Born: April 10, 1928 | Died: July 11, 2002 Primary Instrument: Piano
Rosco Gordon not only placed many a hit on the rhythm & blues charts in the 1950s, he is also remembered as one of rock and roll's founding fathers and a key figure in the formation of Jamaican ska. Hailed for his unique sense of timing and off-beat shuffle on the 88s, something Sam Phillips( Sun Studios) called Rosco's Rhythm, the gifted R&B veteran is now considered a seminal early rock piano player alongside Ike Turner and few others, Rosco Gordon was an influential performer-composer, whose contributions to contemporary music will forever endure.
A native of Memphis, born April 10, 1928, Rosco Gordon skyrocketed to fame in the early fifties with a string of hits for the Chess, RPM and Duke labels, including originals like Booted and No More Doggin'. Many of his early recordings were made at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, alongside friends and fellow musicians Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and Little Milton.
At the radio powerhouse WDIA, where Rosco played piano and sang on his popular weekly show, he made additional recordings with friends Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland and Earl Forest, and when Sam Phillips created the Sun Records label in the mid-fifties, Rosco returned to work with his favorite producer and continued to release brisk selling singles for the growing radio market throughout that decade.
A noteworthy contribution to pop music during this phase of Gordon's career for Sun included The Chicken, a song which 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.
In 1960, inspired by a riff from fellow musician Jimmy McCracklin, Rosco penned Just a Little Bit, a song which has become one of a handful of standards from the R&B era, but remarkably, on the heels of the success of his original rendition, Rosco walked away from the music business for love. After the failure of his first marriage to Ethel Bolton, thanks largely to the lifestyle of the touring musician, Rosco elected to settle down with Barbara Kerr, near the bright lights of Manhattan, to raise his second family. He purchased part ownership in a laundry business and became a full-time father to three sons and principal caregiver when Barbara was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1982. Following Barbara's death in 1984, 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 2002 W.C. Handy Awards Show. He culminated the busy weekend of activities and honors with a show featuring blues great Reverend Gatemouth Moore and jazz legend Calvin Newborn.
Just a month before his death, he finished what would be his final sessions, the record that would become No Dark in America. Mixing older material - the Sun nugget Cheese and Crackers - with new creations such as the 9/11-referencing title track, No Dark in America is a fitting epitaph for one of R&B's incontestable greats.
Rosco Gordon was an influential performer-composer, whose unique contributions to contemporary music of many styles will long endure. Among friends and family, he will be especially missed for his youthful optimism and unquenchable creative spirit.
Source: James Nadal