Roddy Jackson - Central Valley Fireball

 

When the lineup for the third Rockin’ Fest in Green Bay, Wisconsin was announced in early 2007, I combed it looking for acts I wanted to see and people I wanted to interview. The name Roddy Jackson was one of the least familiar, but still I recalled seeing it somewhere in my collection. I found it on The Specialty Story, a box set of the legendary record label, so I listened to “There’s a Moose on the Loose” from 1958. Searching on the internet added the information that he had recently resurfaced and had performed at a couple of festivals to good reviews. That was all I knew, so when I saw him play I paid careful attention and took a few notes, which lead to part of our fascinating conversation below. The interview took place in my hotel room at the festival on May 19, 2007. All photos of Roddy Jackson were supplied by him.

Roddy Jackson and Sonny Bono wrote a song called "She Said Yeah" which was recorded in 1958 by Larry Williams, and picked up later by many British beat groups, including the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers. Paul McCartney did on his Run Devil Run album of 1999.

Roddy Jackson : I was born April ninth, 1942, in Fresno, California. We moved from Fresno to Merced, a town about 55 miles north of Fresno, when I was one year old. My father—his name was the same as mine except he was known as Rod Jackson—was a professional musician. He was a very good guitarist and singer, and he did country and blues and jazz and flamenco guitar. My mother, Lucille, didn’t sing professionally but she was a singer and both of them loved music, were very much involved in music. I was raised listening all different kinds of music. My mother liked classical and semi-classical. My father was classically trained on the guitar, and he liked classical, but he was really into the blues and jazz, the swing big bands, and country. All of those things I heard every day in my home. We had a piano and I would go to it and stay there. Anywhere they went, if there was a piano, they knew where they’d find me.

My father was in the military in WWII, in in the Marines. He became involved in the special services. He and [famous studio guitarist] Al Caiola—“The Magnificent Seven” [a guitar instrumental that was a top 40 hit in 1961], and “Rawhide” [from one of the dozens of albums he recorded for United Artists] and all that—were in the military together and they had a guitar duo. I’ve got these old V disc recordings that they made. Many years later when Al Caiola became famous he called my father and wanted him to join him and he turned him down. My father also played with Harry James’ band on guitar at that time during WWII, and later he got a call from New York City from Harry James. His guitar player was leaving and he thought of my father because he had done so well with him. Both of them he turned down because he was very devoted to family. My father played central California ; he was the most in-demand guitarist in the area. He got hired all the time. During the day he worked for the road department ; he wound up being the head foreman for the entire county and then he taught guitar and then played the gigs.

When I was 6 years old I started piano lessons and I studied with a man who trained people to be concert pianists that went to world competitions and things like that. He was so strict, mean and strict. I wanted to play jazz. I loved classical but I also wanted to play jazz and of course there wasn’t rock and roll yet. But popular music, he said “that’s not music, that’s trash. You play this.” I stayed with him for two and a half years until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I asked my parents to let me quit and they let me. I must say I learned though. He taught me the technique. I’m glad that I was able to stand it as long as I did because he taught me so much. I was trained to be a concert pianist and I would up a rocker.

Craig Morrison : I saw you tonight not looking at the piano at all during your set. Most guys will double-check. You never did that.

RJ : Because of the training I got from him. Then I got another teacher. She played in a band with my father a lot. She continued the classical training but she also encouraged me to do the jazz. She taught me different music styles including boogie woogie and I loved it, started playing boogie woogie a lot. I wrote music and the other teacher didn’t want me writing : “first you learn how to play and then you can write.” She encouraged me : part of the lesson she taught me and the other part of the lesson I would show her what I’m working on and then she’d help me. The combination of the two was perfect.

I was in the 8th grade in junior high school when Bill Haley and the Comets came out with “Rock Around the Clock.” And I went “what is that ?! I want to do that.” A lot of the early rock and roll was boogie woogie, rockabilly and rhythm and blues : a lot of boogie woogie, Jerry Lee Lewis. When Little Richard came along, I started singing because of him. I learned all of his songs, sang all of his songs.

When I was 14 years old I was a percussionist in the high school band, ’cause I was already into learning different instruments. I play a lot of instruments. One day during lunch, I was in there on the piano playing boogie woogie. One of the drummers started banging on the drums. Someone else comes in : “Wait right here, I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.” They came back with this guy that played guitar, and he hooked up his guitar and he started playing. Another guy grabbed a bass and started playing. Another guy came in with a saxophone and started playing. The next thing we knew the high school kids were just screaming and yelling. They came in ; they were outside pressed up against the windows. We said “Wow what’s this, what’s happening here ?” They had a talent contest and we entered it and we won. It was just like Elvis or the Beatles : girls were trying to climb on the stage, in high school. The teachers and the security got pretty concerned. That’s when I said, “You know what, we’ve got something going on here, let’s do something with this.”

I had had a band before that did Dixieland and swing. I was really into jazz, always have been, still am. We had this man [George Coolures], the fire chief of Merced County, who had been our manager. I said to him, “I want you to look at what we’re doing here and see if you want to be our manager.” He did, and we started playing. We played a hall in Merced, our home town, and we just filled it up and then we started going to all the towns in central California. Everywhere we went it was filled, just overflowing.

CM : Was it the same guys that were there on the lunch hour ?

RJ : Yes.

CM : Did you have a name for the band ?

RJ : Yes, you might have heard them. They were called the Merced Blue Notes and a lot of people have heard of them. Ace [the British record label] put out an album of them last year. That was after I left. I was one of the original members and then later on I left and I joined another band, and it was after that.

We were playing Stockton and when I was with them is when I did those recordings. My dream was to record for Specialty, Little Richard’s label, because of those musicians, L.A. studio musicians, [such as drummer] Earl Palmer, [saxophonist] Plas Johnson, and Rene Hall on guitar. The same people were recording for a lot of different singers. I’m first and foremost a musician, a musician that sings, and my dream was to record with them because I heard the musicianship of what they were doing and they were great. We called Specialty Records—you could do this then—and said, “Hey, we want to audition.” They said, “Okay, come on down, made an appointment.” We went down there. It was Sonny Bono that was doing the audition. When he heard me sing, he says, “Wait, I’ll be right back.” He went and got Art Rupe and brought him down. He says, “Do that song again.”

