Rosco Gordon, The Complete Sun Recordings, Vol. 2

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Gordon left Sam Phillips to try his luck elsewhere from 1952 to 1956. When he returned, the rock & roll sound he had midwifed was well established, and Rosco's subsequent output (beginning with "Just Love Me Baby") often reflects that. If "Shoobie Oobie" — an obvious echo of Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," with a scattered piano line — is any indication, Rosco meant to take advantage. Of course, being Rosco Gordon, he couldn't help but subvert his cause by making it the B-side of one of the most bizarre novelty records ever, "Cheese and Crackers." Nobody could figure out what to make of that one, in which Rosco professes in no uncertain terms his dislike for said cuisine. But the stubborn Gordon liked the song so much he re-recorded it in 2002 for No Dark In America, the posthumous album that came out early in 2005.

Lost treasures from an unknown master

Some would doubtless describe this second volume as Rosco trying on different styles, scrambling for a hit. But it might be more accurate to say it's Rosco taking advantage of his versatility and hoping it would lead to a hit. The man covered considerable stylistic ground without abandoning his own basic sound, and Phillips cut him considerable slack. Rosco not only cut many more sides than Sun's other bluesmen, but he continued with the label long after all the other black artists had gone; with the exception of an early-'60s single and album by Frank Frost, clearly a nostalgic last gasp for Phillips, Gordon was the last Sun bluesman.

"Sally Jo" is one of the great black rockabilly tracks, with Rosco rasping out the vocals and Freddie Tavares picking dead-string guitar (though you could be excused if you thought it was Luther Perkins). The cleaner first version here was the single. Or try to keep a straight face while you check out Rosco's honeyed, mexicano warbling on "Torro," even though it's largely an instrumental fueled by Tavares 'exotica faux-flamenco guitar—look out Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass! (The longer, second take was the single.) He gives Roy Brown a run for his money on the wailing "If You Don't Love Me Baby," while "If You Want Your Woman" mates electric blues pioneer T-Bone Walker to upstart rocker Chuck Berry. On "I Wade Through Muddy Water (Dream On Baby)," which was intended as the B-side to "Decorate the Counter" though the single ultimately went unreleased, Rosco's vocals approach the inspired lunacy of Professor Longhair.

And listen to the way Gordon keeps refining "Nineteen Years" until he and the band achieve the jazzy and more pointed final version. With rock & roll taking over during this period, it's not necessarily surprising that Rosco got no hits out of this material — but he easily could have, had Sun not been concentrating on promoting only its white artists at the time. In 1960, after leaving Sun, he had the biggest seller of his career with the proto-funk "Just a Little Bit".

So, to return to the question that began the review of Vol. 1, why is Rosco Gordon so badly overlooked these days? As these tracks indicate, he was not always great, but with a few exceptions he was consistently very good, and as cults have continued to build around so many lesser artists from the early '50s, that should have been enough. I think his obscurity came because in 1962, he essentially dropped out of the music business; he moved to Rego Park, Queens, where he ran a dry-cleaning business and released a few singles on his own label in the '70s before making himself even scarcer until the last years before his death in 2002. When the music historians came along to take up the subject of Memphis, Gordon was nowhere to be found and interviewed; unable to speak for himself and his crucial role in that scene, he got more or less written out of its history. But in Memphis, the music insiders still talk about him. They know.