Born on March 29, 1947, in Washington, D.C.; married, 1967; divorced 1975; married Mary Lee, 1995; children (first marriage): Jessie and Anthony. Addresses: Record company--Koch Entertainment, 1709 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, website: http://www.kochentertainment.com. Booking--Piedmont Talent Agency, P.O. Box 680006, Charlotte, NC 28216, phone: (704) 399-2210, fax: (704) 399-2291, website: http://www.piedmonttalent.com. Website--Robert Gordon Official Website: http://www.robertgordon.biz.
The first major rockabilly to emerge after the death of Elvis Presley, Robert Gordon became the hard-edged antidote to nostalgia-based oldies acts such as Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids and Sha Na Na. Moreover, by reviving their songs Gordon created fresh interest in several 1950s cult rockers both at home and abroad. Less eccentric than the Cramps, far tougher than Chris Isaak, his work embraced 1960s garage rock, rockabilly noir, screaming R&B, and country heartache. Gordon has also shown a knack for building his recordings around some of the finest guitarists of his era, including Link Wray, Chris Spedding, Danny Gatton, and Eddie Angel.
Raised in Washington, D.C.
Born on March 29, 1946, Gordon was thrilled when he first heard Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "It was like the first teen rebel movies. It just changed things, man," he told Country Standard Time. "When you look back on it, there wasn't anything threatening about it at all. But at the time, it was just amazing." He was born and raised just outside of Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County, where he was able to absorb many different musical cultures.
"Washington was more of a crossroads for everything," recalled Gordon. "It was right near Virginia and real close to New York. So, I was exposed to everything, man. Of course rhythm and blues was a big influence too. During the early '60s, I went to the Howard Theater down there, which was really like the Apollo in New York. ... At the same time, you could get a lot of radio stations in Washington that were primarily country."
Gordon recalled how, at age 15, he began to get ideas about performing. "I was at summer camp with my brother," he told Arjan Delan, who runs his European website, "and he wanted me to sing for his pals. So, I sang Jackie Wilson's 'Lonely Teardrops,' and they really liked it." The following year he began singing with local garage rock groups, including the Confidentials, who later transformed into the Newtons.
After a stint in the National Guard, Gordon married his childhood sweetheart, started a family and moved to New York, where he opened a clothing store. After his first marriage ended, Gordon's thoughts of a singing career resurfaced. His dark good looks and street-tough demeanor made him a perfect fit in the Big Apple's growing punk scene of the 1970s. With his persona already formed, Gordon began playing showcase clubs with a contingent known as the Tuff Darts.
Teamed with Link Wray
Mainstream Americans first became aware of Gordon via his 1977 album on Private Stock, titled Robert Gordon and Link Wray. Wray, who recorded such instrumental hits as "Rumble" (1958) and "Raw-Hide" (1959), provided the newcomer with genre credibility. In return, the album single-handedly revived Wray's nearly forgotten career of the 1950s and 1960s. Musically, Gordon mined a series of oldies and rockabilly cult favorites, such as Billy Lee Riley's "Red Hot," Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," Sanford Clark's "The Fool," and Gene Vincent's "Five Days, Five Days." Sounding rawer and wilder than any current act, Gordon's first album for Private Stock was a groundbreaker for the neo-rockabilly trend. "Then all of a sudden, a lot of cats started doing it again," Gordon recalled. "So, it did start a movement, I have to admit."
Gordon's versions of the old songs were also appreciated by many of the surviving original artists. One former Sun Records artist of the 1950's, Sonny Burgess, proclaimed that "Robert Gordon is one of the best singers I ever heard." However, Gordon was never comfortable being strictly typecast as a rockabilly performer. "It's not what I set out to do," he explained to Country Standard Time. "In fact, I always try to put a tougher edge on the songs than traditional rockabilly has." Part of that edge comes from traditional country music, which provided the stark, emotional underpinning for rockabilly and early rock 'n' roll. The singer added, "I have used [pedal] steel before. I've always done at least a couple of country things on my records. It's always been important to me."
Gordon's second LP for Private Stock, Fresh Fish Special, was named after the haircut foisted upon Elvis Presley's character in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock. Songwise it was more of the same, with the exception of a song written especially for Gordon by rock icon Bruce Springsteen. "Fire," with its brooding sexuality and passionate hook, received pockets of airplay in the northeastern United States. Unfortunately for Gordon, the Pointer Sisters appropriated the tune and beat him to the hit.
Although artistically successful, the two LPs with Wray posed something of a dilemma for Gordon, who recalled, "He did some brilliant stuff in the studio, man. He can play a sensitive solo on a ballad that is so ferocious at the same time." But Gordon also felt that Wray "doesn't play live like he played on those records. I must say, he's a sweet guy, but it was difficult live." As a result, when Gordon decided to make the 1979 move to RCA, he dropped Wray.
More productive was the collaboration with British session ace Chris Spedding. "Chris was in London when we contacted him, and he was tired of doing session work for all the biggest names in the business," Gordon told Country Standard Time. "So, it was a perfect way to get him over here at the time. Rock Billy Boogie was our first album and we were together for ten years." Another great guitarist in his clique was Danny Gatton, who was so good that other musicians referred to him as "The Humbler." Gatton recorded and played live dates with Gordon sporadically until his death in 1994.
The RCA albums contained some of Gordon's finest work and took in shades of 1950s Nashville country as well as hyper-kinetic rockabilly. Boasting a far better promotional set-up and radio contacts, the label was able to get a few singles, notably the Marshall Crenshaw-penned "Someday, Someway," onto the charts. Yet Gordon's sound, too retro in approach for pop stations and too rock for country, kept his career from gaining any serious chart momentum. A disagreement between his manager and RCA over recording budgets resulted in the singer being cut from the label. He was still a high profile artist, and it seemed as though a new deal with a major American label was just a phone call away. But that deal never came, and Gordon's career went into free fall.