CM : Do you recall what song that was ?

RJ : I don’t, isn’t that funny ? However, on that CD that’s coming out there is a song that we did on the audition that was saved, me and the Merced Blue Notes. It might have been that song I don’t know. But they were interested in me so they signed me and they had me record with Earl Palmer, Rene Hall and Plas Johnson. My dream came true and it was amazing. It was wonderful working with those guys, just great musicians.

Two days before I was supposed to go on American Bandstand it was cancelled. If I had gone on American Bandstand my next dream would have come true : I wanted to be a big big star and I knew if I got on American Bandstand it was going to happen. It was cancelled and you know why ? Because they wanted more money : the payola. Two days before I was supposed to go on they said, “Well you’ve got to pay us more than what we agreed on before.” Art Rupe said “No, no more payola.” He got so mad over that he said “I’ll never give you another dime. I don’t care if none of my artists ever get on your show again. This is extortion and I won’t do it anymore.” He was already rich, already a wealthy man before he formed Specialty, so he didn’t need it. Specialty was something he did for fun. He said, “This isn’t fun anymore” and he quit.

CM : He quit the business ? At that time, over this ?

RJ : Yeah, it wasn’t long after that happened that he just said “I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not fun for me anymore.” Art, I admire your principles, could you have just waited another week ? One more week ?

CM : Do you have any idea what kind of money they were supposed to pay ?

RJ : I don’t know. All I know is that I got a call saying it’s been cancelled. I was still in Merced and I’d commute down to L.A. and I’d stay with Sonny at his house. Merced to L.A. in those days was a six or seven-hour drive. Now it’s like five hours. It’s a distance. So they had me go down there and sat me down in the office with Sonny and Art. Art explained to me what happened : “I’m really sorry but I’m not going to do that. I’m not doing it. I haven’t liked it all along and they just pushed me too far, and I’m sorry that this has happened to you.” A very nice man. He and Sonny both treated me very well. Actually it saved my life, Craig, because even then I was drinking and later I got into drugs and women.

If I would have become a star it would have killed me, like so many of them. I was wild, very wild. I wanted to be a big star so I could do all the drugs I want and do all the women I want. That was my idea of the good life. Now I look back and realize what would have happened to me. I actually am glad. My bad luck was good luck, it really was. I had other opportunities that came along that for various reasons didn’t happen. I turned them down.

I was offered to be part of Fleetwood Mac at one time when they were just becoming big. The keyboard player that they had had to quit and he recommended me ’cause we knew each other. Bobby Hunt was the name of the organist that was with them. He took my place in the Merced Blue Notes and then later he was with Fleetwood Mac. I still don’t know exactly what the story was, but he wasn’t going to be able to stay with them, and he recommended me. They called me and wanted me to go, but I was under contract to somebody that I had given my word. It was a show and the bandleader was the drummer. The whole thing musically hung on what I was doing and he had me promise that I would give a month’s notice and help to train someone new if I left. That’s what the one before me did. He gave a month’s notice and he trained me and then he left. I had given my word, and this man had been very good to me, a very good man, treated me well. And they said I had to leave now : we’re getting ready to go on this cross-country tour, we’re going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, we’re going on a United States tour and a European tour and we’re going to be big. It’s all set up. We’re going to the top and we want you to come with us. I said, “I can’t leave right now, I’ve got to give a month’s notice” and they said no. They said, “You’re our first choice. We have someone else, if you don’t, we’re gonna go get them.” I had to say no. I had to keep my word. I believe in that. I was wild and crazy but I believed in honor even though I was crazy. My parents brought me up that you keep your word. Later I thought, what a stupid idiot ! No, I’m not sorry. It saved my life, again. I wouldn’t have lived through it, I have no doubt.

Later I could have gone on tour with Lou Rawls but by that time I had quit the music business and I was quitting the drinking and the drugs and trying to start a new life. I got the call from this same man, the drummer, “We’re going on tour with Lou Rawls, and I want you to be the keyboard man, come on.” I said, “I can’t do it.” Because I knew I was too weak, that I wouldn’t be able to handle the temptations. I wanted to change my life. I stayed out of the music business, gone for 15 years and then I came back to it.

CM : What did you do in the meantime for 15 years ?

RJ : For a little while I was out of work and didn’t do much of anything. All I’d known my whole life was music, and I was an actor too, I’d done some theatre stuff. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know what else I could do. A neighbor had a job bucking hay, they needed somebody, and did I want to learn it ? I said, why sure. So my first job : bucking hay. They bale the hay and you get these hooks and it’s hard physical work. Nobody thought I’d make it through a day. I was very surprised, I liked it. I got into physical work.

CM : Very grounding, right down to the earth.

RJ : That’s exactly right. That’s what I needed. Then I worked at a cannery. I wound up being a forklift driver. Then I went to work for the U.S. Postal Service as a postal clerk. My hobby was working in the yard. Garden, lawn, I worked on it, worked on it. I never had any interest in these things. When I left music I had to find something and you’re right : I went right to the earth. And I stayed close to the earth all those years ’til I came back to music. Then it went away. I have no interest anymore because I…

CM : You got grounded !

RJ : I got grounded. I’m a different man now. Those temptations don’t interest me anymore because I know where that leads. It’s not worth it.

CM : It’s a temporary paradise, very seductive.

RJ : Very temporary, and very very [seductive]. I will tell you this, and I’ve talked to a lot of people. I was an alcoholic. Later, even though I quit drinking, I got into A.A., Alcoholics Anonymous, and I talked with a lot of people. A lot of recovered alcoholics, that have been recovered for a while, look back and realize that the alcohol and the other drugs and stuff actually kind of saved our lives. ’Cause I had emotional problems, brain chemistry problems. Now I’m on medication, I’ve done therapy, counselling. I do a lot of spiritual stuff. I’ve overcome a lot but I had brain chemistry issues. I had A.D.D. [attention deficit disorder], O.C.D., obsessive compulsive disorder, manic-depressive. These things tormented me and when I would drink or use a drug it would temporarily take away those symptoms, but of course : wrong medication !

