Rosco Gordon,
No Dark in America
(Dualtone, 2004)

Rosco Gordon died of a heart attack on July 11, 2002. This posthumous release, his final work, was put together, with difficulty, complication and love, by Lij Shaw and Chris King. Though Gordon was in failing health, there's little evidence of it on these tracks. His singing and songwriting are inspired, and he's playing with a sympathetic band and a sensitive production team. No Dark in America serves as tribute and farewell to an important, if obscure to most, American music figure.

By the time of his death, keyboardist Gordon was little remembered except by r&b archivists, who recalled him mostly as a composer whose songs had been covered by some of the most celebrated performers of the early rock 'n' roll era, including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Early in his career, before Sam Phillips fired his African-American artists so that he could concentrate on white musicians who sounded like black musicians, Gordon recorded for the influential Sun label. His contemporaries and sometime stage-mates were such blues, r&b and pop luminaries as B.B. King, Little Milton, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. His "jerky backbeat," as King calls it, intrigued Jamaican musicians, who from it created ska, from which reggae would emerge. Gordon had a few hits (notably the novelty dance tune "The Chicken") under his own name, but these dried up by the early 1960s. From then on, traveling from his home in Queens, his career consisted of the occasional oldies or blues-festival gig. In 2000 he recorded a well-reviewed CD, Memphis, Tennessee.

Here the opening cut and title song, the last Gordon would ever write, comes out of his effort to find hope after the terrible events of September 11, 2001. It speaks, alas, to a moment of national unity long squandered by a cynical national leadership with what would prove to be a divisive, though not then-apparent, agenda; thus, sad to say, "No Dark in America" lacks the impact it must have had when first conceived, played and recorded. Still, as a piece of music it has the swinging feel of a robust, old-fashioned r&b dance tune. A few lyric changes, and it could easily be a song about putting one's life back together after heartbreaking romantic disappointment. As it is, it's bound to be anthologized by future musical archivists who will assemble collections of songs inspired by 9/11 -- or, perhaps, to be revived in a happier moment in our national saga.

Beyond that, Gordon revives his earlier humorous r&b hit "Cheese and Crackers." "A Night in Rio," awash in tropical rhythms, is something you'd hear on a jukebox in Heaven. With its string section and heartfelt true-love sentiments, "Girl in My World" is pure '50s, the sort of thing the Coasters or the Drifters or some comparable vocal-harmony group could have sung the hell out of. On the other side is the hilarious but thoroughly anti-romantic "You Look Bad When You're Naked."

by Jerome Clark
12 November 2005

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