look who's blue
by Arjan Deelen
On July 11th, 2003, I flew to Finland to see Robert Gordon live in concert. It had been nearly ten years since the last time, so I was excited about seeing the man perform again. The performance was to take place at a venue called ‘Makasiinitt’ in Helsinki, and when I told the cab driver he seemed a bit puzzled: “Are you sure that the concert is going to take place there?” Arriving at Makasiinitt, I suddenly understood his confusion. The 200 year-old building was traditionally used for storage, and looked like it was about to fall apart. The place seemed deserted. Upon entering the building, I saw a soundman setting up a P.A. We chatted for a few minutes, and to my relief he confirmed that Gordon was indeed performing there tonight. About an hour later, a couple of musicians wandered in, followed a few moments later by Gordon. I didn’t recognize him straight away, partly because of the Buddy Holly-styled glasses that he wears off-stage these days, but also because he had gained a few pounds. The soundcheck was quite interesting to observe, as Gordon’s sense of perfectionism seemed almost obsessive. They went through ‘Look Who’s Blue’ various times, with Gordon walking around the room, suggesting small adjustments to the sound. At one point the soundman seemed quite satisfied, but Gordon still wasn’t completely happy. So everyone continued until all the imperfections that could only be detected by Gordon’s ears were eliminated. I didn’t mind, because it gave me a good opportunity to listen to his powerful baritone, which really does seem to be getting better with age.
After the soundcheck, we chatted for a couple of minutes. Gordon quickly identified me as “the guy that always has that ad about me in Now Dig This," and asked me to come to the hotel with him. Both our esteemed editor and I have tried on several occasions to interview Gordon, with little or no success, but I really wanted to give it another shot, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Luckily, he was in a very talkative mood. At the hotel bar we discussed his life and career at length.
-- heartbreak hotel --
Robert Gordon (1947), or simply “R.G.” as his friends call him, grew up in Bethesda, M.D., a suburb of Washington D.C. Unlike many of his heroes, he had a relatively comfortable childhood: “My dad had a good job working for the government, so we never had to worry about money and things like that." ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was the wake-up call for a new generation, and Gordon was no exception. Even though he was only nine years old in ’56, he still clearly remembers the impact of hearing it for the first time, and adds that it is this song that made him want to pursue a musical career. Some of his other early influences include Jack Scott and Gene Vincent. As Gordon told "Rolling Stone" in their October 20th, 1977 issue, "Presley, Jack Scott, Gene Vincent… their songs really do something to me. I just can’t explain it."
The music scene changed drastically in the sixties, but much of it left him completely cold (“I didn’t care for the British Invasion," he says). It was easier for him to identify with great soul singers like Otis Redding and James Brown, and he still fondly remembers seeing many great soul acts in "package" shows at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C.
Gordon debuted as a singer at the age of 15: “I was at a summer camp with my brother, and he wanted me to sing for his pals. So I sang Jackie Wilson’s ‘Lonely Teardrops’, and they really liked it." In his late teens he participated in several local bands, most notably The Confidentials, which after several lineup changes became The Newports.
The late sixties were a time of riots and demonstrations, so it’s not surprising that, as a member of the National Guard in Washington D.C., Gordon has less than fond memories of this time. “I had no choice. I didn’t want to be sent to Vietnam," he remembers.
He got married at the age of 19, and fathered two sons, Jesse and Anthony. In 1970 the family moved to New York City, where he opened a clothing store (“I’d always been good at using my hands, so I made all kinds of things out of leather”). The first couple of years business and family took up most of his time, but after a divorce in the mid-seventies Gordon became musically active again. In New York, the "New Wave" scene was thriving: “It was a very exciting time. You had all these great bands, like the Ramones and Blondie”. Gordon became the lead singer of the Tuff Darts, and made his record debut in 1976 on ‘Live At CBGB’s,’ a compilation album featuring various local bands. In late seventies interviews, he was usually quite critical of this band, but in recent years this viewpoint has mellowed somewhat. When I referred to them as a ‘punk band’ he quickly corrected me by saying that “only the lyrics were punk, but the music was just rock ‘n’ roll." One afternoon, record producer Richard Gottehrer came by to check the band out during one of their rehearsals. He did not care much for their original material, and asked: “Do you know anything else?” The band performed the Presley hit ‘One Night’, and Gottehrer was impressed with the way Gordon’s voice suited the material. The two started talking about doing a rock ‘n’ roll album, and Gordon suggested that they should contact guitar legend Link Wray: “I saw Link for the first time at the Glen Echo Amusement Park in 1961. He did ‘Rumble’, ´The Black Widow’ and all that stuff, and he was just great." Wray, who was living in San Francisco at the time, was initially a bit cautious and reserved about joining up, because he didn’t want to be involved in a "Sha-Na-Na"-type revival band. But once Link heard Gordon’s voice, he was sold. “Robert to me sounds a lot like early Elvis, back when he was at Sun records," Wray often said.