CM : What drugs were you involved in if you don’t me asking ?

RJ : No, I don’t mind you asking. Actually I wound up liking telling this story because I found it gives other people hope. I’m so glad that I got out of that. Now I can tell my story. I smoked marijuana every day. Alcohol and marijuana was daily, and then now and then I snorted some cocaine or I took some acid trips, LSD, amphetamines, barbiturates. I would mix up several things. I’d chase down amphetamines with coffee and then I’d get too hyper so I’d take a barbiturate and have a drink to calm me down and smoke some dope. Well then I’d get too this [calmed down] so I’d do more coffee and amphetamines, stir in some coke, always trying to find the balance. It’s a wonder I’m alive. It should have killed me what I was doing, it was just insane ! I didn’t do that all the time. I’d go through periods where I didn’t and then I’d just go back to alcohol and marijuana when I was more calm. Of all of them, marijuana’s probably the most harmless. It’s not harmless but it’s the least harmful I think. I do believe if it helps medicinally, I’m for legalizing this stuff but regulating it. Drugs are medicine ; if they’re used properly they’re medicinal.

CM : Now people are abusing medicine. They are saying the abuse of prescription medications even outweighs illegal drugs.

RJ : It’s a real problem. I believe that the answer is not in criminalizing it and trying to stamp it out ; you can’t. That’s not the answer. They’ve made it a criminal problem. It’s not, it’s a medical problem. People that do these things have problems, that’s why they’re doing it. They need help. They’re trying to medicate themselves. I know because I was one of them. Now I look back and I understand. If it hadn’t been for those things until I could find a better solution, they actually saved my life but it was only temporary. Then it was starting to kill me. I look back now and I realize, God if I hadn’t had alcohol and marijuana I probably would have committed suicide or killed somebody else, because I had problems. Fortunately I lived through that phase to find a better way to deal with it.

CM : And that physical work solidified you.

RJ : It really did. I hated physical work up until then. But once music’s gone what am I gonna do with myself ? I’ll be doggone, getting out there and sweating and working, and I’d feel great. Life’s strange. I came back to the music business then, which I thought I never would. I quit my job at the Post Office ’cause it wasn’t fun anymore, and I went back to music but clean and sober. And I struggled for years. Always before, everything I did was successful. I was always a phenomenon everywhere I went. When I came back I thought, well I’ll just take up where I left off. It wasn’t like that. It was really hard, and I couldn’t understand it. “What’s going on ? Why have I lost it ?” I’d play for three people and they thought I was great, all three of them. I thought, “Why does this keep happening to me ?” I lived below the poverty line during those years. I found out what it was like to really be poor and to struggle.

CM : Did you have a wife, children, anything at this point ?

RJ : Yes. When all this happened with the physical work I was in another town about 90 miles north of Merced called Lodi. I had a marriage there and then we got a divorce. In the ’80s I went back to Merced and I met the woman I wound up marrying, the daughter of my second piano teacher. She was a musician and we did a duo act together for years. It was during that time that we went through this really poverty-stricken time.

Roddy Jackson in Spain, 2012 - photo by Vanesa Madrid

Then she said to me, “Look at it this way : you get to do something you love, that when you’re home you do it for fun, but then you get to go out there and do it and they give you money.” That did it. That spun me around 180 degrees and my attitude changed. I was grateful, and then it started getting better. Attitude and gratitude is very powerful. If we’re grateful for what we have, the tendency is that we’ll get more and if we’re not grateful for what we have there’s a very good chance we’re going to lose. I wasn’t grateful ; I thought it was my due. I’m back : where is everybody ? I had to learn humility, and that was a very hard period for me but I’m really glad that I went through that.

Finally we got a divorce about 1989-1990 but we remained friends, which was interesting. It didn’t happen that way before. This was nice, because we stayed really best friends after that. We told people we’re getting a divorce so we can save our friendship. We loved each other but we found out we were incompatible to live together. You can love each other and be incompatible to live with each other. That’s what we experienced ’cause we truly loved each other very much. But we had to admit. One day we sat down and said it’s not that there’s anything wrong with you, it’s not that there’s something wrong with either one of us, it’s that there’s something wrong with us trying to cohabit. It doesn’t work. We each had certain things about our personality and we couldn’t tolerate living with each other. We still love each other very deeply. And so I feel good about that. We made a very adult decision and decided to get a divorce and we stayed friends. We had a few times where it got hot, but we had to do that, but we did it as friends : “You know what, you this and that ya ya ya ya. But are we going to be friends ? Yup !”

I had already become grateful by the time I got to the ’90s and I got really involved in A.A, in 12-step programs and stuff and that helped. From that point onward gradually, very gradually, things got a little bit better, and it continues to get better and better. More and more good things. More and more of my dreams coming true.

I got into teaching. I started teaching private lessons and then I got offered a job teaching school, teaching music and theatre in the school. I’ve been doing that 15 years. I’m resigning this year. June 6th is my last day because I want to get more involved in this. I’ve got other things going on too locally that are going to support me without the school job. But I’m so grateful for that school job ; it came at a time when I needed some kind of financial stability. It was a chance to give, to teach these children about music. I had private students, teaching people that want to learn to become musicians. It was very fulfilling. I didn’t want to do it at first but then I learned to love it.

