Facebook follower, Horseboxing Cowpoke, who was the first person to contact me yesterday when I asked a question about what type of track people would like to listen to. So blame him! It also gave me a good excuse to post a very rare Rodd Keith track which has, to date, not appeared on any compilation and the disc is not catalogued at Phil Milstein's AS/PMA site. It also allows me to include a previously unpublished interview I conducted with Rodd's son Ellery. The track in question isn't actually that bad; it's more here for its rarity value.
The term song-poem, in case you were not already aware, refers to lyrics (or poems) that have been set to music for a fee, a practice which has been around for more than 100 years but which undoubtedly enjoyed its heyday from the start of the rock’n’roll era until the end of the 1970s. The business involved dozens upon dozens of (initially) sheet music publishers and, since the advent of the 78 rpm disc, record labels mostly in North America but also in Great Britain, Canada, Europe and Australia. Promoted through small lineage and semi-display ads in magazines (Send in Your Poems! Songwriters Make Thousands of Dollars! Free Evaluation!), the term ‘lyrics’ was usually avoided, as your average potential customer would not have a clue what that particular word meant. Those who sent their work in usually received a gushing letter back, telling them that their words were worthy of recording by professional musicians, along with a proposal to do so in exchange for a fee – anything from $40 to $400 or more.
On receipt of that fee (well, once the cheque had cleared, anyway), these unscrupulous sons-of-bitches would throw a cue sheet at a bunch of musicians who would hastily record them (90 per cent of the time in the first take) and then have their masters pressed as vinyl singles or released on compilation LPs with songs by other amateur lyric writers. If you, the songwriter, were lucky you might get a handful of copies sent to you with promises (rarely, if ever, kept) that your soon-to-be-hit record would also be sent to radio stations or music industry executives. Most of the results were terrible; many, laughably so.
Some of the musicians involved in the production of song poems were moonlighting from day jobs at other labels, firing off anything up to 30 songs in a single session for a few extra (non-union) bucks, but the Brian Wilson of the song poem world was Rodd Keith, a singer, musician, composer, arranger and – according to those who knew him – an all-round musical genius. An early exponent of the Chamberlin (an instrument similar to the Mellotron), many of Rodd’s recordings for MSR, Preview, Film City, Circle-D, Master and other song poem outfits have gone on to become highly-prized collectables in Northern Soul circles and several compilations of his recordings have been released on CD.
Rodd’s story is a sad one. Born Rodney Keith Eskelin he was a musical prodigy, playing a variety of instruments and writing choir and instrumental arrangements for church groups from an early age. The scion of a religious family, he toured and recorded with the family singers before finishing his religious schooling in Florida and moving to a church in Baltimore to look after their music programme. In Baltimore Rodd (the second ‘d’ was added, he is purported to have claimed, because God only had one) met a young lady and fellow musician by the name of Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Lee, married her and formed the organ and piano duo Rodd and Bobbie, touring extensively and even landing themselves a weekly live television programme in Wichita, Kansas called Just a Song at Twilight. The couple had a son, Ellery, who was born in 1959 but who, sadly, would grow up not knowing his father.
Rodd dragged his young bride and even younger son to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune, but the travelling, and lack of income, proved to be too much for the marriage to stand. Bobbie and Ellery left Rodd and returned to Baltimore. Ellery was just eighteen months old, and he would never see his father again. “Growing up and hearing stories about my father was inspiring,” Ellery – himself a highly respected avant garde jazz saxophonist - tells me. “His reputation was that of a "larger than life" persona both musically as well as in his character and eccentricities. Given that music was probably the most powerful force in my life this all felt rather profound. My mother was a great musician and I knew I wanted to be a musician as well when I was ten years old.
“I was disappointed when I first heard my father's work. It was not at all what I expected. I'm not actually sure what I expected but it sounded like rather poorly done commercial music. I later discovered that what I initially heard were not the best examples of what he did although I don't think I would have responded positively to even the best of his song-poems at that time. Everyone who knew Rodd says that song-poem work was not a true indication of who he was musically and represented a mere fraction of what he was truly capable of.”