-- red hot --
The first album was recorded at Plaza Sound Studios in N.Y.C. in April 1977. The songs were selected by Gordon and Gottehrer, and they focused on rock ‘n’ roll songs that were fairly obscure at the time, like Gene Vincent’s ‘I Sure Miss You’, Billy Lee Riley’s ‘Flying Saucer Rock ‘n Roll’ and Stanford Clark’s ‘The Fool’. The best song from this session is probably the great ‘Red Hot’, performed in an arrangement very similar to Riley’s. As rhythm guitarist Charlie Messing recalled, the track was not pre-planned: "‘Red Hot’ was the last song we found, and it became the hit single. We had decided not to use a few of the ones we'd been working on in rehearsal, so we needed another. Robert played us the record by Billy Lee Riley, and we listened. We went out in the studio and played the song a few times, and it sounded good. We recorded it. When I heard the final version of the song, when the record came out, I was surprised to find my part covered up by a piano, overdubbed later by Rob Stoner, playing the same thing."
Everybody participating on these sessions was impressed with Gordon. In addition to his powerful vocals, Gordon was also amazingly focused and in control. He was determined to become a star. Messing observed that he was really a “dying for his art” rocker, who also spent a lot of time combing his hair and proudly showed his original Gene Vincent albums to those who visited his apartment. Gordon’s way of life became a big selling point for his promotion to the public, and most of the articles published about Gordon in late ’77 and ’78 focus on his "fifties" look and admiration for obscure rockabilly performers from that era. In many respects, this may have done more harm than good for Robert’s career, as he came to be regarded as a “curiosity” rather than a great original artist. It seems that this started to bother him after a while, because in many interviews from ’78 he stressed the fact that they were not a "nostalgia" band: “I don’t even think of these songs in term of date. I’m not living in the past when I’m listening to these songs. When I sing ‘em, I’m interpreting them the way I feel, and it’s definitely now” (Crawdaddy, April ’78).
But "nostalgia" probably did play a role in Gordon and Wray's success. Elvis Presley's tragic and unexpected death coincided with their first single ‘Red Hot’ getting radio airplay, and in many articles and reviews Gordon was hyped as the only true heir to the throne. Both the single and the album sold quite well, and during their first nationwide tour they played to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Their label Private Stock cleverly exploited the Presley references in the press with the second album, titled ‘Fresh Fish Special’, after a line from the film ‘Jailhouse Rock’. The album also contains a song from the 1957 classic, ‘I Want To Be Free’, which features backing vocals by Elvis' original backing quartet, the Jordanaires.
As a whole, ‘Fresh Fish Special’ is a better album than its predecessor, with strong versions of Jack Scott’s ‘The Way I Walk’, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio's ‘Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)’ and 'Fire,' a very commercial song written by Bruce Springsteen. “I’d known Bruce since my Tuff Darts days," explains Gordon. "I met him through his bass player Gary Tallent, and we hit it off right from the start. He gave me ‘Fire’ and he also played piano on that song. I think he wanted to see how we worked in the studio."
Unfortunately, "Fire" was quickly covered by the Pointer Sisters, and their arrangement made #2 on the U.S. Billboard charts. And just as the new album was gaining momentum, Private Stock went bankrupt. There’s no doubt that both setbacks were hugely disappointing for Gordon and Wray, and during the early summer there were reports in the press of arguments on the road. Shortly after completing a television special for Germany’s ‘Rock Palast’ in June 1978, the team finally broke up. These days, R.G. looks back at this period with a great deal of affection. He calls Link “a really sweet guy”, and adds: “Link taught me everything I know about the music business. I knew nothing when we started back in ‘77."
-- chris spedding --
Gordon quickly teamed up with ace guitarist Chris Spedding, a very creative player that he clearly admired - he had already performed Spedding’s ‘Wild Wild Women’ on the road with Link. Spedding seemed an even better match for Gordon than Wray: they were about the same age, and they both came from a "New Wave" music background.
