By Rik Mercaldi
Scouring through bargain record bins is some-thing that I love to do, I can’t help myself. It’s a hobby that can sometimes drift dangerously close to an obsession. It’s not just about finding cool records. There are always rare, collectible, drool-inducing offerings, often strategically placed along the walls of most record shops. Designed to grab your eye and increase your heart rate, they are usually among the higher priced pieces, reserved for the ardent collectors and well-heeled consu-mers. Neither of which am I.
Diving deep into the musty depths and unearthing discarded treasures, while the damp odor of moldy cardboard fills my nostrils, is truly a labor of love. The desperate search for that little nugget of cheap gold inevitably involves crawling on dusty floors, knees aching, while my blackened fingertips furiously flip through stacks of one-hit wonders, Broadway soundtracks, and Barbara Streisand records (there are always A LOT of those!). I emerge from the floor and head to the counter with the results of my archaeo-logical expeditions proudly displayed, and can’t get home quick enough. This was how I discovered Fresh Fish Special.
Dragging a comb through his slick black quiff in 1950s monochrome cool, his indifferent expression oozing a glacial, Brando-esque rebel charm, the typewriter font of “Robert Gordon w/Link Wray” is stamped across the top like an afterthought. It seemed sort of Punk Rock, the DIY look of it was instantly appealing. The fact that Link Wray’s name was on there made it all the more intriguing. On the back cover, the two of them stood glaring like they were daring me, or looking for a fight. How could I resist?
Link Wray’s name was synonymous with Rock ’n’ Roll. His rebel rousing song “Rumble” had kickstarted a revolution with its deliciously nasty guitar tone and menacing groove. I was already very familiar with Mr. Wray and owned a couple of his records, Robert Gordon, not so much.
I’d heard that Robert Gordon was in a band called Tuff Darts who were one of the bands that frequented CBGB’s during the Punk scene that developed in New York City in the mid-1970s..
I was a fan of some of the other bands from that scene, including Television, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and Patti Smith. Although I had heard of them, I’d never actually heard any of their music. Knowing that he was part of that scene and was now aligned with a bonafide Rock guitar legend was all that I needed to know to give this disc a shot.
Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, Gordon first heard Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio and his life was irrevocably changed. Absorbing the Rockabilly swagger of Gene Vincent and the swinging Rock ’n’ Rock of Eddie Cochran, he decided that he wanted to be a singer. His first recording experience came in 1964, at the age of seventeen when he joined a group called The Confidentials and made several acetate discs covering songs including “Summertime” and “Money”. In 1970 he relocated to New York City and joined the Tuff Darts a few years later. They eventually became local fixtures in the burgeoning music scene developing around places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, releasing several singles and appearing on the infamous “Live At CBGB’s” compilation album that came out in 1976.
Hooking up with producer Robert Gottehrer, who was impressed with Gordon’s rendition of Elvis’ “One Night With You”, the two discussed doing an old school Rock ’n’ Roll record and Gottehrer suggested recruiting guitar legend, Link Wray. In 1977 Private Stock Records released “Robert Gordon With Link Wray”. Wray was duly impressed with the results, commenting that “Robert, to me, sounds a lot like the raw Elvis when he was at Sun Records”. This set the stage for their next record.
Named after Elvis’ haircut in the film Jailhouse Rock, “Fresh Fish Special” was an infectious blend of covers with a couple of Wray’s originals thrown into the mix. Link Wray’s slashing tremolo-soaked guitar chords kick things off with “The Way I Walk”, Gordon’s rich, velvety baritone wrapping itself around the song’s lyrics, his flawless execution, and vehement delivery, not merely embracing the past, but owning it.
The debt to the golden days of Sun Studios is obvious, while not sounding dated. When Wray dives into the guitar solo with his trademark reckless abandon, sparks flying from his fiery double stop guitar licks, it’s crystal clear that this is not some kind of retro oldies act, this is a homage of the highest order. A platform firmly built on the past but presented with a passionate, enthusiastic honesty that’s utterly irresistible, and impossible to sit still through.
Wray’s guitar work throughout provides the perfect accompaniment to Gordon’s voice, tender and melodic one moment, tough and incendiary the next. If the “shooby doo wops”, and “ahhhs” you hear punctuating the choruses sound familiar, they should. Gordon recruited The Jordanaires who sang backing vocals for Elvis Presley. They are the perfect touch of smooth harmony and sophistication to an otherwise raucous track, and they appear liberally throughout the album.
Bruce Springsteen contributed the song “Fire” for the album and even provided some keyboards on the track. The Pointer Sisters had a hit when they recorded the song, but Gordon’s, version to me, is the definitive one.
His covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Sea Cruise” are textbook examples in the proper execution and even reclaiming of Rock ’n’ Roll standards, while his unearthing of the great “Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track), originally recorded by Johnny Burnette’s Rock ’n’ Roll Trio, shows an uncanny ear for realizing potential, fashioning a brilliant interpretation and breathing new life into a lost gem.
Special note and credit also must go to producer Robert Gottehrer. A former Brill Building songwriter in the 1960s whose credits include “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy” he moved into record produc-tion in the 1970s. His crisp and lean production adds just enough sonic shimmer without diluting the heady brew captured on the tape.
The record still sounds remarkably fresh, the spirited performances literally leaping out from the grooves. I don’t dance, but I really can’t sit still when this record is playing!
Robert Gordon and Link Wray amicably parted ways soon after Fresh Fish Special to pursue other projects, Gordon eventually going on to record three LPs with RCA Records, a time he called “a dream come true” being on the same label as Elvis once was. Gordon continues to tour regularly and has recorded sporadically with various record labels, recruiting other noteworthy guitarists including British six-string legend Chris Spedding and the late Danny Gatton, preaching the Rock ’n’ Roll gospel to anyone who cares enough to listen.
Robert Gordon will be appearing at the Towne Crier Cafe in Beacon on Thursday, July 5th. Joining him will be longtime musical comrades, the previously mentioned Chris Spedding on guitar, and Fresh Fish Special bassist Rob Stoner. If you love real Rock ’n’ Roll, you won’t want to miss this one, and you might just want to put on your dancing shoes.