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Rosco Gordon and the mystery of Sun 305 record

R&B and reggae godfather Rosco Gordon appeared on Memphis’ legendary Sun Records in the early days of rock and roll but his final Sun single is an unsolved mystery

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By Hank Davis

Just in case his name isn't familiar, let me introduce Rosco Gordon to you. Here's the quick version. In the early 1950s, Gordon was an R&B superstar. His name was all over the charts, including No. 1 records like “Booted” and “No More Doggin.” He recorded for pioneering R&B labels including RPM, Chess and Duke. Many of those records were recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis before there was officially a Sun label. Gordon also appeared on Sun later in the 1950s during the label's golden era. His name appears on Sun 227, 237 and 257.

Rosco Gordon and Sam Phillips 1956, sunrecords.com

Rosco Gordon and Sam Phillips 1956, sunrecords.com

Rosco Gordon only had one record crossover to the pop charts and to many in today's audience it is probably his most famous song. In February 1960, his record “Just a Little Bit” on Vee-Jay broke on to the Billboard pop music chart, peaking at No. 64. It stayed on the charts for seven weeks and then disappeared, only to reappear in cover versions by Jerry Butler (1963), Gene Simmons (1964), Roy Head (1965), Them (1965), Mitch Ryder (1966), Etta James (1968), Little Milton (1969), Magic Sam (1969), Downchild Blues Band (1971), Freddie King (1973), Jerry Lee Lewis (1973), Elvis Presley (1973) and Slade (1974). And let's not forget The Beatles, who recorded it twice, once during their early days with Tony Sheridan and again in later years, updated and rechristened as “Birthday.”

In addition to his R&B fame in America, Gordon has been credited as one of the founding fathers of ska and reggae music. Much of this originates from a series of tours he did of Jamaica in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Around 1951, Sam Phillips had recognized the offbeat or shuffle rhythm that characterized much of Gordon’s music and, for want of a more technical term, named it “Rosco's rhythm.” It was an instant hit in the Caribbean and Gordon found a home away from home in Jamaica. His records sold widely in the islands and among West Indian immigrants to the United States.

As far as facts and info go, the book is pretty well closed on Rosco Gordon. There are very few question marks and unknowns about his career, with one glaring exception. Gordon's last record for Sun, released in January 1958 has remained mysterious to fans and historians alike. Nobody really understands either side of Sun 305. There are some theories out there but none of them have been confirmed. Despite over sixty years of archaeology, neither side of Sun 305 has yielded up all its secrets.

Goldmine’s readership seems a good place to turn, both to share what little we do know, and to ask for help resolving these enduring question marks.

Rosco 45

Sun 305 has puzzled me since I first heard it as a kid. My conversations with Gordon, most of which occurred over forty years ago, only hinted at a solution. In the ensuing years, I've interviewed various Sun alumni and often worked the conversation around to this enigmatic record if I thought it might do any good. It never has.

I've gone as far as I can, and I think I've learned as much about Sun 305 as I'm ever likely to. What follows is a recounting of the highlights. Some of it is fact. Other parts, frustratingly, remain speculation.

Gordon's final record for Sun coupled “Sally Jo” with “Torro.” It is by far the most unusual record of Gordon's recording career. In addition, it does not sound like typical Sun fare circa 1958. And who is playing guitar on the record? When I asked Gordon about all of this in 1980, he identified Freddie Tavares, a cult figure in guitar circles, as the force behind the record. "Freddie was quite a character" was Gordon's summary. Nothing more.

“Torro” is a song about a bull fighter, "el amigo de la tarde," and the brief vocal is sung in Spanish. "That was Freddie. I don't know no Spanish," Gordon asserted in 1980. If “torro” is supposed to be the Spanish word for “bull,” or colloquially for “bullfighter,” then it's spelled wrong. The correct spelling is “toro.” But spelling is the least of our worries.

Who played that horn? In fact, what instrument is it? And who played that Latin sounding percussion? J.M. van Eaton, Sun's stalwart drummer, swore up and down to me that he never did a session with Rosco Gordon. The guitar player working those “Malagueña”-like changes is almost certainly Freddy Tavares, as is the brief vocalizing. But who were these other guys? Were they members of Tavares’ band? Was this strange sounding cut even recorded at Sun? There is no indication in the label’s business archives that this session was bought in from another source, and yet this may be the oddest cut to appear on the vaunted label that discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. And, finally, what did Rosco Gordon have to do with any of this? 

Just what Gordon contributed to this record is unclear. Remember, that’s his name on the label of Sun 305. Perhaps Sam Phillips issued it, at Gordon's suggestion, in the wake of the success of “Tequila,” another Latin-styled instrumental that reached No. 1 in that era. Maybe they were looking for some kind of left field hit when they threw this on the market in the fall of 1958. God help Gordon if he had had to go out on the road in support of this single. Would he have dressed up as a bullfighter, delivered some basic Spanglish phrases before sitting down at the piano for some vintage Rosco Gordon rhythm? Knowing Gordon's engaging personality, he would probably have been game for anything, although “Torro” would have taken him far from his Memphis roots.

