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RPM 350; MARCH 1952



The battle over Rosco Gordon’s contract between RPM and Chess Records brought about by Sam Phillips’ duplicity has been settled in favor of the Los Angeles company who signed him first.

Of course that company promptly stole half of his writing credits and didn’t pay him for his sessions, but that’s to be expected any time a Bihari brother is involved, let alone all three.

But in spite of being surrounded by these seedy lowlifes the musical quality didn’t suffer in the least as Gordon scored another huge hit, his third consecutive Top Ten entry spanning his first four releases.

It would also be his last for quite some time.


Let You Out Baby
Just to get the legalese out of the way first, the contractual dispute was settled in a rather even-handed fashion as the two companies split the difference as it were, with Chess getting the services of Howlin’ Wolf while RPM got to keep Rosco Gordon.

At the time it seemed like RPM won out, as Gordon was by far the bigger act in the winter of 1952, but Wolf – though he’d go largely without official hit status over his career – proved to be a better long term investment for the Chicago label where he was probably better suited to be as well thanks to the blues environment around The Windy City.

But since that wouldn’t become apparent for quite some time, certainly the Biharis were pleased with what they were getting once No More Doggin’ hit the streets providing them with not only a #2 hit, but also further establishing the unique sound that Gordon provided them, something which wasn’t likely to be replicated by other artists on other labels.

Uniqueness on its own is never a bad thing when it comes to drawing attention to your label, but uniqueness with verifiable commercial appeal is one of the most valuable assets a record company can have and in Rosco Gordon they had just that with his loping piano, slightly cockeyed vocals and tight interplay with the horns making him instantly identifiable.

The key to its success though was still found in the songs themselves and it was here that Gordon distinguished himself, coming up with yet another composition that presented a familiar scenario in a clever and distinct way.


That’s What I’ll Have To Do
We’ve talked about that quirky off-beat rhythm before, dubbed “Rosco’s Rhythm” which with its distinctive hesitation built in between notes was Gordon’s trademark.

Musically it’s the equivalent of a man walking with a limp so that the beat falls slightly out of place, yet consistently so rather than haphazardly. Though he’s used it before and will continue to do so, No More Doggin’ is where it’s most pronounced and where its massive influence on the entire birth of Jamaican ska comes from.

Yet while ska would lock in on it and emphasize the monotony of that rhythm throughout a record, Gordon here is still mixing things up with a two-fisted pounding piano interlude near the start and more raucous beat-heavy lead in to the instrumental break with horns and drums taking center stage and plenty of stop-time vocals where the piano sits out entirely, all of which helps make that rhythm’s presence all the more attractive when it’s featured.

In fact it’s that combination of instruments which makes the arrangement so infectious. That staggering piano is still the focal point for the bulk of the song, at least behind the verses, but it’s the tenor and baritone saxophone rejoinders after each stanza, the crashing drums marking the turnarounds and the extended break that allow each of them a chance to shine, which gives the record its impressive sonic depth.

But as enjoyable as all that is and as crucial as it was to the record’s popularity, Gordon manages to match it with a story that on the surface is a pretty straightforward kiss-off to a girl who’s done him wrong, yet he imbues it with the delivery of somebody with a mental imbalance.

He’s not angry during any of this, but definitely sounds mentally unbalanced and – depending on how much you want to read into it – even deranged.

Take for instance his assertion that he’s going to “let you out”. The natural way for most non-psychopaths to read that is he’s simply letting her out of their relationship… dumping her in other words and moving on.

But is that really how you’d phrase it? “Put you down, baby” would be the more appropriate way to address her which would leave no doubt as to his intentions. Furthermore, the slurred speech that was his usual means of singing adds to the possibility that he was holding her captive while drinking to excess – which he himself admits with his line about buying “whiskey, beer and wine” – and it suggests that this might even be a hostage situation.

Does possibility that make the record better? Certainly not for the girl, nor does it necessarily even add more drama to the song since there’s no clear-cut resolution to wrap it all up, but it definitely does give No More Doggin’ a murky but ominous undercurrent which is fascinating to consider.

Even if you scoff at the plausibility of him thinking of this while writing the song, the atmosphere alone suggests that even if this this is nothing more than a guy slightly buzzed who is talking to himself in an empty room, there’s still an element of instability that makes the record far more interesting if nothing else.

Ultimately that’s what you’re hoping for with a lot of records… a sense of creative ambiguity which allows you to focus on different elements at different times and possibly have entirely different reactions to the same song as a result.

That the performance is so engaging no matter which of these views you take only solidifies his status as a star.


Until The Day I Die
Images are a hard thing to break free of.

Rosco Gordon’s image is of the quirky artist with the distinctive rhythm named after him which led to the birth of Jamaica’s initial entry into rock ‘n’ roll. It may not have made him universally famous, but at least he’s not unknown once you dig into that particular chapter of rock’s history book.

But while he gets his fair share of credit for influence, where Gordon suffers historically is that nobody tends to view him for his impressive commercial run which, for a short time anyway, put him on the same level as the hitmakers who have defined the last year.

Look at the numbers… from the start of 1951 through the spring of 1952 Gordon is resting comfortably in the top tier with The Clovers, The Dominoes, Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner. That’s elite company and while the other four acts have seen their legacies sustained over time, at least among the well-heeled rock fan, Gordon has become little more than an interesting footnote to this era.

Of course unlike those artists who continued their commercial runs for a few more years, Gordon would have just one more hit – albeit a big one – in 1960, so there’s at least a possible explanation for this neglect. Heck, towards the end of the decade he’d even re-cut No More Doggin’ for Vee-Jay Records, so he – and the record companies in general – were still viewing him as sort of a one-trick pony.

Maybe he was at that, but what can’t be argued is that this trick was enormously popular for a short time and lastingly influential, not to mention consistently good.

Those are three things that define greatness and in early 1952 nobody in their right mind could argue that Rosco Gordon wasn’t great.


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