered Rosco Gordon (or Roscoe, as RPM misspelled it on all of his records) had a nasal voice, but unlike most of them he used it to his advantage by not letting it weigh him down. He specialized in mid-tempo songs where his deficiencies never seemed oppressive to the overall spirit and on Roscoe’s Boogie the effect is mesmerizing as his voice essentially becomes another rhythm instrument, effortlessly riding the rolling wave created by the melange of instruments all swirling together.

The sound of the vocals are what matters most here, but the lyrics aren’t incidental to the record’s success even though they provide less of a story and more of a general statement of his attitude and his own perceived stature, boasting good-naturedly about his appeal to the ladies and throwing in some vague hints about his activities while his girlfriend was gone. Was he playing around with other women, or just out partying – “boogieing” as he refers to it – waiting for her return? We don’t know and frankly we don’t care, because it sounds like he had fun and by him telling us in this way, we’re having fun vicariously.

In normal circumstances we might take issue with the lack of specifics he offers, or we might find fault with the technical limitations of the wheezing underpowered sax solo, but when the whole purpose of the record seems to be to help you forget your cares and enjoy the low key but bustling environment they create, who can argue?

When the instruments drop out momentarily before the drums emerge from that dark corner as the other instruments fall in replicating that intoxicating intro again after the break you’ve forgotten what the record doesn’t do and are only interested in what it IS doing, which is getting you to move without a care in the world.
 


 

So Easy
Of all of the artists that came out of Sam Phillips’ pre-Sun foray into the record business, the name Rosco Gordon generally – and somewhat understandably – takes a back seat to the likes of B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, two of the five greatest blues artists in history. He also gets overshadowed by that one fateful record cut by Brenston and Turner which is unfortunate but probably somewhat justifiable.

Yet to think Rosco Gordon was some afterthought would be a mistake. He may not have the name recognition of those artists, or the ones who followed on Sun – where he himself eventually wound up as well – but at his best Gordon can hang with any of them, no matter how big they were.

Roscoe’s Boogie may not be his very best, but it’s really good – and a huge hit in Oakland of all places for two months this spring for what it’s worth – and a portend of things to come.

For someone making his debut to sound so compellingly idiosyncratic and self-assured it shows that, as good as the sonic quality of the records were, it wasn’t the guy recording all of them who was the star as so many histories have tried claiming, but rather it was the artists such as Rosco Gordon who made someone like Sam Phillips important in rock history merely because he walked in the door to the studio, sat down and began to play.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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