Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and showman extraordinaire Roddy Jackson passed away on December 7th. His friend Alec Palao remembers one of the very last active 50s rockers.
He’s been described as “rockabilly”, but that’s not quite correct. He wasn’t even really R&B, even though that was one of his principal motivations. What Roddy Jackson was, was one hundred percent, unadulterated, red-blooded Rock ‘n’ Roll incarnate. Never has a throat been abused the way Roddy abraded his poor vocal cords each time he belted out another coruscating rocker, simultaneously pummeling the keyboard for it all it was worth, or pausing to briefly wring the neck of his tenor sax in a solo. Even the tenderest of ballad bears the hallmarks of a throat that sounds rawer than the ground beef at the meat counter. His was an incredibly cathartic style that never let up, and never failed to thrill. Jackson’s recorded legacy remains necessarily slim, but it has enough highlights to ensure the mark of rock’n’roll greatness.
A born entertainer, the young George Rodrick Jackson grew up in California’s Central Valley, a veritable hotbed for action in the mid-1950s. Proficient on piano and horn, he was already the veteran of his first proto-rock combo, The Dreamers, by the time he convened the Blue Notes with his pals at Merced High School in 1956. As a blonde Caucasian, Jackson would have stood out amongst his black and Latino bandmates anyway, but belting out early rock and R&B in an uncanny Little Richard impersonation made him the de facto frontman of this unprecedented multi-racial unit.
The Blue Notes were already a sensation amongst Valley youth when the avuncular Fire Chief of Merced, George Coolures, decided to take them under his wing as manager. He brought some organization to the teenagers, helped spread their reputation further afield and, when Roddy requested it, dutifully pitched the act to Little Richard’s alma mater Specialty in Hollywood in late 1957. The entreaty was successful but not for Ken, Gil, Buddy and the other Blue Notes; despite the musicians’ undoubted abilities, A&R man Sonny Bono only wanted the more marketable – at the time, at least - Jackson.
It’s fair to say that his trio of single releases on Specialty didn’t reflect Roddy’s full capabilities. Even though he was able to get a brace of originals onto wax, they were invariably ballads. His uptempo sides were novelties like ‘Hiccups’ and ‘Moose On The Loose’, often the only sort of outright rock material that could pass muster with the tight radio playlists of the time. Ironically, the item that has aged best from these 45s is Bono’s own shuffling ‘I’ve Got My Sights On Someone New.’ There is no doubt the material benefited from the accompaniment of Specialty stalwarts Rene Hall, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer and others, but one has to wonder how Roddy would have sounded on all these sides with his hometown buddies behind him.
By his own admission, Jackson was out of control in those years. The singer loyally refused to quit the Blue Notes or move to Los Angeles to further his career, but he nevertheless grew increasingly estranged from them with solo recording sessions and out of state appearances, including a spot on American Bandstand. After his third single tanked in early 1959 and Roddy finally left the group, it broke Chief’s heart, although as the Merced Blue Notes, they would remain the toast of central California. Jackson moved to Modesto and joined a country band, before enlisting in the service. As he would later tell me, “I felt I needed the discipline: I was wild, and I was scaring myself!” After he got out, Roddy moved to San Francisco for club work, playing with Sly Stone, and leading his own Beatles/Motown ensemble, Rod Jackson & The Hoods. Eventually, he made his way back to Merced to become a well-respected music teacher, a vocation that kept him busy for the next fifty years.
I’ve been fortunate to spend quality time with most of northern California’s original rockers – Bobby Freeman, Jackie Goetroe, Benn Jo Zeppa, Tyrone Schmidling, Jerry Coulston et al – but Roddy Jackson was an especially fond acquaintance. We connected in the early 2000s after I had located the Blue Notes’ 1958 demos within the Specialty Records archive. Hearing Roddy apply his bloodcurdling rasp to wild original rockers like ‘Juke Box Baby’ and ‘I Love Her Just the Same’ was a complete revelation, as was finding his original piano demo for ‘She Said Yeah,’ recorded in short order by Larry Williams on Specialty, and later to become something of a standard in the hands of the Stones and Animals. These amazing discoveries provided enough material for a full-length release on Ace in 2007, the well-received “Central Valley Fireball.”
Around that time, I had gotten an inquiry from Rockin’ Robin Weathersbee at the popular Rhythm Riot festival looking for suitable acts, for, as time marched on, vintage 50s-era rockers were naturally becoming fewer and further between, and those that did function were either reluctant, or physically unable, to perform in an authentic manner. Suggesting Roddy was a no-brainer, however. Quite apart from his remarkable energy, the man’s attention to detail was refreshing, and I was amazed at how he and his supportive wife Kate took to the task in hand with gusto, crafting just the right set list, arranging those old rough demos into full-blooded charts that could have stepped right out of Cosimo’s, and even consulting with my wife Cindy on stage dress, purchasing a loud 50s shirt from her vintage clothing emporium in readiness.
Roddy’s subsequent, highly successful debut at the 2004 Rhythm Riot, which I had the pleasure of witnessing, kick-started a parade of club and festival appearances for him around the world over the next decade, and he never failed to please the often exacting requirements of the global rockin’ scene. He and Kate would often call or stop by to catch up, discuss offers they’d had, or brainstorm upon what Roddy should do next. One idea was a new album that he intended to record in Germany, and when I heard the result (eventually released in 2019 as “Consider”), I was impressed, as he had stayed completely true to the form. New albums by “legacy” acts are invariably a disappointment, but this is a package I would recommend to anyone, with fabulous interpretations of his unheard originals that sounded so accurate, they could have easily been outtakes from his Specialty sessions.
All this activity in his 60s and 70s was the victory lap that Roddy Jackson hadn’t necessarily sought but one that he fully deserved, and if I had even a small hand in it all, it was a total pleasure. I know I will definitely miss the man’s conscientiousness and his unerring drive and enthusiasm. Keep on rocking Roddy, wherever you are.