I don’t have a degree. I sometimes wish I had and I was trying to go back to school but now I realize that’s not my role. But I was still able to teach in the schools, ’specially what I know : music and theatre. There’s a shortage of people that can teach that in the schools so the schools will hire you part time. That way I didn’t have to have the degree and the credentials. I learned a lot from teaching. I still have private students I’m going to continue with and just see how this goes. This is my first love. Also I’m collaborating with a recording studio there in the Valley and we have several clients lined up who want to do albums, and I’m going to act as producer and arranger for them. Through students I’m getting clients and I had to tell everybody you’re going to have to wait until September ’cause I still have my summer job to do too where I teach theatre at the local college, and we do big musical productions. I love doing that. I’ve been doing that for several years. What we’re doing now is called Jack and the Giant which is a musical adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk. It calls for kids 8 to 16. These are the things that have happened for me. One day the college called me and offered me the job. I had been music director for a musical ; people that were running it hired me ’cause by this time I was getting hired as a music director for musicals around the area. They hired me for their program to be music director. About three years later they resigned from the job and recommended me and I’d already been doing something else for the college so that the boss there liked me and they called me said, do you want the job ? So, many examples of these things that have been just given to me and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do is to be a director. So now I’m doing that, and the person that’s been the instructor at the college, regular school year, the college instructor, is retiring and he’s going to make movies and he wants me involved and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, is make movies. So now he said, hey, I want you to be in my movie. He wants me to act in it and do the music score.

See this is what I mean. Ever since my attitude changed it’s just continued. Nothing that I do, it’s nothing that I figure out or try to make happen, things just keep being offered, and more and more of my dreams are coming true. When I tried to make them come true nothing could work out. Isn’t that strange because that’s not the way we’re taught. We’re taught, you set your goals and you work hard enough, long enough, you can make it happen. That has never worked for me. Except to become a musician, to develop skills, yeah I can decide I’m going to do that and I can make that happen by putting out the effort. But as far as controlling the world around me to give me what I want, I’ve never been much good at that. It never works out in the long run. But when I quit trying. I just want to serve. I just want to help others. I want to be of service, be grateful for what I have, quit fighting it. Quit thinking this or that has to happen and just show up and see what happens day by day. That’s when all these things start working out for me.

In my younger days “I am great and they are here for me” was my attitude. I was a child prodigy so I got a lot of attention right from the beginning. Then when I made that attitude change : “They’re not here for me, I’m here for them, to make them happy, to make them feel good, to serve them.” When I started taking that attitude that’s when the success story comes. “Give and you shall receive,” somebody said about 2000 years ago, and that is so true.

Sonny and Cher
CM : How did you feel when Sonny Bono died ?

RJ : Terrible. That broke my heart. Sonny was like my big brother. He was a mentor for me. I learned so much about the business part of the music business from him. Sonny Bono was a genius. I used to laugh at him because he couldn’t sing. He would write these songs on the piano like some people do a hunt and peck in typing. He was terrible on the piano, he was a terrible singer, and yet he wrote some very good songs, these wonderful songs. He told me he was going to be famous, a big star. I didn’t believe him, I laughed at him. But I was very impressed right from the start with his understanding of how to promote, how to manage things. And he had this intuitive ability. We would listen to the radio and they’d be playing all the new releases. He’d say, “That one’s not going anywhere. That one’s gonna be a hit.” He was always right. It’s amazing. If I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t believe it. He always knew what was going to be a hit. We’d listen to some recordings—oh he loved it—we’re both going like this in the car : “Wow ! Boy that’s good !” He said, “Yeah, I love it too but it’s not going anywhere.” And he was always right, so he had a certain talent. Of course when he hooked up with Cher, who was a great talent, he knew what to do. He was my manager and I wouldn’t listen, see. He’d tell me what to do and I wouldn’t listen. I was a teenager, I knew everything. I wouldn’t listen to him and then later Cher did. So she became a big star and it’s a joke I make : I could have been Cher.

CM : Sonny and Roddy !

RJ : [laughs] Somehow I think Sonny liked more what Cher brought to him. Something added that I couldn’t give him ! [laughs]

CM : You wrote “She Said Yeah” with Sonny. Can you tell me how that came about ?

RJ : I was staying at his house, and he said “Roddy I’ve got this song but I can’t finish it, I’m stuck maybe you can help me.” He wrote the part : “she said yeah, she said yeah, she said yeah, yeah, yeah, c’mon on baby I wanna make-a love to you too, dat da da da.” He wrote the chorus but he couldn’t come up with the verse. When we wrote it, it was a little bit different than the way that Larry Williams and then the Stones did it. They changed it a little bit from what we first did. Still the same song but it was a different approach, [singing] “Hey little turtle dove, where on earth did you come from, you ain’t, come on baby, let me make love to you, baby you driving me crazy, you got my heart hazy, you got my senses reeling, baby what a feeling, come on baby let me make love to you” that’s what I wrote. I came up with that verse to go with his chorus. The way we wrote it, it was a slower tempo and a funky feeling. When Larry Williams did it, he changed it around a little bit. Sonny brought it to him to record and it didn’t sell. He had “Short Fat Fanny” and then “Boney Maronie.”

CM : He had “Bad Boy” also.

RJ : Yeah, right. After those, his sales started going down and the hope was that “She Said Yeah” would bring him back up. We all thought it would.

CM : It was one of the times Sonny was wrong.

RJ : You’re right, but the Stones got it. Sonny knew it would be a hit but he thought it would be Larry Williams and it wasn’t. I was out of the country ; I was in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany during the Cold War, just before Vietnam. While I was over there was the British invasion. I didn’t know anything about it until I got back. It was a different world over there. When I got back, "What’s this stuff ? Who are these people ? Who’s those guys with the long hair ?” Beatles and the Stones, you know. “What happened to the pianos and the saxophones,” which was my thing. I didn’t like it. “Hey, what happened to rock and roll ?” As time went on, I learned to really respect it, especially the Beatles. I have a great deal of respect for them now. But at that time it was against my interests and so I didn’t like them.

Then I’m watching television and there’s Sonny and Cher. I didn’t know who Cher was. When I knew Sonny he had a different wife. They came on TV, and I went : “That’s Sonny ! That’s Sonny !” And the people with me : “Yeah.” I said “That’s Sonny Bono !” “Yeah.” I said, “You don’t understand, I know him !” “Yeah, right.” I tried to get ahold of him to congratulate him. I couldn’t get through. I talked to him many years later when all that was over and then I could just call him. He said he never got any of my messages. I kept calling and telling them, “Give Sonny a message, look I’m a friend of his. Let me talk to him.” “No we can’t let you.” “Will you give him a message ?” “Yeah ok, what’s the message ?” They never gave him the message.

CM : Do you remember when you heard the Stones doing your song ?

