One of the most enduring and beloved rockabilly artists of the '50s, Curtis Gordon has never gotten the recognition he deserves as a true crossover artist between country, Western swing, and rockabilly. A devotee of both Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills as a boy, it's possible to hear echoes of Tubb's "Walkin' the Floor Over You" in his best sides, including "Play the Music Louder," "Caffeine and Nicotine," and "Baby, Please Come Home," indeed, the steel player in his '50s band, Freddie Calhoun, played for all the world like Tubb's steel guitarist Jerry Byrd. Gordon grew up listening to Tubb and Wills on the radio, as well as old records by Jimmie Rodgers and quickly developed his own aspirations as a singer, winning a local radio talent show. He left school as a teenager to front a band -- whose membership included a young Jimmy Bryant, then a fiddle-player using the moniker Ivy J. Bryant -- until his parents insisted he give it up. Being stuck in school didn't dampen Gordon's enthusiasm for music or a performing career, however, and he continued working with a Gulfport, MS, outfit called Pee Wee Mills & the Twilight Cowboys. At the age of 21, he put together his own Western swing band and worked the area around the Georgia-Florida border. The band was good enough to earn a living of sorts, and in June of 1952, they entered a contest in Atlanta and ended up catching the ear of a local RCA Victor executive, who brought them to the attention of Steve Sholes, the head of A&R for the label's country division. They were signed that summer and had their first recording session in the fall of 1952, which focused principally on ballads. By 1953, however, Gordon was recording a few swinging, harder numbers such as "Rompin' & Stompin'," interspersed between the ballads and novelty tunes. His sound was a unique amalgam of styles like honky tonk and Western swing -- equal parts Hank Thompson and Ernest Tubb -- all grafted to a freer, looser, more vibrant singing style, a decade more youthful than Tubb's style. Gordon got steady work touring the Grand Ole Opry, playing support to Ernest Tubb or Hank Snow, and he was making a living, if not setting the world on fire. His RCA sides sold just well enough to keep him with the label for two full years, generating new records every few months, but music was changing around Gordon and Sholes faster than either could keep up with it, and none of his country-style singles generated enough interest or sales to chart. Gordon's potential seemed solid enough, however, that immediately upon parting company with RCA Victor, he was signed up by Mercury Records. Gordon's Mercury recordings were very different from his RCA sides, principally because the label let him cut a large number of originals, and because his Mercury contract coincided with rock & roll's rise to national prominence -- the latter event was heralded, ironically enough, by a subsequent Steve Sholes signing to RCA, one Elvis Presley, with whom Gordon had shared the bill several times while playing shows in the south during 1954 and 1955. Gordon's March 1956 sessions showed just how much the excitement surrounding Presley in the South, even before he'd broken nationally, had opened the way for him. Those recording dates, and the ones that followed in December of that year and October of 1957, showed Gordon plunging into the new music with total abandon and astonishing results. His country ballads were good enough, well-written, and performed with passion, and in another reality he might've been a serious rival to Lefty Frizzell. But when he turned to what they used to call "rhythm numbers," Gordon was spellbinding -- his youthful, exciting and engaging singing style, and the tightness of his band's playing all combined to generate brilliant records that seemed to straddle the gap between rock & roll, Western swing, and country music, without treading on the essentials of any of them. He should have been huge, appealing across generational lines to country listeners and their children and to the Ernest Tubb crowd, and to the kids listening to Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.
Alas, he never charted a record, despite a lot of tries working with producer Pappy Daily and some of the best session musicians in the business working behind him and his band. A stint in the Army (during which he crossed paths with a young would-be singer/songwriter named Roger Miller, whom he later helped get a contract) probably didn't help, but more broadly, Gordon never managed to be in the right place with the right record at the right moment. Gordon made a decent living playing locally in Mobile, where he had a solid and very loyal audience and where he also owned a very popular club. He also toured occasionally around the Southern and border states. His last long-term recording contract was with Dollie Records in the late '50s, but he never stopped performing and he made a good living, even if he didn't get rich doing it. Gordon saw some of his songs do well, particularly "I've Aged Twenty Years in Five," which was recorded by George Jones. He was concentrating mainly on running his successful dance club in Georgia, but resumed performing in the '80s largely as a result of his discovery of new demand out of Europe for his classic songs, where rockabilly music had acquired a large and fiercely devoted audience. He remains a revered figure in rockabilly as one of its great elder statesmen, and his music still appeals just as easily to fans of honky tonk and Western swing. ~ Bruce Eder