In 1975, Bruce Springsteen walked into legendary Greenwich Village music club The Bottom Line and played a 5-day/10-show residency that famously landed him simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Five years later, Robert Gordon entered that same room, and from an uncomfortably close face-to-face proximity my friend Zing and I hollered two of his most famous lyrics at him. Gordon merely smoothed his pompadour and kept walking.
Robert Ira Gordon grew up in Bethesda, MD., and at the age of nine heard Elvis Presley sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the radio. He decided right then he would be a rock & roll singer. And despite never attaining but a fraction of The King’s stardom, for a brief time I think Gordon was one of the closest facsimiles to Elvis the rock world ever saw. Though a generation younger, the throwback rocker Gordon would be teamed for his debut album with fabled guitarist Link Wray, who upon hearing Gordon’s voice and phrasing would comment, “Robert to me sounds a lot like the early Elvis, back when he was at Sun Records.” Just weeks after that record, Robert Gordon with Link Wray, was released in the spring of 1977, Elvis left the building for good, attracting increased attention from radio programmers suddenly interested in early rock & roll, and briefly pinning Gordon as the living representative for the rediscovery (Gordon disliked the word “revival”) of authentic ‘50’s-style rockabilly music, two decades removed from its own time. The Jordanaires, Presley’s actual backing vocalists, were featured on Gordon and Wray’s follow-up album, Fresh Fish Special. And that guy Springsteen contributed a song actually written for Elvis and then given to Gordon called ‘Fire’.¹ But the notoriety was short-lived. Just a few years later, after Gordon had also recorded a series of albums for RCA, Elvis’s old record label, the neo-rockabilly boomlet of which Gordon had been preeminent – hailed by Billboard magazine in 1978 as “The new voice of Rock and Roll” – once again seemed old-fashioned. Gordon faded away, as did the rockabilly revival (though that would be resuscitated shortly thereafter by a Long Island kid named Brian Setzer and his band The Stray Cats).
During that brief ascendancy, Gordon produced some truly superlative music, but to me two songs probably stood out most: ‘Red Hot’ and ‘Black Slacks’ – both kickin’ covers of semi-obscure stompers from early rock & roll days. Our video is of Gordon and Wray ripping through a version of ‘Red Hot.’ Just try not to add your own “Your gal ain’t doodly squat” into the choruses. Behold Wray’s regal rockabilly riffage on his two stinging solos. And please do also note the rarely-seen piano/bass combo solo. Then comes a recording of the song whose stuttering title was the only two words a couple of star-struck kids could think to utter upon noticing Gordon sauntering into The Bottom Line (for another band’s show, maybe The Blasters?). Only we didn’t just say that title, we both shouted it the way Gordon famously did in his 1979 song: “B-B-B-Black slacks!!” Ever the cool cat, let’s just say Gordon’s reaction was something like detached bemusement. Like The King, it seems only rock and roll got him all shook up.
¹the Pointer Sisters subsequent smash version just months later completely overshadowed Gordon’s, to neither his or Springsteen’s pleasure.