I’m not one for patriotism. Some of the greatest singers (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash off the top of my head) worst recordings are their hand-on-heart, flag saluting songs that sit like lumps of coal in their otherwise bejeweled repertoires. Tonight’s record opens with a song that is unequivocally patriotic, No Dark in America, yet, I love it. Written in the aftermath of 9/11, it speaks about hope and the unextinguishable light of a people. It could have been an embarrassing shambles but in the hands of Rosco Gordon it is a confident and defiant anthem.
No doubt Rosco’s aging and battered voice has a lot to do with that. His singing wavers on the edge of tunefulness a lot of the time. You wonder if the plane is going to get off the ground, or whether its going to circle around and come crashing back down. His is not a pretty voice but it is full of the grit, breaks and scars of a man who has seen the world open up for a moment and then pass him by. There is plenty of feeling but no sentimentality in a Rosco Gordon song. Its the honest (often bitter) truth, he’s talking about. And so when he sings No Dark in America (which is a rousing rocker, rather than a mournful lament) you know this is a man who has dried his eyes, never given up hope and who has refused to give into the darkness. He’s singing as much of his own journey as he is about this horrific cross roads in America’s.
If there was ever a man who had the right to feel dark about the way history has met him, it’s Rosco Gordon. Not many everyday punters would know his name but he is one of the true pillars of early R&B and hence rock’n roll. In the early 1950s Rosco was a member of the Beale Streeters a sort of Memphis blues supergroup starring B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Johnny Ace. Like almost everyone who came up from the south to Memphis, he found his way to Sun Studios where he recorded Bootin’ which went to #1 on the R&B charts in 1952.
Rosco played the piano and had a unique shuffling, loping sort of style that accented the off-beat. In his most famous song No More Doggin’ the sound is at its most perfect. Jamaican musicians discovered Gordon’s sound in the late 1950s and adopted it and called their music ska.
But after a few hits and record label changes, Rosco’s moment in the sun of stardom passed. In one of the films in Martin Scorcese’s series on the blues, Gordon, just a few months before he passed away, is captured walking down Beale Street in Memphis and saying, “You can’t find a record with my name on it in America, these days.” As the times changed, Rosco moved north, to New York City where for many many years he worked in a dry cleaning shop. It was only thanks to Scorcese’s project that he got the chance to take a final bow.
And though you could see the sadness in his face as he described how forgotten he was in his own country (in Europe they have racks and racks of my CDs) Rosco was smiling. And his singing, as rough and tumble as it is, on this record is full of a palatable humanity and hopefulness. Especially when he sings about love and sticking with his lover. Or wondering if she is still his. It brings tears to your eyes.
This is amazing American music. And we are privileged to have a chance to hear this mighty, but sidelined giant, sing his heart out, one last time. He died in 2002.
01 No Dark In America
02 Cheese and Crackers
03 Early In the Morning
04 A Night In Rio
05 Girl In My World
06 You Don’t Care About Nothing
07 I Am the One
08 That’s What You Do to Me
09 You Look Bad When You’re Naked
10 Love On Top of Love
11 Takes a Lot of Loving
12 Are You Mine
13 When Baby Come Home
14 One More Time
15 Now You’re Gone
16 No More Doggin’