ROSCO GORDON (By Steve Walker)
Born 10 April 1928, Memphis, Tennessee (also given as 23 Dec, 1933 and 10 April, 1934)
Died 11 July 2002, Queens, New York City
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Rosco Gordon was the youngest of a family which contained six elder sisters and one elder brother. His father, Rosco the first, was a labourer at a lumber mill, right behind their home at 1654 Florida Street (about a 30 minute bus ride from Beale Street). It was his mother, Adele's old piano that provided the initial catalyst: "I would go and play it every day. It became a thing with me. I never idolised any other musicians. I never tried to copy after anyone else. Never in my life. I have no favourite musicians. Favourite music, yes, but not musicians. I am my favourite musician."
After attending Florida Street School in South Memphis, Rosco formed his own band as a teenager and they played most nights of the week. With Ray Jones on alto sax and Man Son or Murry Daley on drums, Rosco played piano and sang, performing a repertoire that included a number of his own compositions. After performing at the Palace Theater on Beale Street, where they won first prize in a talent contest, Rufus Thomas invited the boys onto Radio WDIA in 1950. Soon Gordon was working with the likes of Johnny Ace, Earl Forest, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland as part of the Beale Streeters.
Rosco first came to 706 Union in early 1951, recording sides that were leased to RPM. The Bihari's Modern/RPM set-up considered that they had Rosco under contract. However, politics dictated that Sam Phillips sent a dub of "Booted" to the Chess brothers in Chicago and they duly released it on Chess 1487. A legal wrangle ensued, and the Biharis had Rosco recut "Booted", which they issued in competition to the Chess release. Despite competing with himself, Rosco achieved a #1 R&B hit with "Booted".
In December, 1951, Rosco cut a session that was destined for Chess, but the masters were held over until the legal dispute between Chess and the Biharis was resolved, and eventually the titles were offered to RPM. The outcome was that Rosco went to RPM and Chess got Howlin' Wolf. Meantime, Chess were offered "Letter From A Trench In Korea" by Bobby Bland singing with Rosco's band behind him, one way of by-passing the legal impasse. A further session cut in January, 1952 was again destined for Chess but was held over, and "Decorate The Counter" and "I Wade Through Muddy Water" remained in the vaults for a couple of decades.
Despite signing with RPM, Rosco was having a lot of trouble collecting his due royalties. He aired his grievances to WDIA programme director David James Mattis who was inspired to form his own label. Along with Bill Fitzgerald, he formed the Tri-State Recording Company and decided upon Duke as the name for his label, inspired by the likes of King and Queen. Mattis recorded Gordon on "Hey Fat Girl" which was issued on Duke R-1, a release number that was later amended to R-101. Duke Records was soon taken over by the Houston-based Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records. Rosco continued recording for both RPM and Duke with scant regard to contracts, until more legal action by the Biharis again established their claim to the artist. Meanwhile, Joe Bihari moved to Memphis with Ike Turner and set up recording studios at Radio WMCA as well as at Tuff Green's house. Amongst the recordings cut by Gordon at Tuff Green's house was "No More Doggin'", which resulted in a #3 R&B hit.
The bewildering convolutions of Rosco's early career are sometimes hard to follow. Suffice to say that with the exception of "No More Doggin'"/"Maria", all his RPM releases were cut at 706 Union, as well as some of his Duke singles. In theory, Gordon was with RPM though until 1953, albeit he also had five singles out on Duke and one on Chess during the same period! He signed with Duke when his RPM contract expired and recorded exclusively for Don Robey for a couple of years, recording his material in Houston.
Here is Gordon on Robey: "The man was an outlaw. He was bad. Used to carry a gun all the time. You know, he put Little Richard in the hospital. He threatened me too, but I had a gun on me; that stopped him."
After something of a recording hiatus in 1954, Rosco's deal with Duke was up in June, 1955 and Sam Phillips promptly signed him to a three-year Sun contract. On 9 June, 1955, he recorded "Just Love Me Baby" and "Weeping Blues", which would combine as his first release on the Sun label (the two sides were also issued on Flip). Backed by Pat Hare on guitar, Tuff Green on bass, saxmen Harvey Simmons and Richard Sanders, with Jeff Grayer on drums, Rosco played piano and sang on these two sides.
The following February, Rosco recorded a number of sides from which "The Chicken (Dance With You)"/"Love For You Baby" were selected for release on Flip and Sun (237). In another of those somewhat irresponsible actions that punctuated Rosco's career in the 50's, he gave the tape of "The Chicken" to Bill Harvey of Duke Records who happened to be in town and called into the Club Handy, where the boys were rehearsing. Harvey took the tape back to Robey, who gave Rosco $450 for the publishing. When the record came out, Robey promptly sued Phillips. "After that, Sam lost interest in me. He thought I betrayed him, which I'm sure I did now." "The Chicken" not only started a dance craze but also made famous a rooster named "Butch", who, decked out in miniature suits to match his owner, gyrated and drank scotch during live performances, to the delight of audiences. However, Butch succumbed to his excesses at an early age, and Rosco could never find an equal talent among the henhouses of the South.
