The Spedding Tapes - Robert Gordon

If you have been paying attention, and I know you have, you'll have noticed that whatever my subjects may be celebrated for, as soon as I get the mandatory potted bio out of the way. I zone in on what really interests me about them-the real nitty-gritty.
That Robert Gordon was the catalyst for the still-lingering neo-rockabilly cult, establishing himself as the classic rockabilly stylist, is a given. His love of the idiom and his sincerity are evident in that it never occurred to him to hitch a cheap ride on that very handwagon he helped to set a-rolling. Rockabilly needs a Robert Gordon but does Robert need rockabilly?
Because what people thus far have seemed to overlook is that the guy is simply a great singer. Period. You see, in the same way that it falls short of the mark to dub, say Hank Williams as a great writer of country and western songs-because he was, of course, simply a great songwriter-Robert Gordon has pipes that make any stylistic qualification redundant.
Oh sure, Robert still wows 'em in cocert with his special crackling brand of rockabilly. The audiences except that. But depite the lack of any recent vinyl, the lad has been far from idle. In collaboration with songwriter Mark barkan (whose credits go back to the Sixties-remember Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo"?) and ex-Blue Oyster Cultist Albert Bouchard, robert has come up with a clutch of new songs which offer a refreshingly up-to-date relief from his moretraditional fare. Once on record this new collection could well turn out to be Robert's passport to major acceptance in the contemporary music field. Sure, rockabilly is great fun, and it will always remain an essential element in the man's musical make-up, but Gordon has just too much potential to languish permanently hidden under a rockabilly bushel.
Point made? Good.
It only remains for me to 'fess up now I totally blow whatever cool I may still have....
Because, you see, I have been peering over Robert's shoulder both in the studio and on stage since the 1978 breakup of his orginal partnership with that reemergent semilegend of the first rock'n'roll generation, veteran guitarist Link Wray. What was at first a loose, freewheeling working relationship-guitarists Danny Gattin and lance Quinn did the honor around 1980-81, for instance-has grown less and less casual over the years. Any claim I may have had to impartiality, of course, becomes more and more suspect! A hopeless imbalance I can maybe partly remedy (by tipping the scale back in my favor) with those insights gained from my not altogether disinterested vantage point as a kind of musical gray eminence to Robert. And if that doesn't get me off the hook then what he hell! A guy's entitled to his opinion, isn't he?
since Robert and I lived at opposite ends of town he suggested I meet him halfway. Our Blindfold Test was conducted at the midtwon loft of a mutual friend, commercial artist Bill Railey. And Bill was happy to play deejay...

1. Lonnie Donegan, "Cumberland Gap"
RG I know who this is! It's that guy who did that...something about the "Chewing Gum on the Bedpost"?
CS Right. Lonnie Donegan.
RG That's it.
CS I thought I'd start off with him 'cause he was the guy who was happening in England in the Fifties around the time the rockabilly thing was happening in America. we called it Skiffle. God knows why. a kind of ethnic English rockabilly.
RG It's amazing how similar it is. The energy and everything. I remember hearing some of that stuff over here.

Little Willie John, "Fever"
CS This is interesting 'cause everyone knows the song, but this is the original version that very few people know about...
RG Little Willie John!
CS (with egg definitely on face) You got it! (So only a few people knew about it, eh? And Robert was one of 'em. How embarrassing.)
RG Ow, listen those to those background vocals. Little Willie, yeah, man!
CS So you remember this before the Peggy Lee version?
RG I remember this version. This is hot, man, great. I tell you, New York, Philly and DC were kind of a proving ground for new tunes and it's amazing the stuff I heard back then.
CS Okay. well, talking about original versions that became huge hits when somebody else covered 'em-who's this?

The Valentinos (featuring Bobby Womack), "It's All Over Now"
RG I remember this one, too!
CS You remember it?
RG Oh, yeah! It's really cool hearing the early versions of all this stuff.

Dean Martin, "Memories Are Made of This"
RG I remember this being a big hit. I can't believe it! Dean Martin, of course.
CS Right. And I picked this one out 'cause of...
RG ...the Presley connection.
CS Right. Presley always mentioned him as a major influence but rock historians always glossed over it. but if they'd given Martin a little more credit...
RG This cut is a dead ringer for stuff like Presley's "Don't Be Cruel."
CS Exactly. But if they'd given Martin more credit it would have gone a long way toward helping them better understand Elvis. the guy's puzzling preoccupation with Vegas and those movies, for instance. as well as his vocal style on ballads. And how he came to blend his lead vocal with a backup vocal group-the jordanaries. Dean martin is using a similar vocal backup here.
RG And they sound just like the jordanaries on this. presley may have been one of the first rock singers but he was also one of the last of the crooners. And this is where it's all coming from. I don't know why more people don't pick up on it. I guess Dean Martin is not cool enough. It would be different if he were black. then he would fit in. Fit neatly into the rock'n'roll myth.
CS If people are looking for a precedent-a role model-for a lot of what elvis was doing...
RG It's obvious...
CS's right there. But do you remember that time I came across an early pre-Elvis version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
RG By Al Jolson, of all people! I just couldn't believe it. I really thought you were kidding me!
CS I know. I just had to call you up. it was on the jukebox in Freddie's Luncheonette down on Sullivan Street.
RG And I actually made the trip all the way downtown just to check it out, to see if it was for real.
CS Elvis had Jolson's whole arrangement down. even to the talking bit in the middle. But jolson's version was a screaming! So hokey. So...vaudeville! The fact Elvis calmly copies the whole Jolson routine and yet transformed it into a sexy romantic ballad-something that was pure Presley-just proves to me what a great vocalist the guy was on top of everything else.
RG Definitely

I had gone through all the records I had brought to play for Robert. But our host and deejay for the evening, Bill Railey, was getting into his stride, pulling records out of his collection and conducting his own Blindfold Test, giving me a sobering taste of my own medicine. But by this time, of course, the tape recorder had been turned off...honest!

Chris Spedding - the journalist