In late ’78, Gordon signed a contract with RCA Victor, Presley’s label (“It’s a dream come true”, he said). His first album for RCA, ‘Rockbilly Boogie’, released in February 1979, was arguably Gordon’s finest to date. He sounded more confident than on his previous two albums, and Spedding’s hot licks gave him a more contemporary "edge," while still retaining a rockabilly feel. The best tracks included R.G.’s self-penned tribute to Gene Vincent, ‘The Catman’, and the two singles ‘Rockbilly Boogie’ and ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. RCA promoted both the album and the two singles quite well, and even produced classy videos for both songs, but they failed to make any real impression on the charts. Gordon and Spedding toured extensively during this period, and they received rave reviews for their electric live performances. The ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour’ radio broadcast, taped in Philadelphia on March 30, 1979, is fairly representative of these terrific shows.
Gordon’s second album for RCA, ‘Bad Boy’, was another relative failure, and this made him rethink his career. Sessions completed for a third RCA LP were shelved (later issued as part of ‘The Lost Album, Plus...’), and producer Richard Gottehrer got the sack. In a way, it also marked the end of the teaming of Gordon and Spedding. He continued to tour with Spedding on an on and off basis, but also worked with other guitarists from 1980 onwards, most notably Duke Robillard, Jack De Keyser and of course Danny Gatton. Gordon last toured with Spedding in the summer of ’93. The two have not spoken since an argument, Gordon told me with some regret in his voice. He calls Spedding “a f***ing brilliant player," and believes he did some of his best work with Spedding during their 15 year collaboration.
-- the humbler --
Over the next couple of months, Gordon worked extensively on his next album. His producer was now Lance Quinn, who also played rhythm guitar. The other core band members of the new line-up were: Danny Gatton – lead, Tony Garnier – bass and Shannon Ford – drums. A great deal of effort went into looking for good material, as well as trying to come up with a more contemporary sound. The resulting album, titled ‘Are You Gonna Be The One’, was Gordon’s most ambitious and also his most commercial. The cornerstones of the album were three superb tracks written by singer / songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, of which ‘Someday, Someway’ made it into the Billboard Hot 100. The disc was Gordon’s most successful release to date, with sales in excess of 200,000 in the States. He calls it “one of my best albums.... and it was really cool using the Nashville Edition on a lot of the background singing and stuff."
Gordon and his hot new band promoted ‘Are You Gonna Be The One’ all over America in 1981 and both fans and critics were mesmerized by the shows. This reaction was in no small part due to the exquisite musicianship of Danny Gatton. Many young players caught the shows, just to see Danny’s fretwork. “He was a terrific person, a sweetheart. He was always jovial, great to work with in the studio, and as a guitarist... well, what can I say? He was one of the best," explains Gordon. For years, there was a live tape in circulation dubbed ‘The Humbler’, a reference to Gatton's exceptional guitar playing during these shows with Gordon. It was posthumously released in 1996 by Danny’s mother on NRG Records. Note that this disc purports to document one complete show, but in reality is compiled from two different gigs from Berkeley, CA. The majority of ‘The Humbler’ is a May 15, 1981 set at the Keystone club, with ‘The Way I Walk’, ‘Heart Like A Rock’, ‘Love My Baby’ and ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ from a November 25, 1983 show at Berkeley Square.
-- reissues and new releases --
Expectations were high for the follow-up to ‘Are You Gonna Be The One’, but unfortunately Gordon's disagreements with RCA over his album budget led to the end of his association with the label. “It was a mistake, because my manager at the time figured we could go to another label. It was just a power thing, you know. I just believed my manager. I didn’t know better," he says. Gordon was now without a label, and that big hit that he had wanted for years was now more elusive than ever. “I should be grateful at having six albums on a major label, but I don’t think I’ve done shit man until I have a f***ing huge record. It’s eating me man," he told ‘The Face’ in January 1983.
Just as his problems with RCA reached a climax, an interesting opportunity presented itself: a role in a "fifties-styled" biker film called ‘The Loveless’. “I was contacted by the producers, and they wanted me to do the music," Gordon relates. "Originally, I had no intention of being in the movie. It just turned out that way. For a while there I was embarrassed about it, but now I’m looking back on it and it’s kinda fun, you know. A lot of people think it’s really cool. It’s sort of a cult film, I guess." Even though ‘The Loveless’ was an interesting diversion, it sank without a trace at the box office.
