While prowling the shops in search of The Cramps, I began to notice a couple of records by a guy named Robert Gordon in the cut out bins.
by Marshall Bowden
I first became aware of Robert Gordon during the punk rock/new wave era at the end of the seventies. Some friends and I went to see the Talking Heads on their Fear of Music tour in 1979 at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. There were two opening acts: the instantly forgettable A’s and the soon-to-be legendary Cramps. It was my first live exposure to psychobilly energy, and I was quickly seduced. The Cramps did a version of “The Way I Walk,” a song written and recorded by Jack Scott and The Chantones in 1958. It was the first time I’d heard the song, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I spent the next few months haunting record stores, looking for a recording by The Cramps until I finally located their only recording at the time, the Alex Chilton-produced EP Gravest Hits, and lo and behold, it contained “The Way I Walk.”
Meantime, while prowling the shops in search of The Cramps, I began to notice a couple of records by a guy named Robert Gordon in the cut out bins. The first was called Fresh Fish Special and it featured a guitar player I knew and loved, Link Wray. Initially Wray was known for his rockabilly-influenced fuzztone guitar instrumentals, the best known being “Rumble,” but he went independent in the early seventies, recording some classic work in a home studio that merits its own article (put that in the ol’ bullet journal, bunky). Thing is, Wray was the real deal, around during the heyday of original rock and roll that Gordon idolized. At the same time Wray had creds with the punks and the underground (pre-Stray Cats) rockabilly kids and the Clash (listen to ‘Brand New Cadillac’) who were a large part of Gordon’s audience.
Fresh Fish Special had a lot going for it besides the chemistry of its two marquee names. The Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s backup vocal group, was brought in to do their trademark harmonies. Richard Gottehrer, producer of Blondie, Richard Hell, and The Go-Gos, gives this record a crispness that makes it more real than the phrase ‘rockabilly revivalist’ would suggest. Sure, it’s something of a tribute to Presley, his influence and his dramatic style of singing, but it courses with passion, particularly Gordon’s white hot reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” (which at the time hadn’t been recorded in the studio by Springsteen).
I learned two great songs from Fresh Fish Special, neither of them an Elvis joint. The first was Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ which I soon discovered was featured in the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, a fantastic vehicle for a number of rare performances, including Cochran, Gene Vincent, and The Treniers. Anyway, Gordon and Wray do it up right, and when the rhythm section breaks into the chorus, propelling it along like a big band swing tune, it feels like they can do no wrong.
The other number, which conveniently followed ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ on the record, was Huey “Piano” Smith’s Louisiana groove “Sea Cruise.” It’s a rollicking big band number with Smith’s boogie piano and just a pinch of the ‘Latin tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton spoke of. Smith released a version of it then went on tour. Meantime Ace Records recorded another version by local singer Frankie Ford, or rather they dubbed Ford’s vocals over Huey Smith’s band performance. The record was a big hit, Ford’s only one. Robert Gordon’s version bristles with brisk sea air and Wray backs him up superbly. To me, these two tracks really put Gordon across as something more than an Elvis impersonator, and I wanted to hear more of him.
One thing I didn’t realize until later was that Fresh Fish Special was the direct result of Elvis Presley’s death. A year earlier Gordon and Wray had recorded a record, released as Robert Gordon and Link Wray. That’s Robert’s debut album, and while he and Link are definitely playing rockabilly it is a bit more rough and ready, a bit less mannered than the Elvis-imprinted Fresh Fish Special. When Presley died in the summer of ’77 Gordon & Wray’s album took a bit of a jump in interest, which may have influenced their decision to go heavy on the Elvis influence on Fresh Fish Special.
Fortunately, the cut out bins were kind and I also hit on Gordon’s 1981 release Are You Gonna Be the One. This was Gordon’s last RCA album, and his last LP for awhile. For the first time he didn’t work with Gottehrer, bringing in Lance Quinn and Scott Lit instead. As a stylist, Gordon needed material that suited his particular influences, and on this record he found a songwriter whose work fit him especially well: Marshall Crenshaw. Are You Gonna Be the One featured three songs by the young songwriter who had only recently finished his Broadway run as John Lennon in Beatlemania. Hearing Crenshaw’s audition tapes, Gordon brought him to Gottehrer’s attention. Crenshaw recalled the time in a FB post following Gordon’s death:
“Back in 1980, right after I left “Beatlemania”, as I’ve recounted many times over the years, I used to take the train from Pelham into Manhattan with a sack of cassette tapes and walk around dropping them off here and there- with receptionists at music publishing companies, record companies, with would-be record producers, actual record producers, etc. etc. I got callbacks on these things immediately, but the first crucial one came from Robert Gordon. The memory of his voice on my answering machine is still clear as a bell in my mind, as if it just happened; getting that call was a big BEFORE and AFTER moment in my life. A couple weeks after that, I was in the Record Plant in NY with Robert, producer Richard Gotterher, Danny Gatton, Chris Spedding, Gary Tallent, Anton Fig, Thom Panunzio, the whole gang of record makers- another BEFORE and AFTER moment in my life courtesy of RG.”
Are You Gonna Be the One recast Gordon as merely a retro rocker and put him in a high energy setting right out of pop’s New Wave central casting. Quinn and Lit add organ to the mix, which sounds distinctively CBGBs–don’t forget that’s where Gottehrer first heard him laboring away with the band Tuff Darts. There’s also some saxophone, de rigeur thanks to Springsteen. Gordon’s version of “Someday Someway” is nearly identical to the one that scored a hit for Crenshaw the following year. There’s a bona fide country ballad. Truly something for everyone, and Are You Gonna Be the One was Gordon’s best selling album, but by then there were plenty of skinny tie singers who were writing their own songs and The Stray Cats had given rockabilly its moment in the Top 40 spotlight.
Are You Gonna Be the One should have been the record that broke Robert Gordon through to a larger audience, and it did, but there was little promotion and no follow up. His next record was 1994’s All For the Love of Rock and Roll, which capitalizes on some of the advances made on Are You Gonna Be the One and shows Gordon’s interpretive skills to be intact. Several tracks, including the title track, are recordings of songs written by Jeff Salen that were part of the Tuff Darts’ repertoire when Gordon was in the band. In 2020 Cleopatra Records released Rockabilly For Life, a legend album on which Gordon sings a wide variety of rockabilly and early rock songs with a parade of guest admirers that includes Clem Burke, Kathy Valentine, long time collaborator Chris Spedding, and Dave Alvin, among others.
I’ll leave readers with one of my favorite Robert Gordon tracks, a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Beside You’ from All For the Love of Rock and Roll. I prefer it to Iggy’s version on American Caesar. Gordon is by turns vulnerable, stoic, broken, and hopeful. It’s as good a way to send Gordon off into that golden sunset as any I can imagine.