RJ : The first I knew about it, I got a cheque in the mail from Venice Publishing, which was Specialty’s publishing company. When I saw the amount on the cheque I couldn’t believe it. I got back from Germany in 1964 and one day this cheque comes in the mail and there was a notice saying we’ve been trying to find you, Roddy, you’ve got some royalties coming. The cheque was for $5,000. Now at that time that’s like $50,000 now. WHAT ! I didn’t know. I had no idea. That is one of the biggest shocks of my life. You talk about a surprise. I opened up this thing from them, and I said, what’s this ; they’re going to send me a $30 royalty cheque or something. Five thousand dollars, and for what ? I looked and it said Rolling Stones, “She Said Yeah.” “Oh my God !” I called Art Rupe but I talked to his wife, Dorothy Rupe. “Roddy, we sold ‘She Said Yeah’ to the Stones and they recorded it and so did Eric Burdon and the Animals, and congratulations.” A few years ago Paul McCartney recorded it on his album Run Devil Run, ’cause he was a Larry Williams fan.

CM : The Beatles did so many of his songs. “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” was another of his.

RJ : Yes, right, I forgot about that one. He was really good. Larry Williams did not get the recognition for his talent that he should have.

CM : When I was listening to your set today I assumed from your music that you were from New Orleans but now you’re telling me you were in Los Angeles. Specialty did sessions in New Orleans. When Little Richard first recorded for Specialty it was in New Orleans.

RJ : Now that I didn’t know.

CM : There are a lot of New Orleans guys on Specialty. [Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Earl King, Ernie K. Doe (as Ernest Kador), Art Neville, Jerry Byrne, and others recorded for Specialty in New Orleans.]

RJ : So that’s where I got it. Because Little Richard and the Specialty musicians really influenced me. Of course, I was already doing blues. My dad was a blues fanatic and he had all these blues records so I was brought up listening to the blues. Big Bill Broonzy was my dad’s favorite blues artist. He had every Big Bill Broonzy recording every made and he’d play them all the time and I listened. He had a piano player that was fabulous. Some of the stuff I do, I got from him. Then when the R&B came along Little Richard, Fats Domino, then Jerry Lee Lewis who was kind of in-between hillbilly and blues and boogie. All those guys when I heard them play I was already doing close to that myself, doing the boogie woogie and the blues. When that stuff came along it was a natural for me. I just right away just went with it.

CM : Were you listening to Frankie Ford or Huey “Piano” Smith ?

RJ : No, I wasn’t familiar with them.

CM : I took notes while you were singing, ’cause I got New Orleans from the first moment. This might make you laugh : these are characteristics of New Orleans music that I found in your music. Take for example the rasp that you did in “I Found a New Girl.” In another song you’re not rasping. So you have a multiple vocal persona you might say. In New Orleans you have Clarence “Frogman” Henry with “Ain’t Got a Home,” and Huey “Piano” Smith sings sometimes in falsetto.

RJ : Fats Domino’s from New Orleans.

CM : Yes, and Little Richard is from not so far away either [Macon, Georgia] and he recorded there with New Orleans players.

RJ : This is interesting. This is something I had never thought of. I see what you’re saying.

CM : There’s also what they call feathering at the end of the vocal line. So here’s another one : goofy humor. You have a song called “Hiccups,” right ? You listen to Huey “Piano” Smith and it’s all kind of stupid and goofy. Not all of the time, but there’s a component of it. They are willing to be a bit off the wall, like your “Moose on the Loose,” with the vocal imitations of the animals and all.

RJ : By the way, Sonny did the animals sounds on the recording.

CM : Think of the various types of rhythm and blues that went into rock and roll. Think of Chicago, what’s the main instrument, what did the band leaders in Chicago play ?

RJ : I’d say guitar.

Larry Williams

CM : Yeah : Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. Think of New Orleans, what do the band leaders play ? Fats Domino, Larry Williams.

RJ : Piano players.

CM : So here you are, a piano player. And what do they have as their extra instrument in Chicago ? Harmonica. In New Orleans you’ve got sax. So here’s a guy, Roddy Jackson, plays piano and saxophone : both of the key instruments from New Orleans.

RJ : This is fascinating ! Very interesting.

CM : New Orleans as everyone knows is the cradle of jazz. So that’s why people like Fats Domino have horns. There’s a few decades of jazz tradition. They like horns. There’s a certain rhythm in New Orleans music, the Caribbean influence mixed in and there’s an undercurrent of Mexican stuff there. They were owned by the Spanish, they were owned by the French, they were owned by the English, and there’s the Caribbean thing. Think of “Sea Cruise.” In your songs it’s not the same kind of pump that Jerry Lee Lewis does that’s called the pumping piano.

RJ : “Any Old Town,” the third song I did, has that influence. I love Latin music. I love including South American [influence]. I do Latin and I feel Latin. I love their rhythms. They’re kind of off, all that syncopation. It is part of me musically.

CM : Think of “Blueberry Hill.” It’s in C but in the bridge there’s a B7 to E. For a brief moment you have just modulated to the key of the III, you’re far away from the original key. So you’ve got secondary dominants and then a modulation and then a direct modulation back to the V. This is a pop song. This song was introduced by Gene Autry. It was written by professional songwriters ’cause they were writing for Hollywood movies. Tin Pan Alley guys writing pop songs that are presented as cowboy songs but they’re full of pop changes. Then it’s the hit for the big bands. My mother-in-law loves me to play that song for her. I play her the Fats Domino version, but she’s not thinking of Fats, she’s thinking of Glenn Miller and when she was having a sweet romance. It brings her back.

RJ : What’s really nice about it is that because of the approach of Fats Domino and the musicianship of those people, the older people can like it.

CM : There’s a tradition in New Orleans of taking pop songs with pop changes in them. You don’t hear Muddy Waters doing a V of a III or something but in New Orleans you’re going to hear this, ’cause some of them are jazz guys, they’re used to these kind of changes. Think of your song “Gloria” : beautiful changes.

RJ : I use jazz changes in some of my songs, ’cause I am a jazz musician.

