Me and Rosco Gordon, 1996.
Rosco Gordon from the film Rock Baby Rock It.
Rosco Gordon serenades Butch the alcoholic chicken.
Rosco Gordon Jr. was born in Memphis in 1934, the youngest of eight children, growing up on Florida Street. He taught himself piano by sitting next to his sister while she practiced her lessons and before the age of eighteen had won the Talent Show at Beale Street's famed Palace Theater (the M.C. was Rufus Thomas) and was appearing on WDIA, America's first all black radio station (where B.B. King got his start around the same time). Through WDIA's owner James Mattis he was sent to see Sam C. Phillips who recorded him, leasing his sides to the Bihari Brother' RPM label out of L.A., charting for the first time with Saddled The Cow (Milked The Horse) b/w Ouch! Pretty Baby which went to #9 R&B in September of '51. Then Phillips sent two versions of the same master-- Booted, one to RPM and a slightly different alternate take to Chess in Chicago. The Chess version hit #1 R&B in February of '52 kicking off a three way tug of war which ended up with RPM securing Gordon's contract (and the services of talent scout/band leader Ike Turner who had topped the charts for Chess with the Phillips produced master Rocket 88 under the guise of Jackie Breston & his Delta Cats, Chess would get Howlin' Wolf in the same deal). Since RPM was no longer dealing with Phillips, Gordon cut sessions in Memphis at Tuff Green's house in a makeshift studio, moonlighting for Phillips who then sold the masters to Mattis' Duke label. Soon Duke was sold to Peacock's owner, Don Robey, along with Gordon, Bobby Blue Bland (who was Rosco's chauffeur, he made his debut singing on a Rosco Gordon b-side), and Johnny Ace. Confused? Don't worry you will be.
Since Rosco had two top ten hits and had seen no royalties (and the Biharis had cut themselves in for a piece of his songwriting by putting their nome-de-disque Taub on all his discs), Rosco Gordon took the short money upfront, and hence would cut a disc for whom ever was willing to put his price (usually $3-400) in his pocket. Between the years of 1951-59 he cut eleven singles for RPM (including the #2 hit No More Doggin'), eight for Duke, five for Sun (the biggest seller The Chicken appearing on both Sun and its subsidiary Flip), one for Chess (the aforementioned Booted), and four more for Vee Jay, including his biggest hit-- Just A Little Bit, featuring Classie Ballou on guitar, which would go on to become an R&B standard.
It would be a daunting and quite pointless task to attempt to put these twenty-nine discs in any sort of chronological order. In fact, much of the best material was left in Sam Phillips' vault which remained un-issued until the early 1980's when Charley Records (a rumored money laundering operation for the Corsican mob) began releasing un-issued Sun recordings in bulk. The basic Rosco Gordon sound was based around his piano pounding (known as Roscoe's rhythm), shuffling drums, guttural saxophone and often distorted guitars, over which Rosco usually delivered a wonderfully mush mouthed vocal. In addition to the above sides, some of his best were, and still are-- RPM 322- Rosco's Boogie b/w So Tired, Duke 129- Three Cent Love b/w You Figure It Out, the a-side sporting a beautiful solo from Pat Hare, the flip perhaps his most over the top vocal, RPM 358- New Orleans Wimmen b/w What You Got On Your Mind, Sun (and Flip) 227- Weeping Blues b/w Love For You Baby, Sun 257- Shoobie Oobie b/w Cheese and Crackers, Sun 305 Sally Joe b/w El Torro (the a-side an experiment in rockabilly, the flip an uncharacteristic Spanish guitar led instrumental that is rarely re-issued but I love), RPM 369- Dream On Baby b/w Trying RPM 384- Whiskey Made Me Drunk b/w Tomorrow May Be Too Late, Duke 173- Tummer Tee b/w I've Loved and I've Lost. Among the best of the un-issued sides you'll find T-Model Boogie, Decorate The Counter, Let's Get High, Bop With Me Baby, I'm Gonna Shake It, I Don't Like It and Nineteen Years Old. He was cutting excellent sides into the late 60's such as this 1964 duet with his wife Barbara which appeared on New York's Old Town label-- Gotta Keep Rollin', and this 1968 remake of Just A Little Bit which appeared on gangster Nate McCalla's Calla label.
Rosco Gordon had a colorful career. In one run in with hoodlum label owner Don Robey, Robey threatened to kick Gordon (he'd previously crushed Little Richard's testicles in an argument over royalties). Gordon patted the revolver tucked into his belt and told Robey the foot he kicked him with was the foot he would put a bullet in. He escaped with his testes in tact. He toured the south on many package shows, relocated to Shreveport, La. in the late 50's where he met his second wife Barbara (his first marriage at age 15 lasted only weeks), and kept churning out discs. He also toured the Caribbean where he was wildly popular, No More Doggin' being one of the biggest R&B hits in Jamaican history and along with Fats Domino's Be My Guest and Wilbert Harrison's Kansas City, the blueprint for the coming ska sound. He also appeared in one of the greatest rock'n'roll movies of all time-- Rock Baby Rock It (1957) along with rocker Johnny Carroll, in it Gordon serenades his pet chicken Butch (he later told me Butch, whom he toured with, was an alcoholic).
In the late 60's he relocated to Queens, New York, where he founded his own Bab-Roc label issuing a handful of singles in the 70's and then, in the style of TV's George Jefferson, opened a dry cleaners. He kept performing till the end of his life and was in fine form as late as the millennium. He recorded an album for ska pioneer Clement "Sir Coxone" Dodd in the 90's, it wasn't particularly good, but I was thrilled to meet Dodd who was selling the discs from a cardboard box at the back of one of Gordon's gigs in Brooklyn. In his final days Rosco Gordon attempted to patch things up with Sam Phillips who took great offense to Rosco's disregard of exclusive contracts (even though Phillips had operated much the same way at the dawn of his career) and still harbored a grudge. In 2000 Rosco booked time at Sun Studio and asked Sam to produce a few sides. Rosco recorded an album at Sun but Phillips never showed. It was issued as Memphis, Tennessee later that year. In 2002 Rosco Gordon died of a heart attack in Rego Park, Queens, New York. Perhaps if life on earth continues for long enough, someone will compile a re-issue of his complete Duke sides.