It’s the A side, “Sally Jo,” that deservedly gets most of the attention. On one hand, the record is often described as a shining example of that rare category "black rockabilly." That's understandable as the track does seem to combine Gordon's distinctive vocal style with the sound associated with Johnny Cash's minimalist guitar player, Luther Perkins.

“Sally Jo” may not be a bull fighting anthem, but it is still unusual fare for Rosco Gordon. It's also about as country a song as Gordon ever recorded. When I pointed that out to him, he surprised me by claiming that it wasn't so unusual, and he actually saw himself as a country singer. "Maybe country rock," he added. "I listened to country music when I was growing up. I still do. I get most of my ideas from country stuff."

Earlier in the day, when Gordon, his wife Barbara and I sat together and listened to both sides of his Sun reissue LP on the UK Charly label (CR 30133), Barbara quickly announced that by far her favorite track on the album was “Sally Jo.”

As to who might be playing, based on the tonal quality of the guitar, it's quite possible that the player is, once again, Freddie Tavares. Arguably, the playing is rudimentary and might have been Gordon himself. There's really not much in the way of instrumentation on the disc. In fact, listening to both Sun 305 and a surviving unissued alternate take, makes it pretty clear that “Sally Jo” is essentially a two instrument, guitar and drums, recording. Possibly even a demo. Again, J.M. Van Eaton, Sun's resident drummer during this era, swore he had no part in it.

Before we glide past Freddie Tavares' name and let Gordon's brief "quite a character" summary stand, we should fill in some missing information. Tavares was, indeed, quite a character, although perhaps not in the sense intended by Gordon. A virtuoso on the steel guitar, Tavares also worked closely with Leo Fender and is recognized as co-inventor of the Stratocaster. That alone confers legendary status on him. Tavares played on hundreds of Hollywood sessions, backing up singers as diverse as Bing Crosby, Sons of the Pioneers, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. He also played on countless motion picture soundtracks, as well as the signature closing on Looney Tunes cartoons. Gordon never mentioned any of this and truly may not have known it. And, of course, some of it may have happened after “Sally Jo”/”Toro.”

But it's the song itself that holds the mystery for listeners today. Where did “Sally Jo” come from? There are actually two different answers to that question. In the grand tradition of the blues, almost nothing is original. You hear a 1970s blues record that you really like, only to learn that it comes, almost note for note, from a 1950s record you hadn't known about. And when you dig into that 1950s record, you find out it was lifted from an old pre-war 78 you never heard of. Putting the case simply, the blues is a folk tradition. It was an oral tradition until sheet music, phonograph records and publishing contracts came along and changed the rules. People recycle blues lyrics and riffs all the time. It's quite a different thing to borrow a couple of lines from a blues song than it is to lift a verse from “Stardust.”

In the case of “Sally Jo,” for example, you'll hear more than a passing similarity between Gordon's song and a 1950 record by Piano Red, a.k.a. Willie Perryman, called “My Gal Jo” (RCA 50-0106). Although Gordon's lyrics are fairly well original, the melody and chord changes, and the name “Jo,” are taken directly from Piano Red's song. Interestingly, the flip side of that Piano Red record is called “Right String Baby but the Wrong Yo Yo,” a song that Carl Perkins recorded for Sun at about the same time that Gordon recorded “Sally Jo.” You've got to wonder if a copy of that old Piano Red record was lying around the Sun studio in late 1957. 

 The second part of the answer to the origins of “Sally Jo” has to do with Gordon's choice of lyrics. Keep in mind that Sam Phillips is credited on the record as co-writer of the song. How would that have happened?

The answer was suggested to me by Sally Wilbourn, whose connection to Sun Records is both long and deep. Wilbourn worked in the front office in the mid-1950s and was Sam Phillips's live-in partner during the final years of his life. Wilbourn remembered both Gordon and the song quite clearly. She proudly told me that the track was written about her and, indeed, her full name was Sally Jo. She explained that Sam Phillips' nickname for her was "Sally Bo," that Gordon knew all about this and "brought the track to Sam knowing that it would please him." 

It certainly seems to have pleased Sam Phillips, who not only released the record but took half of Gordon’s composer credit in the bargain. But then again, Gordon had borrowed liberally from Willie Perryman when he “wrote” “Sally Jo.” And should we be surprised to learn that Perryman, himself, might have been less than original on his version? A deep dive into a stack of pre-war blues records, might just reveal that Piano Red’s song had its origins in some obscure blues record that has been forgotten by all but the most ardent blues collectors.

  

Hank Davis is the author of Ducktails, Drive-ins and Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at ‘50s Music, to be published in early 2023 by Excelsior Editions (SUNY Press).

Related Links:

sunrecords.com/artists/rosco-gordon

sunypress.edu