On 25 October, Rosco recorded another fruitful session that yielded "Shoobie Doobie"/"Cheese And Crackers" (Sun 257). The latter credits Hayden Thompson as the writer. Thompson recalls meeting up with Gordon at Taylor's Café, next door to the Sun Studios, where artists would go for a bite to eat and to exchange the latest gossip, and it was there that they wrote "Cheese And Crackers". However, Rosco had no such recollections: "Hayden Thompson? No, I never met him. I never heard of him." Billboard described it as "the weirdest record of the week".
In July, 1957, Rosco re-entered the Sun studios to record "Sally Jo"/"Toro" ("Freddie Travers did the vocals on "Toro". I didn't know no Spanish."). The recording of "Sally Joe" is one of the few examples of black singers recording rockabilly (G.L. Crockett's "Look Out Mabel" and Roy Brown's "Hip Shakin' Baby" are two others). Rosco listened to a lot of country music right throughout his life, "I get most of my ideas from country stuff."
The remaining Sun recordings all date from unidentified sessions. "Do The Bop" and "Bop With Me Baby" were probably contenders for the 1957 film "Rock Baby Rock It", in which Rosco appeared, along with Johnny Carroll, the Belew Twins and Don Coats. The film was made in Dallas for Evelyn Productions. In it, Rosco was billed with the Red Tops and performed "Bop It" and "Chicken In The Rough". Whilst Rosco's early recordings at 706 Union were primitive R&B platters, his later recordings for the Sun label acquired a greater degree of sophistication. The emergence of Rosco Rhythm, a shuffling piano style that was a recognisable forerunner of Ska and Blue Beat music, was a factor that made Rosco's music very popular with the West Indian community, especially his earlier R&B hit "No More Doggin'". Intriguingly, Rosco and his band toured Brazil, Argentina and Jamaica in 1956 and 1957, backing the Platters.
Rosco returned to Sun Studios in August, 1958 for a final session at which he recorded "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White" which was never issued. He moved to Shreveport after his Sun contract expired and signed with Vee-Jay in Chicago in 1959, after failing to impress Ralph Bass at King. Rosco's best-known recording during his short stay at Vee-Jay was "Just A Little Bit", a song inspired by a riff from Jimmy McCracklin, which saw further mileage in 1964 as part of the British Beat scene, recorded by a group called the Undertakers (who performed in full funeral garb).
Rosco's first marriage to Ethel Bolton, at an early age, had lasted only three weeks, but during his stay in Shreveport, he met and married Barbara Kerr, also a native of Memphis. When his contract with Vee-Jay expired, Rosco and his wife moved to New York in 1962. He immediately recorded a session for Columbia which wasn't issued and then signed with ABC-Paramount, where he had two singles released. From there, he moved to Old Town, where his second single, "It Ain't Right", was a duet with his wife. Further releases followed on Jomada, Rae Cox and Calla in the late sixties, and eventually, in 1969, Rosco launched his own label, Bab-Roc, which saw five singles issued.
By the early seventies, Gordon had virtually disappeared from the music scene, having concentrated his efforts on a dry cleaning business, and raising his three sons. It took until 1979 for Hank Davis to track him down in New York. In 1982, Hank organised a Memphis Blues Festival that starred Rosco, and this was followed by tours of Scandinavia and Britain, as well as appearing at the Utrecht Blues Festival. In London, he was reunited on stage with B.B. King at the 100 Club.
In 1984, his wife, Barbara, died after a long struggle against bone cancer. Following her death, Rosco felt the pull of his first and most enduring love, music, and renewed his live performance career in the New York area, while writing and recording new material at home. His uncommon rhythmic expression was ill-suited to the synthesized trend, and Rosco suffered a number of disappointments before pairing with guitar great Duke Robillard for the recording of "Memphis, Tennessee," released in November, 2000, by Stony Plain Records. Duke and his band recreated the shuffling beats and honking saxophones that had characterized Rosco's early career and restored the vigorous appeal of early hits, as well as providing the "Rosco Vibe" on new songs like the title track, a tribute to Gordon's hometown and musical past. As a result of the attention garnered by the album, Rosco was nominated for a Handy Award as "Comeback Artist of the Year."
Although suffering from diabetes, heart disease and a herniated disc in his lower back, Rosco jumped into his second coming with an energy and enthusiasm that delighted audiences everywhere. He participated in several major documentaries about early rock and R&B and performed in festivals at every opportunity. In May 2002, he returned to Memphis, joining old friends B.B. King, Ike Turner and Little Milton for a performance tribute to Sam Phillips during the W.C. Handy Awards Show (broadcast by PBS last year). He culminated the busy weekend of activities and honours with a show featuring blues great Reverend Gatemouth Moore and jazz legend Calvin Newborn.
Rosco was found dead, of natural causes at his Queens, New York, residence on July 11, 2002, and he was laid to rest at the Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey.
Rosco's Rhythm (706 Union recordings). Charly CP CD 8162 (1996). Liner notes by Adam Komorowski (from which much of the above was generously borrowed).
Bootin'. (RPM releases). Ace CDCHD 694 (1998).
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