Still Popular in Europe
The American rockabilly revival lasted only a little longer than the original movement. After his last album for RCA in 1982, Gordon began cutting sides for such European labels as New Rose and Bear Family. Live albums from various source material appeared on New Rose, King Biscuit, and others.
Reissues of his early work proved popular enough to keep Gordon working long after the demise of the neo-rockabilly revolution. However, most of the singer's offers came from overseas. "It's just really difficult to play in the states these days. It's sad but a lot of the venues I used to play are gone. There just isn't the money out there, believe it or not. I don't even carry my own band when I'm on the road now."
Gordon has sometimes felt that his rockabilly image kept him from branching out stylistically. "I think it's because of the vocal style," he chuckled. "The vocal makes them automatically think of you-know-who [Elvis Presley], which I try to stay away from as much as possible." Asked if the identification as a 1950s rocker still bothers him, Gordon answered, "Well, it's really a Catch-22, isn't it? I love to do it and there's a lot of people who expect me to do it, but I have to try and broaden my horizons at the same time. So, I try to mix it up as well as I can without offending anybody."
Made Comeback with a Country Album
A good indication of Gordon's artistic reach can be found on the self-produced 2004 album Satisfied Mind. Recorded in Nashville, the set kept the accent on country music by featuring Fats Kaplan's pedal steel and keyboard player Johnny Neel of the Allman Brothers. Picking his own songs, Gordon took his trademark creative risks, mixing George Jones and Don Gibson songs with a recasting of Larry Finnegan's 1962 hit "Dear One," a novelty rocker. For the man that Rolling Stone once accused of being humorless, Gordon seemed to have fun turning such pop fare as Bobby Darin's "Queen of the Hop," Fabian's "Turn Me Loose," and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" into bass slappin' rockabilly. Asked if he ever worries that he will invite unflattering comparisons to the original hits, Gordon stated, "It doesn't occur to me. It never has, and for some reason I just feel like I'm putting my own stamp on 'em. People say that I've got some balls trying to cover some of these huge hits, but if it's a song that I grew up with and have always loved, I'll give it a try."
In late 2005, Koch Entertainment picked up the Satisfied Mind album, making it Gordon's first domestic studio release in nearly ten years. Further, after years of battling alcohol and drugs, Gordon reported that he was clean and sober, and serious about his career again. He voiced his desire to record more of his original material and do more producing. "I just really love producing a lot, and doing this new album was a labor of love. It took from start to finish, eight days. So, it was very, very intense."
That intensity seems to be a key component of Gordon's life and career, and doesn't show any signs of waning soon. That said, he is no longer the young rebel sporting the Fresh Fish Special haircut. After three-plus decades in the business, can he still possibly get a kick out of all this? "Performing the music is just as joyful as it ever was," he stated. "But I think more so now, because I'm not as crazy as I once was and I finally know what the hell I'm doing."
by Ken Burke
Robert Gordon's Career
Turned pro in 1962 with Washington, D.C.- area combo the Confidential, which later became the Newtons; sang with punk band the Tuff Darts, 1975; appeared with Debbie Harry in the Amos Poe film Unmade Beds, 1976; signed with Private Stock label with rock 'n' roll guitar pioneer Link Wray, 1976-79; signed multi-album deal with RCA, 1979; appeared in and composed songs for film Malibu High, 1981; appeared in the film The Loveless with Willem Dafoe, 1982; recorded for New Rose label in France, 1989-91; recorded one-off albums for Viceroy, Bear Family, King Biscuit, and Llist, 1994-97; released first album of new studio material on European Jungle label, 2004; the album was picked up by Koch for release in the United States, 2005.
- Selected discography
- "Red Hot," Private Stock, 1977.
- "It's Only Make Believe," RCA, 1979.
- "Walk On By," RCA, 1979.
- "Someday, Someway," RCA, 1981.
- Robert Gordon & Link Wray Private Stock, 1977; reissued, One Way, 1997.
- Fresh Fish Special Private Stock, 1978; reissued, One Way, 1997.
- Live at DJ Paradise Boston RCA, 1979.
- Rock Billy Boogie RCA, 1979; reissued, Collectables, 2001.
- Bad Boy RCA, 1980; reissued, Collectables, 2001.
- Are You Gonna Be the One? RCA, 1981; reissued, Collectables, 2002.
- Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die RCA, 1982.
- Live at the Lone Star New Rose, 1989.
- Greetings from New York City New Rose, 1991.
- All for the Love of Rock 'n' Roll Viceroy, 1994.
- Black Slacks Bear Family, 1994.
- Red Hot 1977-1981 Razor & Tie, 1995.
- King Biscuit Flour Hour King Biscuit, 1996.
- Robert Gordon Llist, 1997.
- Lost Album Plus Bear Family, 1998.
- Live! EMI-Capitol Special Markets, 2000.
- From the Front Row Live Silverline, 2003.
- Satisfied Mind Jungle, 2004; reissued, Koch, 2005.
- Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
- Poore, Billy, Rockabilly: A Forty Year Journey, Hal Leonard, 1998.
- Country Standard Time, August 2005.
- "Robert Gordon," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 4, 2005).
- "Robert Gordon," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com (September 5, 2005).
- "Look Who's Blue," Robert Gordon European Website, http://www.robertgordon.dk (September 5, 2005).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from interviews with Robert Gordon in 2004, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.