Sadly, we’ll never know exactly what Rodd would have been capable of. Apart from the innumerable recordings he made under a variety of different names including Rodd Keith, Rod Rogers, Rod Rivers, Douglas Paul (the moniker he hid behind for this particular outing, Teen-Age Girl) and others, he left little of his own material. However we do get glimpses of his creative genius in some of the better song poems, many of which have now been collected on albums such as My Pipe Yellow Dream, Saucers in the Sky (both available through Roaratorio), Ecstacy to Frenzy (sic) and I Died Today (both Tzadik). There’s a gulf of difference between Rodd’s greatest work – and some of his recordings truly are the equal of many hits of the day (I’d site Gloria, Little Rug Bug, I Can’t Decide, Saucers in the Sky, I Died Today, First Comes the Rain, Cloud Nine, How can a Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain and The Merry-Go-Down as some of the best pop singles of the 1960s) - and the enormous pile of dross he usually had to put his moniker to.
Unfortunately Rodd, like many, many musicians before and since, took to drugs; his use of psychotics had a massive influence on his work (when he was together enough to be able to work) as can be heard on recordings such as the Beat of the Traps (an insane, rambling ode to the art of drumming) but LSD, PCP and the like killed off his creative prowess. He became more and more odd, making the lives of his second wife Joni and daughter Stacey so impossible that they too were forced to leave. Today we’d probably say that Rodd was bipolar, look after him and nurture his talent. 40 years ago he was just a crazy man who went shopping in the nude.
He died in December 1974 after being hit by several cars on the Hollywood freeway. No-one knows how he ended up on the freeway: did he fall accidentally from a bridge over the road or did he jump, intending to take his own life? Apparently he had a habit of balancing on high balconies, and had talked about ending his life this way. There’s even a story that Rodd filmed his final moments, although that footage has yet to surface.
“I know that Rodd felt that song-poem work was a form of prostitution: ‘commercial crap’ I believe were his words,” adds Ellery. “As for ever being a successful artist, I'm not sure that was in the cards for Rodd. Not due to any lack of talent nor lack of breaks. He had some potential breaks and yet he somehow managed to evade the best outcomes due largely to his drug use and its effect on his life. But even before he got involved with drugs there seems to have been something about his world view or other unknown issues that resulted in a lack of focus or direction with respect to keeping himself on any kind of career track in the music business. It was all there right in front of him and everyone who came into contact with him says he was frighteningly talented and capable of anything he could have wanted to do musically. And so I'm left to assume that for reasons we don't fully understand he was uninterested or otherwise unable to develop his potential in the business.”
But we, like Ellery, have the recordings. Rodd’s song poem output runs the gamut from country western to psychedelic pop and even, as in one of the two versions of I’m Just the Other Woman which has a backwards tape loop superimposed over the whole track, reaching out into the avant garde. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the field though Rodd’s recordings almost always have that certain something else that lifts them above mediocrity. His work with the Chamberlain is quite remarkable, especially when you consider how limiting that instrument was – tape loops were short, percussion tracks ran in weird time signatures and often the overall effect was like listening to a drunk playing a fairground organ – and his arrangements bear comparison with the all-time greats. It’s just a pity that the material he had to work with was so tenth-rate.
“Discovering him through these recordings has been illuminating although I think there are just as many questions raised as are answered,” Ellery continues. “I eventually became quite enamoured of his work once I had heard enough to get a sense of what the whole game was about. In his best work I hear a man who put himself into what he was doing even as he likely considered the work to be next to worthless. In doing so he revealed something of himself, an honesty that is often missing in more popular commercial music. Given that he had to take on so many different musical personas, I ask myself if he was simply a very skilled mimicker of human emotions or whether he was in fact deeply connected emotionally. Given all I know about him I suspect it's the latter.
“I'm always interested in hearing or tracking down Rodd's work. I do know that there was at least one homemade film made in the studio at one of the sessions. That's probably lost to the ages. Needless to say, if I found something like that the experience would be beyond words. It's very rewarding for me that Rodd has become known, at least for song-poem work. It's frustrating that his greater talents seem not to have been well documented, yet there is something surprisingly revealing about the song-poem work. So he did leave us something and for that I'm very grateful.”
NB - although both sides of this 45 are credited as being written, produced and performed by Douglas Paul the A-side - below - is clearly performed by Rodd Keith (or, more correctly, Rod Rogers as this has all the hallmarks of his Film City period). The B-side, Born to be Like the Wind, is by another singer altogether. Possibly Mr Paul himself.
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