Robert Gordon, singer who helped revive rockabilly music, dies at 75


Robert Gordon, a pompadoured singer who played a central role in the rockabilly revival of the 1970s and collaborated with influential guitarists Link Wray, Danny Gatton and Chris Spedding, died Oct. 18 in Manhattan. He was 75.

The cause was acute myeloid leukemia, said a sister, Melissa Gordon Uram.

While growing up in suburban Washington in the 1950s and early ’60s, Mr. Gordon listened obsessively to rockers such as Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Jack Scott, country singers Johnny Cash and Don Gibson, and the rhythm-and-blues balladry of Chuck Jackson and Sam Cooke.

In his stage persona, Mr. Gordon seemed to revel in capturing that era in musical amber — cultivating a retrograde sartorial style and image, performing in vintage sport coats or tank tops, and always sporting a tower of jet-black hair.

He excelled at Presley-esque balladry and was gifted with a mellifluous baritone that could make an over-the-top, teen-oriented lyric such as Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” convincing without even the slightest trace of contemporary irony or cynicism. In a 1977 Unicorn Times article, critic Joe Sasfy said Mr. Gordon established his “credentials with the grand, Southern vocal tradition of romantic melodrama.”

Sasfy added, “The style is clear — male passion and pain made real by exaggerated timing, breathless gasps, resounding basso profundo, swooping falsettos and nervous yelps.”

Though filled with a passion for the musical past, Mr. Gordon also recorded material from contemporary songwriters including Bruce Springsteen (“Fire”), T-Bone Burnett (“Driving Wheel”) and Marshall Crenshaw (“Somewhere, Someday”).

Guitarist Link Wray Dies; Influenced Punk, Grunge

In 1977, Mr. Gordon teamed up with Link Wray, the veteran rockabilly guitarist often credited with pioneering the loud, clanging power chords that dominated much of later rock music. Their single “Red Hot,” which had its lyrical roots in schoolyard taunts and dozens games (“my gal is red hot/your gal ain’t doodly squat”), was infectious enough to reach a respectable 83 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was a cover of a cover: There were earlier versions by Billy Lee Riley and the song’s composer, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, both for Sun records, in the 1950s.

The death of Presley in 1977 hastened a renewed interest in rockabilly and ’50s-style balladry, and Mr. Gordon and Wray collaborated on two timely albums. Their second, “Fresh Fish Special” (1978), with a tank-topped Mr. Gordon combing his pompadour on the cover, was named after a movie character’s description of Elvis’s prison haircut in the 1958 film “Jailhouse Rock.”

Mr. Gordon’s later albums “Rock Billy Boogie” (1979), “Bad Boy” (1980) and “Are You Gonna Be the One” (1981) graced the Billboard charts. The last one included Mr. Gordon’s final chart single, the bouncy “Someday, Someway,” by songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.

In addition to Wray, Mr. Gordon recorded with several high-energy guitarists, including Spedding and Gatton. Their combined virtuosity, in the view of several critics, gave Mr. Gordon’s recordings a slick veneer that other rockabilly revivalists lacked.

A live 1980s recording of Gatton accompanying Mr. Gordon, “The Humbler,” was released in 1996, two years after Gatton had died by suicide. The album, so named because other guitarists found Gatton’s string work both awe-inspiring and somewhat intimidating, featured one of Gatton’s first shows as Mr. Gordon’s accompanist. Bootleg tapes of the concert had already been quietly circulating among guitarists and fans for more than a decade.

Robert Ira Gordon was born in Washington on March 29, 1947, and grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. His father was an administrative law judge with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. His mother, a homemaker, also painted.

Mr. Gordon began performing as a teenager in the early 1960s with the D.C.-based rock-and-roll bands the Confidentials and the Newports. As the decade went on, Mr. Gordon said he joined the D.C. National Guard to avoid the Vietnam War draft. When once asked how he related to the 1960s, the singer tartly replied, “I didn’t!”

By the mid-70s, he had relocated to New York City, opening a leather shop and singing in a folk trio, Reunion. However, punk rock was in ascendance, and he soon joined Tuff Darts, a band that shared stages with Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie at the nightclub CBGB.

Mr. Gordon fronted Tuff Darts on the 1976 Atlantic Records compilation “Live at CBGB’s” and appeared with them in “Unmade Beds” (1976), an early feature by experimental director Amos Poe. Mr. Gordon and Tuff Darts parted company before the band released a full album.

Mr. Gordon also acted in and produced the soundtrack for “The Loveless” (1981), a noirish film starring Willem Dafoe and co-directed by Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery. With some echoes of 1953’s “The Wild One,” the film explored the carnage that ensues as a motorcycle club enters an unwelcoming town during the 1950s.

His marriage to Karen Ellis ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Marylee Paquin Gordon of Manhattan; a son from his first marriage, Jesse Gordon of Bethesda, Md.; two sisters; and two granddaughters. A son from his first marriage, Anthony Gordon, died about 25 years ago.

Mr. Gordon, who grew up with the music of the first generation rockers, said his legacy was introducing rockabilly to younger generations.

“Most of the people that picked up my idea initially were turned on to this kind of music by hearing my stuff,” he once said. “I think that I was instrumental in bringing a lot of these people to the attention of the public for the first time.”

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