CM : Well, it shows. “Love At First Sight” : 12/8 time signature with triplets, just like Fats. I’m stretching it a bit here, but in “Love At First Sight” you’re singing about going on a boat. They [New Orleans residents] are surrounded by water, so what do they sing about, they go out on the water. My last point is your “Juke Box Baby” song—I never heard any of these songs before tonight except one or two that I heard on my Specialty anthology—in “Juke Box Baby” there’s a pumping piano, Little Richard style.

RJ : Oh yeah. A lot of Little Richard influence in that one.

CM : In the jukebox jury, I have made what I think is an iron-tight case for saying this guy is from New Orleans and he has absorbed the New Orleans traditions.

RJ : You have definitely convinced me. What you did there, you won your case with me.

CM : It’s just not true !

RJ : But it is true because I heard it and I was drawn to that music and my dad was from Mississippi.

CM : That’s why he liked Big Bill Broonzy.

RJ : Uh huh. I know what my background is and that my dad was a jazz as well as a blues musician. Because of the blues and jazz being mixed up together, what we are talking about is the New Orleans R&B that came out.

CM : It’s what I tell my students, the 18, 20, 22-year-old kids in my class. I say I’ve told you about blues, jazz, country, gospel, folk, and pop, we’ve gone out of the ’20s into the ’30s, now we’re into the ’40s, write this down : blues plus jazz equals rhythm and blues. What are you hearing in this piece that sounds like blues ? Someone will say “I think I hear a 12-bar progression” or “the blue notes.” What are you hearing that sounds like jazz ? Somebody else says “I hear a saxophone, I hear a walking bass, and I hear the swing beat that you were talking about last class.” That’s it ! So your dad played blues and played jazz and what do you play ? R&B.

RJ : It’s the blending. This makes perfect sense to me. When Little Richard, those guys, Earl Palmer, Rene Hall, Plas Johnson…

CM : They moved from the New Orleans to L.A.

RJ : When I heard the recordings that they played on, I said, “Oh my God, this is great music. These musicians are fabulous. They are all master jazz musicians but they got that blues soul.” They brought those together and that’s why I loved it so much. So even though I haven’t even been to New Orleans yet, I want to go.

CM : When you get down there they’re going to recognize you as the forgotten son that they never knew.

RJ : This is amazing. I share your mystification here about how am I a New Orleans musician and I’ve never even been there.

CM : When you submit your CD to the Heritage Festival down there they’re gonna go, there’s our boy. ’Cause you’ve kept it alive.

RJ : Now I understand something. Cleo [Banquer], she’s Frogman’s manager [Clarence “Frogman” Henry], and Roy Head’s. We’re friends. We met at Rhythm Riot a couple of years ago and we immediately became friends. She’s from New Orleans. She has been after the guy that does Ponderosa Stomp, telling him he’s got to bring me to the Stomp. And my friend at Ace Records, Alec Palao, the one that put together this compilation, he knows the promoter too and he’s been trying to tell him. Alec told me he’s partial to the southern musician, the southern sound, he uses the southerners. Alex says, “What he doesn’t understand is that you’re not from the South but you are one of them. I’m going to keep talking to him until he gets you.” Cleo said, “Once he hears you, then he’ll understand that you belong here.” I think because of my father being from the Deep South and they had been there for generations even though it wasn’t Louisiana, Mississippi’s not that far away.

CM : Where did you get your saxophone style from ?

RJ : Plas Johnson, Sam Butera. The saxophone with Bill Doggett on “Honky Tonk,” I don’t know his name [Clifford Scott], great saxophone player. Earl Bostic, big influence, yes. There’s a couple of others. Jazz players have been a big influence on me too. Harold Land is one. It’s a strange combination ’cause some of the them are the softer style. When I play alto when I play jazz I’ve had a lot of people tell me I play a lot like Phil Woods, very lyrical. I like to construct. I like music that makes sense. Some players are real fast, but I want to hear something that moves me. I want to hear themes. I’m not talking about playing the melody. I’m talking about when you’re improvising, I want it to tell a story. I want it to be a melody you’re making up. I don’t want it to be just a bunch of notes you can throw around. So I try to play a musical story, just as if it’s a melody, but it’s a melody I’m making up as I go along.

CM : That’s a beautiful way of playing because people get it.

RJ : Whether I’m playing piano or I’m playing a sax and I’m playing jazz I hear this often : “I don’t like jazz ; I like your jazz.” I know why, it’s just what we’re talking about. Yet I’m still having a great time with what I’m doing. It is jazz but I call it jazz that makes sense. In other words I’m not just showing off my brilliant vocabulary, I am using the vocabulary I have to say something and there’s the difference.

CM : What did your parents think of your music ?

RJ : My parents were always totally supportive of my music, always behind me. That’s what I wanted to do so that’s what they wanted me to do. There is a big key. A lot of people did not have that when they were a child, and they were stifled. I was not. For the things that I’ve been able to do musically, the credit is equally [for] my parents. Because they nurtured me instead of trying to control me.

My father was an alcoholic so that was pretty dysfunctional. So there was the other side of it, the dark side. Some pretty bizarre and insane things happened in my childhood with my father’s alcoholism. He was the nicest man you would ever want to meet but when he drank it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whenever he misbehaved he was always genuinely sorry and repentant and he really tried to do better, but he couldn’t quit the addiction. In spite of all that he was a good man and because of that he turned down those opportunities to stay with his family. He really did love us so in spite of the demons and some of the ugly things that happened, now I look back and say, “Thank you God that he was my father.” The positive things I got from him far outweigh [the negative], because even though he was a drunk, he still held down three jobs, rose to the top of his field in his day job, everybody loved him. They didn’t see the other side of him. We saw it at home.

What he did teach me was honesty, courage, when I’d get in trouble, come and talk to him. He’d say, “Son, never run. Turn around and face it. If you will face the consequences of your actions and not try to run it’ll go a lot easier on you.” He said, “If you run from it and you try to duck facing the consequences of your acts, in the long run is going to go much harder on you.” Wisdom. He was right. The cops were looking for me. I got involved in something and the cops were investigating and they were closing in. “Oh crap ! what am I going to do ?” And he said, “You go to them and you tell them, you turn yourself in. Tell them the truth, and tell them you’re ready to take the consequences of what you’ve done.” They let me off real easy, ’cause they were impressed with that. I went back and said “They gave me a break.” He said, “See ? I told you.” Things like that he really gave me good advice when I needed it.

