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RPM 369; OCTOBER 1952



Here’s an interesting question that you probably never pondered but seems relevant considering we just reviewed Fats Domino’s latest release yesterday and are covering Roscoe Gordon’s newest record today.

At the time these records came out in October 1952, which artist would’ve been deemed the bigger star at the time and the better bet for lasting acclaim… Fats Domino or Rosco Gordon?

The answer isn’t as easy as you may think.


Went Through Muddy Water And Crawled In The Burning Sand
Today there’s absolutely no doubt that Fats Domino was an all-time great… the second biggest selling rock act of the 1950’s, a great singer, songwriter, pianist and live performer who has been rightly considered an immortal for more half a century.

Rosco Gordon on the other hand, while he had a notable career with a handful of big records and a ton of influence on the first style of Jamaican rock ‘n’ roll, ska (though Fats had some influence in that regard as well) there’s not many people who would ever think to say Gordon was much more than a quirky cult figure on the rock scene during his heyday. At best he left his mark as a short-lived secondary star, though in many people’s mind more noteworthy for the characters he recorded FOR – Sam Phillips, Leonard Chess, the Bihari Brothers and Don Robey – as for anything he put out.

But in the fall of 1952 Rosco Gordon was a huge star and while it’s true that Domino had scored more national hits to this point, with How Long, which we looked at yesterday, becoming his fifth Top Ten entry compared to just three for Gordon, the fact is that Fats had a two year head start as a recording artist and thus the more appropriate comparison would be to look at the the last calendar year where Gordon’s three hits went to #1, #2 and #9.

By contrast, not counting the one he just put out which hadn’t cracked the charts yet (and would do so for just a single week at #9 in December), Fats’ tally is far more modest. Yes, he too scored a chart topper, but his other two hits each spent a lone week on those charts, one at #9, the other at #10.

In other words, statistically speaking, Rosco Gordon was every bit Domino’s equal at this point.

But not from here on in. Now that Fats had reunited with Dave Bartholomew as producer and co-writer, his records would consistently be best sellers, while Gordon, who began label-hopping after this, would go until 1960 without another major smash to his name.

When listening to the choppy disjointed music and strangled vocals for Dream Baby maybe that result isn’t too surprising, after all this is hardly the kind of catchy soothing record that draws listeners like flies to honey.

But as sonic train wrecks go this has actually got a few things in the smoky debris that lay scattered across the tracks which are not only interesting, but may be the crude building blocks for a number of innovations down the line.

There’s Nothing That I Can Do
Admit it, as this starts up and the drums are playing almost a spastic stop/start pattern, you think Sam Phillips who recorded this in Memphis must’ve been sitting on the console and it kept switching on and off or something.

It’s one thing to have a quirky beat as the rhythmic lynchpin of a record, but this is taking things to the extreme, as it’s not exactly what you’d call catchy… or for that matter not what you’d call musical either.

But at least the idea behind it is sound in theory, trying to come up with a beat that operates independently of the melody, hoping that the two can be joined together in a satisfying way.

This isn’t it, but we’ll see countless ways in which this concept will be refined and work well down the line… primarily with singers who have the advantage over Roscoe Gordon in that they’ll be singing in more traditional ways than he does on Dream Baby, where his own off-beat vocals are clashing too much with that backing beat.

That’s always the drawback when it comes to Gordon’s experimental nature, his instincts may be good but he can’t always reconcile them with how he delivers his own lines with this kind of fragmented style.

It’s too bad because the story is pretty good in its own right. Yeah, it’s another guy longing for someone who has rejected him, but the imagery is very well done and his anguished desperation is never in question. Even the backing music which threatened to overwhelm the presentation sort of settles into a more tightly secured package than it started out with.

That doesn’t mean it ever becomes an easy listen, as our musical brains tend to want to be able to follow a simple progression, but at least once we start to get our bearings it doesn’t drive us away altogether.

The record itself – the thing we care about and judge around here – doesn’t pull together enough to make it work, but you can probably see how it might be adaptable for a wide range of other rock styles.

Had it been sung completely straight it would’ve made for a mournful ballad in a more traditional sense. Plenty of New Orleans singers would’ve felt comfortable singing over the eccentric rhythms, provided they got more melodic horn support than is shown here. If you did want to play up the weirdness of the track, then you’d need to find a singer who could sort of speak-sing the lines as if in a trance.

Granted some of those would’ve been fairly non-commercial in their own right, but there were at least pieces of this that were salvageable in another context. Unfortunately sometimes Sam Phillips was so intent on getting something “different” out of artists that he indulged in their eccentricities when he should’ve been trying to channel them into something more welcoming than this turns out to be.


The Man Said, “Sonny, Guard This Post”
Though his early success may have given the appearance that Rosco Gordon and Fats Domino were destined for comparable careers, one listen to them at their best – to say nothing of hearing them at their respective worst – should dissuade you from that assumption.

When Gordon first appeared on the scene his unusual sound was fresh, which quite naturally drew some interest, but once he became more familiar it was harder to keep winning over listeners with something so far outside the standard fare of the day even if he managed to hit on a great song with an ideal arrangement from time to time.

With something like Dream Baby which is defined by a chaotic arrangement that only gets exacerbated by Gordon’s vocal idiosyncrasies, not even his recent popularity was going to be enough to rescue this from the discard pile.

Therein lies the realities of that constantly tricky balance in rock ‘n’ roll… everybody wants to be unique and instantly recognizable for their own stylistic nuances, but if you stray too far from the current mainstream sounds you risk becoming an outcast for the very things you were once celebrated for.

Which is why if you HAD been placing bets in the fall of 1952 as to which artist, Fats Domino or Rosco Gordon, would have the stronger commercial run, you would gone with the former while relegating the latter to someone worth keeping an eye on without ever expecting consistent returns.


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