Rosco Gordon, The Complete Sun Recordings, Vol. 1

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

How did Rosco Gordon, one of Sun's first artists and a huge influence on R&B and early rock & roll, become such a non-entity so quickly? He doesn't even appear in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, nor in two of the three popular blues encyclopedias or record guides I checked. When he's mentioned at all, it's usually as the artist Sam Phillips gave to RPM as part of the deal that contracted Howlin 'Wolf to Chess. Yet Gordon had more hits, both regional and national, than any bluesman on Sam's extensive roster (even if they were released on RPM rather than Sun), thanks to his deeply personal, albeit eccentric, vocals and pianistics.

Lost treasures from an unknown master

Born in Memphis in 1934, by the late '40s Gordon was working with B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Johnny Ace in the ad-hoc group known as the Beale Streeters. Rosco first charted late in 1951 with "Saddled the Cow (And Milked the Horse)," but the kid's real breakthrough came when "Booted" topped R&B charts early in 1952. The single, which sounds like it was cut after the musicians had spent a couple hours lubricating themselves sufficiently, was typical of much of his best work: a novelty song with an edge, a gritty R&B sound with a feel that's non-threatening to whites. In this approach, Rosco was carrying on for Louis Jordan. Over a massive drum sound, he moans, sobs and slurs his tale of woe while playing a wicked boogie piano; Willie Sims 'raunchy sax does the rest.

But it was Rosco's follow-up, "No More Doggin'," which reached number two a couple months later, that created his trademark sound. The skewed shuffle, accented on the offbeat, was quickly dubbed "Rosco's Rhythm" by Phillips; when Gordon's records became available in Jamaica in the late '50s, musicians there interpreted that rhythm to create ska, which soon evolved into reggae. All that and an unbeatable party atmosphere, too. You could make the case that the more he liked an artist, the more takes of a song Sam Phillips cut with him in search of that elusive black-white fusion. (As much as he loved the rawest R&B, Sam sought this fusion with several of his black artists well before — finally, and famously, perfecting it with Elvis.) The various versions of these songs tend to support that argument, even though Rosco always maintained that he himself or Ike Turner produced his sessions, with Sam acting only as an engineer. For example, consider these two versions of "Decorate the Counter." If you didn't know the first was basically a demo, it could almost stand on it its own, but the second catapults the song completely over the top, with its making-whoopie sound effects and a delightful baritone sax break by Richard Sanders that proudly borders on the obscene.

Indeed, there are marked similarities between Rosco's sound and the infectious New Orleans sound of the '50s and '60s. The similarities go beyond the party-down philosophy of both musics; you can also hear it in the horn charts–especially the emphasis on baritone sax — and Rosco's rhythm at least implies the second line beat of New Orleans. It's no coincidence that those Jamaican artists cited New Orleans greats, along with Rosco, as their biggest influences.