For a while, things got awfully quiet surrounding Robert Gordon. Even though he continued performing, there were no new releases or other projects. There were some reports of substandard shows, as well as rumours about aggressive behaviour and substance abuse. Clearly, Gordon was disillusioned with his music career. It’s a period that he still prefers not to talk about, instead simply saying: “Everybody goes through stages, you know. It’s not an easy business, that’s for sure”.
In 1989, New Rose released a new live album titled ‘Live At The Lone Star’, but apparently it was released without R.G.’s consent. “That was just released behind my back. That was not supposed to be released. It’s just a live tape from a gig, and it should never have come out. That’s why I came back with ‘Greetings From New York City’," Gordon claims. Around that same time, labels like Bear Family started reissuing his Private Stock and RCA recordings on CD, which also generated new interest. Gordon also returned to Europe for several tours, with Chris Spedding on guitar, Rob Stoner on bass and Bobby Chouinard on drums. They were well received, and reviews in magazines like NDT were generally very favourable. At the same time, his "behaviour" on certain occasions proved earlier mentioned rumours were not entirely without foundation (see NDT 127).
1994’s ‘All For The Love Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was an odd mix of soundtrack songs from ‘The Loveless’, studio leftovers and recent re-recordings of Tuff Darts-period material, and it went largely unnoticed. 1997's unimaginatively-titled ‘Robert Gordon,’ released on the Llist label, was his first "new" studio release in sixteen years and a great improvement over more recent efforts. Even though it sounded a bit underproduced, it was good to hear Gordon sink his teeth into a well-selected batch of rock ‘n’ roll and country tracks, including Eugene Church’s ‘Pretty Girls Everywhere’, The Miller Sister’s ‘Ten Cats Down’ and Dorsey Burnette’s ‘Bertha Lou’. Perhaps the best tune on the album was the self-penned ‘Last One to Know’-- with its ‘Mystery Train’-styled guitar riffs, it soon found a regular spot in Gordon's concert repertoire during 1997 – 2002.
-- career upswing --
All was not well though, as Gordon experienced a great deal of tragedy in his private life during this period. In October 1994, guitarist Danny Gatton committed suicide, and even though they hadn’t played together in years, it was a shock to Gordon. One year later, he himself was nearly killed in a mugging in his hometown, New York City. A large scar on the right side of his face is a reminder of the attack. In March 1997, his drummer Bobby Chouinard apparently passed away from a heart attack. The ultimate blow came in January 1998, when Gordon’s youngest son Anthony suddenly died. Understandably, the loss of his son was such a shock that he still has difficulty talking about it today.
Since 1999, Gordon's career has hit a bit of an upswing. An appearance at 1999's ‘Viva Las Vegas’ Festival, supported by the Eddie Angel band, was the festival highlight, according to many. He has also performed consistently strong shows since, both in the States and in Europe, and his July 2003 Finland concert was by no means an exception. There Robert performed an 80-minute set, almost twice as long as the shows that I saw in 1993, and he was in great voice. He seemed to exude a renewed enthusiasm for performing on stage that was lacking a decade before. During the 1993 gigs he totally butchered a song like ‘Red Hot’ night after night, and it was very clear that he was tired of singing it. In Finland, he gave it a full-blown treatment, even allowing the band to do extra solos. The impression left was that Gordon had finally come to terms with the successes and relative failures of his twenty-five year career. In a phone conversation last January, he happily spoke of a new album cut in Nashville, his first in six years: “I’ve just finished a new record, and I’m very excited about it. This is probably one of my best albums. Incredibly, I’ve recorded 14 tracks in two days. I produced it, and I arranged all the stuff. I think it’s very good." If it was made with the fire and brimstone he showed us in Finland, it should be fantastic!
When asked how he feels about his career's peaks and valleys, Gordon offers a typical reply. "I don't look back ... I never look back," which I suppose is also what Gene Vincent would have said. What about the future? "I don't look too far ahead, man. Right now I'm looking forward to the new album, but I never look too far ahead," he says with defiance. Gordon's attitude betrays an old-school, yet somehow romantic outlook on the classic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Loyal to the end, he no doubt still values and enjoys his original vinyl LPs by Elvis, Jack Scott and Gene Vincent above all others. Someday, someway, maybe we'll understand him.
February 2004, Arjan Deelen. This article was first published in “Now Dig This”, issue no. 254, May 2004.
Special thanks to Robert Gordon, Charlie Messing
and Johnny Savage.