CM : It stayed with you because you faced your own demons. You turned and faced them even if it took a long time.

RJ : He wasn’t able to overcome it. He finally died of a heart attack. I’m going to get a little bit cosmic here. I don’t usually talk about this, but I feel like I’m carrying on for both of us. I don’t understand these things and I’m not going to try to figure it out : life, death, why are we here ? I don’t know. But I’ve got this very strong feeling that somehow I’m carrying on for him, that somehow we are linked. Our life patterns and stories are interlinked somehow. It’s an intuitive feeling and I’m not going to try to make sense of that, but it’s a very definite feeling that I have. There’s some reason why he was my father and I was his son. We came here to work on something together and I carried on for him because he was older and then he died and I went on. What I’m doing, I’m doing for him somehow too. That’s the way it feels to me. I loved my father very very much. I know he was a good man.

CM : That’s a blessing. He bequeathed you his talents, his demons, his values, and you ran with all of them. You ran past the one that stopped him. You were able to transcend that one and now having transcended that you still have the strength of the others. You’ve talked about your change of attitude and the things that have come from those things. There’s an inner strength of character that’s so obviously there from what you’re describing and from what we can see.

RJ : He gave me his demons and he also gave me what I needed to overcome them. He couldn’t do it but he gave me what I needed to do it. I want you to know something about my father. He was brought up in Mississippi ; racial prejudice was intense in his family, and he broke out of it. He left it, the rest of them didn’t. He did, all by himself. He stood against them on that. He believed in equality of all people. He treated everybody with dignity and respect and he was a champion of the black people. He’d fight over it. He stood up, and both of my parents felt strongly about that. They brought me up that way, and I feel strongly about that. This is what I really honor my father for. Here’s a demon he overcame so I didn’t have to but he had this other one left. It’s like he make a step and then okay, son, now you take it the next step.

CM : Your generation is the generation that integrated the two cultures in the music and the world welcomed it.

RJ : It was time.

CM : It was controversial for a lot of people but here we are 50 years later. Look what happens down the hall here for five days in a row. There’s Japanese and Germans. I talked to a guy from Vienna and he said, “I got your book.” It’s just amazing that the repercussions of this coming together of the cultures, which erupted into a joyfulness, is still blossoming.

RJ : Maybe the thing I’m the proudest of is that I was in a band where there was myself, a Mexican, and the rest of them were black. At that time that was very controversial. It was happening all over the country and I feel so proud to be a part of that. I didn’t do it because I was trying to be crusader. I loved this music and most of them that did it were blacks so I played it with them. That’s all I cared about. When the persecution came I said, “You know what ? Screw you. How dare you tell me I shouldn’t be with them.” Then I got angry and I said, “I don’t care what any of you think. These are my friends and I’m standing with them.” It was controversial and I came under a lot of fire for it, but I didn’t go into it for that reason. I wasn’t a freedom rider. I just liked this music, they liked this music, and we did it together. I have my parents to thank for that ’cause they taught me not to even think of those differences.

CM : What was the Mexican guy doing ?

RJ : He was the bass player. I was the piano player. The drummer and the guitar player and the sax player were black. This was the Merced Blue Notes. At first I didn’t think it was controversial at all and then when it all started getting controversial I thought, what’s the matter with these people ? Then I said, “You know what, now I’m going to do it no matter what. ’Cause you’re telling me I shouldn’t. Screw you !” So I stayed with them and then I became really an advocate for minorities and all of that. Later, what is it ? hindsight is 20/20 . When you’re in history, when it’s being made, you can’t see it. Later you look back and then you can see what happened. All over the country groups were integrating and it was controversial. We did it anyway because we were artists. We weren’t trying to make a political statement, we just liked playing music together when they didn’t like it. We said, “You’ve made sure we’re going to keep doing it together.” Then finally of course it was perfectly acceptable.

The first single I did was “I’ve Got My Sights on Someone New” and that’s the one that’s now the most known in Europe. “Moose on the Loose” is more known here but they’re both known in both places. The other side of the first single was “Love At First Sight,” which was #1 in central California in the San Joaquin Valley and “I’ve Got My Sights on Someone New” was #2. “I’ve Got My Sights on Someone New” was #3 in Baltimore and “Love at First Sight” was #1 in Salt Lake City. Regional. So, Sonny and I flew to Salt Lake City. They were grooming me to go on American Bandstand so we went on their American Bandstand [-type] show and I appeared, lip-synched my record ’cause that’s what we all did, and was interviewed. I went on their Top 40 radio program and was interviewed, and then did this show ; it was a benefit, 2,000 people. At that time that was a lot of people. That was before the big outdoor classic rock era. There were some name artists there : Eddie Cochran was there. Jimmy Boyd—“All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” his big hit—well anyway there were several people. I stole the show. Of course at that time I was #1 in Salt Lake City so to them I’m a big name. Then we went to the number one nightclub and I performed there, with the band that was there in the club, and it was very successful. So : alright, Roddy’s ready. We’re going to Bandstand.

That was the one that was the biggest hit. Then “Moose on the Loose” and “Hiccups” came after, didn’t sell much. The third one “Any Old Town” and “Gloria” : nothing. It was 20 years later before “Moose on the Loose” and “Hiccups” became a cult favorite. I still don’t know exactly how that happened. But the next thing you know there’s this underground support for “Moose on the Loose” and “Hiccups” and then somehow “I’ve Got my Sights on Someone New.” When I got the call from London and they were going to do the Now Dig This article and I did Rhythm Riot [festival] over there, they told me that “I Got My Sights on Someone New” was played in every lounge in Europe. That it’s a standard with the lounge bands. Everybody’s doing it. What ?!

