Jess Roden: Sad Story

Updated: May 6

Neil Morton


It did not take this year’s Record Store Day to remind me I had a half-decent vinyl collection, bookended by the early Sixties and late Eighties. It took two other earlier digs in the ribs. I had received a new deck, amp and speakers for my last birthday – the old one was as extinct as the Parrot Sketch and overtaken by laziness and digital convenience – and so I teased myself with what might be my first choice of yesteryear album.

Would it be the trusted Bob Dylan or Ry Cooder, the revered Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell or Bonnie Raitt, or a beloved band such as The Beatles, Little Feat or The Band. Then Richard Williams’ essential blog The Blue Moment dropped into my inbox to persuade me to revisit the curiously neglected catalogue (not just in my household) of Jess Roden.

My favourite of the six albums he issued as either a solo artist or as The Jess Roden Band (seven if you include Live At The BBC, released as an afterthought in 1993) was his eponymously named first in 1974. It featured most of his own writing, and the song I returned to again and again was Sad Story, a funky tale of a world in turmoil and the need for change. The story doesn’t change, that’s for sure.

The title could be viewed as a metaphor for his own career, which many regarded as unfulfilled. Richard's piece recalled his meeting the amiable Roden again (he had known him while working for Island Records in the 60s and 70s) as the now retired graphic artist was promoting a six-CD, 94-track retrospective, Hidden Masters: The Jess Roden Anthology.

As Richard wrote, Roden probably lacked the keen ambition possessed by his Island contemporary Robert Palmer: ‘Robert really wanted to be a star; Jess wasn’t the sort to really push himself or to finesse his own career.’ A pity, really, as I always preferred Roden’s voice to Palmer’s. Roden should really have enjoyed the longevity of the remarkable Paul Rodgers; he was that good.

It did not help that he struggled for the hits that were so important those days, although Blowin’ from his excellent Keep Your Hat On album (just listen to his phrasing on the line 'Can't foresee no problem that would ever bother you or me') still sounds as breezily attractive now, Jump Mama and Reason To Change have strut and drive, and the gorgeous Feelin’ Easy might have won Eurovision in Portuguese care.

The key to the appeal of Roden’s debut offering, apart from his distinctive soul-infused voice which could swoop from smoky growl to sweet falsetto, was the collaboration with the New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. The pianist trades frills with Meters man Art Neville on keyboard, and the New Orleans Horns blow their glorious syncopated responses. In Sad Story’s jamming fade, there is terrific jazz-rock guitar by Steve Webb, a writing associate of Roden along with bassist John Cartwright.

The impassioned singer is clinging to hope for the world in the chorus…

Oh I know that it’s dreamin’ but I’d like to think

That we could all talk and share a drink

But pessimism is the overriding factor…

Here we are, back in deep water,

And we just can’t decide

Should we swim should we ride to the shore

As the horns heighten the clarion call for action, Roden repeats his warning: ‘How our world must be saved from a future so grave, it’s appalling.’

The Kidderminster-born Roden was more of a Midlands than Northern soul man, enjoying impressive spells with the influential Alan Bown Set, Bronco and The Butts Band. During a solo career that did not flourish as spectacularly as it should have, he recorded in the Big Apple as well as the Big Easy. The difficult days would come later.

His time with Toussaint and exalted company at the Sea-Saint studio on Clematis Avenue made a deep impression with its ‘heady creative environment that embodied a whole new sound – as much as Stax and Motown’. The British musician describes the writing process at jessroden.com: ‘I sat with Allen and played him my songs on acoustic guitar. I’d go chunka chunka, strum strum… and he’d disappear into his room, and a couple of hours later off we went. He wrote the bass lines, the horn parts but I can’t remember if it he actually wrote charts or it was just the keys written down. It was as much instinctive playing as anything.

‘With the Meters there were never more than two or three takes. It just shows the remarkable ability of those guys. After a week, all the tracks had been recorded. I can’t speak for them on what they got out of playing with me, but I know I got a lot out of working with them.’

Roden’s subtly stirring voice undoubtedly left its mark on them. His version of the Leiber and Stoller classic On Broadway remains the finest I have heard, and his take on Randy Newman’s burlesque You Can Leave Your Hat On is nearly as memorable. His own Stay In Bed and The Temptations’ Can’t Get Next To You from Play It Dirty, Play It Class are further testimony to his singing power and finesse as frontman to a great live band. There are hints of Hall & Oates at times, and Kokomo too, but here was a singular talent blending and bending the genres of soul, jazz, funk, rock, blues, country, folk – perhaps the crossovers were too liberal.

This rekindled affair with vinyl may prove short-lived – the musician Aidan Moffat describes the old flame wonderfully in the Guardian here – but it was soothing for these veteran eyes to be able to linger over the lyrics and liner notes. A digibook is not as tactile.

Back to Jess Roden. His long fight with the fickleness of fame – 'trying to gel with this life of mine' – is best articulated by the album's final track, What The Hell, with its exasperated, almost imploring tone...

I've been trying' for so long

Just to sing this dog-gone song

So if the notes don't ring too clear

Well then I hope you hear

Many of us were listening and still are. While it may be a sad story that wider recognition was not forthcoming, there should be no regrets on his part. That Hidden Masters treasury charts a journey of enduring achievement – with no end of gratitude on our part.

#JessRoden #SadStory #AllenToussaint #NeilMorton #IslandRecords

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