Saturday, May 2, 2009

Extended Roots: The Intriguing Career of Rosco Gordon

Few if any musicians who were active during the 1950's possessed the versatility of pianist/songwriter Rosco Gordon. Gordon recorded in or was influenced by virtually all the popular idioms of the decade, and produced original, high quality recordings in several. Growing up in Memphis in the 1940's, Gordon first absorbed the Memphis Blues sound from the Beale Streeters, associating musically with Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Ace and Earl Forest at a young age. By 1951 he had a number 1 R&B hit with Chess records entitled "Booted." After additional recordings with Chess, Gordon scores with another scorching R&B classic "No More Doggin" which highlights his unique piano style and two absolutely devastating sax solos, the second of which may be by Leo Parker, baritone legend. Rosco's piano style, known as "Rosco's Rhythm" became popular among immigrants from the West Indies in the mid 50's, (Jamaica and Trinidad) and is often cited as a primary component of the Ska style which emerged just a few years later in Jamaica.

In 1955, at the inception of the rockabilly craze, Gordon begins his association with Sam Phillips and Sun records in Memphis. Interestingly, Gordon's Sun recordings, while rooted in R&B, also show the influence of country and rockabilly, and Gordon himself recognized the imprint of country music on his work. One of his Sun/Flip cuts from this period, "Love for You Baby" is a fascinatingly hybrid composition which exhibits elements of blues, rockabilly and rock n' roll. Gordon's 1957 Sun recording of "Sally Jo" is also remarkable in that it is one of the very few examples of a black musician working within the rockabilly genre, as is G.L Crockett's incredible "Look Out Mabel" from 1957 and Roy Brown's 1958 Imperial recording "Hip Shakin Baby." Gordon's appearance with Johnny Carroll in the 1957 Rock n' Roll movie "Rock Baby Rock It" is also noteworthy for historical reasons. In the film Gordon and his ensemble perform the Jump Blues number "Bopit" in a crossover setting, as the white audience is seen fully engaged in the rhythm and beat of the tune.

After recording for Sun, Gordon's creative impulse takes another turn. In stride with the shifting stylistics of the late 1950's and early 60's, Gordon records "Let em Try" , a song that combines a Doo Wop framework with elements of early Soul, which can also be heard on his Surely I Love You" from 1960. His final recordings, while moving closer to 60's Soul, continue in a similarly eclectic mode, exemplified by "Sit Right Here." Finally, Rosco's 1958 R&B composition, "Just a Little Bit" resurfaces with the British Invasion group The Undertakers, who cover it here in 1964. Predictably, their version is no match for Rosco's original.

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