I was an almost. I did come very close. I was one step away from national stardom, and then it was over. All those years later to start getting this kind of attention—I still sometimes think, is this really happening ? I’m supposed to be too old for this stuff. But I’m not, I’m still pretty young for a guy my age. Very fortunate. All that abuse I did to myself, but you see when I got out of it I studied nutrition, started exercising, watching what I eat, got into spiritual stuff : positive thinking, prayer, meditation. I embrace all of that. Radical change. When I got out, I got out. I went to the whole other way of life. I said now I’m gonna be healthy, I’m gonna be strong. I worked hard at it and because of that I stopped in time. The damage has pretty much been reversed. I’m very very fortunate. I’m 65 years old, and I’m still younger than a lot of people I know that are 20 years younger than me. I see people my age and I think, oh my God they look like they’re 90 to me. Some of these people in their 40s, I can outrun them, I’m stronger, I’m younger, I’ve got more energy. I’m very very grateful.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve or anything. To me the spiritual’s what’s important. Sometimes religion gets it all messed up. The spiritual is what did it. I just turned my life over to God. I said, okay, I tried it, it didn’t work out too well. I understand there’s supposed to be this God, so I’ll give you a shot. You wanna run my life ? Let’s give that a try. I never turned back. After six months when I saw the difference in my life, I said, I think I’ll just stick with this, there’s something to this. I’ve stuck with it ever since. That is the big turning point in my life. To me it’s not as much about what you believe here [points to head], it’s what’s going on here [pats his heart]. It’s the willingness to go along with the program. It’s the willingness to let life do what it does and go along with it, and see where it takes you. To me, that’s just as spiritual a statement as any right there. That’s very religious. Just go with it. See what happens. And it winds up being something good. Doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Sometimes there’s hard times. But if we still don’t fight it, just go along, see what happens and do what good we can along the way, help others when we can, it works out pretty well. I’ll tell you one thing, it may not be easy still but it sure works out a lot better than the other way. I’m living proof. I went all the way this way and I went all the way this [other] way and I’ve got to tell you, this way’s better ! [we laugh]. I don’t care what a person’s religion is, or lack of it, it’s not about that, it’s about what I said : are you willing to just live, trust the universe, trust God, whatever you want to call it and go with that program and always be open that even when you don’t understand or even when you don’t like it there’s a purpose. It makes life worth living. I didn’t have a life worth living. Everyday I thank God for giving me a life worth living. ’Cause I didn’t have a life worth living. Now my life has meaning and purpose. It means something. It didn’t before. The world to me was this insane place that was full of cruelty. It’s still out there but I found something right in the midst of that that is actually very kind. If we let it be kind to us. That’s all it takes is just be willing to let it be kind to us and then it is. I don’t understand it. What can we do about all that cruelty out there ? Just try to live as good a life as we can to not join that, not be a part of that.

CM : It radiates.

RJ : It does. We are making a difference. When we are really trying to live right and to refrain from the selfishness, revenge, the hatred, the jealousy, all those things. And to try the best we can, and try and I fail everyday but I try and it seems to be all God requires is that we’re willing and we try and then it’s taken care of. We are making a difference because it does radiate. It affects other people. Most of the time we don’t even know what’s going on, but by doing that we are affecting other people around us. We’re making a difference and that’s all we can do. We can either curse the darkness or light a candle. I cursed the darkness. I still do once in a while but I’ve found lighting a candle’s a lot better. I didn’t mean to preach a sermon !

CM : So what’s ahead for you now ?

RJ : Well I quit my school job, June 6th is my last day. Then I’ve got that summer theatre. After that’s done I’m gonna take a vacation and then I’ll get into the producing.

CM : But your record’s coming out.

RJ : But my record’s coming out. July. My friend at Ace said when that comes out, after that comes out you’re gonna get a lot more in demand. Here’s an interesting thing : when I resigned from the school I didn’t know the CD was coming, right ? I just knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I just knew that it was right, that it was time for me to leave that job so I resigned. Part of me is thinking, what are you going to do to make up for that lost income ? Because that’s been a mainstay of my income. Well, I’ve got to get more private students, that’s one way I can do it. So I said, okay…. The next thing you know people getting in line to take the classes. With the amount of students I have now, I’m making more money just doing that than what I was making before I resigned doing that and teaching school. The only problem is now I’m living two careers at once. It’s been very very stressful. It’s almost over. Then I get all these, about the recording studio. It just happened through a chain of events.

CM : And the same with the record.

RJ : Then that’s released and then oh I see. I was supposed to resign because it’s time to go on to the next phase of my life. Because now I’ll have the time and the energy, ’cause I didn’t. It was very frustrating, I couldn’t put the time and energy into this, doing this. And so now I will and isn’t it interesting that now that I’m freeing myself up so I can devote myself to this, the CD’s being released. Isn’t that something ? That’s what I’m talking about.

CM : Your story is a fascinating mix of what seems to be good timing and what seems to be bad timing.

RJ : The CD being delayed for two and a half years – it was supposed to be released two and a half years ago and then it’s money, politics. One label takes over another. So it was just frozen in time. I had to really work hard not to get really frustrated and angry. There was a reason for it. As time went on there was more and more of a demand from the fans that turned into this big buzz. The CD’s coming. It’s coming out in July. When I went to Hemsby I was literally mobbed. CD ? CD ? It was a frenzy and the press when they interviewed me : “When’s your CD coming out Roddy ?” That’s when it hit me. I know what’s going on here : building it up. I couldn’t pay for this kind of advertising. This is perfect. Then I understood. What I still didn’t understand is that the timing of it being released is going to coincide with what I’m going to be free to follow up on it. Ace agreed with me. They said yeah, this buildup has been good. We’re gonna make some good sales here. What seemed to be bad timing – the timing’s perfect : not only did it build it up but it’s only going to be released until I’m in a position where I’m able to capitalize on it.

CM : But it was like other bad timings, earlier on, ’cause now you look back and you see.

RJ : Yes.

postscript : Roddy and I stayed in touch, and he did play in New Orleans at the Ponderosa Stomp in 2009, where his performance was even better than in Green Bay. He became a regular on the rock and roll and rockabilly festival circuit.


comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several additional interviews with veteran musicians. To go to the index page, click here.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006