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Some guys (don’t) have all the luck

Jess Roden 2No one could understand why Jess Roden didn’t make it, why a man with so fine and distinctive a voice never managed to ascend to the level of fame enjoyed by other British blue-eyed soul singers of the 1960s and 70s. He had the sound and the looks, he wrote some fine songs, for a while he led a terrific little band, and he had fans in the music press and the backing of one of the most perceptive men in the record industry. What he didn’t have, perhaps, was the musical equivalent of what Graham Greene described as “the splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”: a knowledge of when to allow enthusiasm to take second place to the ambition that propelled many of his contemporaries and friends to the top.

I was reminded of that last week when we had tea together in a London hotel just across the road from the BBC’s Broadcasting House. We had met only once in almost 40 years — at Jim Capaldi’s funeral in 2005 — but it was like encountering a friend you’d seen the day before. Jess is one of the nicest men you could hope to meet. Which may, of course, have been part of the problem.

He had just been interviewed by Robert Elms for Radio London, and as we said goodbye he was off to have a chat with Bob Harris on Radio 2. This is the first time he has been visible in the music world since leaving it in the early 1980s, after concluding that it was time to stop bashing his head against a glass ceiling and look for something else to do (a little more on that subject later). The interviews had been arranged to promote a limited-edition six-CD set titled Hidden Masters: The Jess Roden Anthology, pieced together with remarkable care and attention over a period of several years by Neil Storey, a former colleague at Island Records, the label with which Jess spent the majority of his career. Consisting of 94 tracks, about half of them previously unreleased, compiled from the original multitracks or master copies and restored where necessary, the set takes us from his early days with Alan Bown through Bronco and the Butts Band to his solo career in the mid-70s and up to the later work with such short-lived projects as the Rivits and Seven Windows.

I first saw Jess at the Beachcomber Club in Nottingham. The year was, I think, 1966. He was the singer with the Alan Bown Set, having joined them after serving an apprenticeship with the Raiders and the Shakedown Sound, two bands in his native Kidderminster in the West Midlands. The Alan Bown Set were a soul band with horns and a Hammond organ, and I remember being particularly struck that night by the young singer’s convincing delivery of the Impressions’s “I Need You”, which happened to be one of my favourite Curtis Mayfield songs.

Soul music was falling out of fashion, however, and by the start of the next decade Jess had been signed to Island by Chris Blackwell and was singing with Bronco, a four-piece band consisting of hometown mates who were listening to the new country-influenced sounds coming from across the Atlantic. Bronco never had the right producer to focus their sound, or the right song to get them on the radio, but the eight tracks included in this box demonstrate their worth.

Then came the solo albums, starting in 1973, at just about exactly the same time that Robert Palmer, who had replaced him in Alan Bown’s line-up, left Vinegar Joe — another Island band — and embarked on his own solo career with the label. High hopes surrounded both of them (they were adored inside the company, where everyone from the van driver to the managing director loved their music), and they were given similar facilities: unlimited studio time in London, New Orleans, New York, Nassau or (in Robert’s case) Los Angeles with the best musicians and arrangers available. Both men, for example, recorded in New Orleans with the Meters and Allen Toussaint.

If there was a difference, apart from just over a year in age, it was that Robert really wanted to be a star. Jess wanted people to hear his music, of course, but he wasn’t the sort to really push himself or to finesse his own career. It didn’t stop him making a quantity of music that, as well as being fondly remembered, sounds terrific today. Lend an ear to an epic song recorded for his first solo album, originally called “I’m On Your Side” and now released, in a slightly different version, under the title “For Granted”: I’ve been a regular listener to the groove created by Mick Weaver’s clavinet and Richard Bailey’s crackling drums for 40 years, and it hasn’t worn out its welcome. Or the driving “Reason to Change”, cut with Toussaint and his boys and included in that debut LP. Or the elegant version of Tim Hardin’s “Misty Roses” cut in New York in 1977 for the album titled The Player Not The Game, arranged by Leon Pendarvis and produced by Joel Dorn.

There are surprises all over these CDs, some of them unearthed from unlabelled tape boxes that had lain undisturbed in obscure vaults for decades. But the heart of the anthology comes in the many tracks recorded, in clubs and concert halls as well as in the studio, by the Jess Roden Band, a seven-piece outfit (eight-piece when Billy Livesey guested on keyboards) which was in operation from 1974 to 1976 and could play that funky music as well as any white boys in the UK at the time, even the marvellous Kokomo. Steve Webb, one of the JRB’s two guitarists, and John Cartwright, the bass player, were both useful songwriters, and original compositions were mixed with occasional covers of things like Robert Parker’s “Get Ta Steppin'”, Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You”, all of which are included on Hidden Masters. They were a much loved live attraction, as can be heard here in recordings from Birmingham Town Hall, Leicester University, the Lyceum and the Marquee.

Robert Palmer had hits — “Johnny and Mary”, “Some Guys Have All the Luck”, and so on — but Jess didn’t; he was living in New York and struggling to complete another album when Blackwell finally pulled the plug. There was no rancour on either side. The decision to begin the process of changing his profession led Jess to evening classes in graphic design and a new career which he pursued successfully in West London until his recent retirement and move to the country. Today there are no signs of regret that, despite all those favourable signs, the highest hopes remained unfulfilled. He can look back at the music he made with affection and pride, and so, now, can we.

* The photograph is from the cover of Hidden Masters: The Jess Roden Anthology (www.hiddenmasters.net). The photographer is unknown. An extensive survey of Jess’s career can be found at http://www.jessroden.com.

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24 Comments Post a comment
  1. A wonderful piece, Richard.

    June 3, 2013
  2. Interesting comparison with Robert Palmer, I hadn’t realised that they had so much in common, or that Roden had recorded with The Meters. He was certainly a great live vocalist, either with Bronco or his own band. The one time I saw the Butts band, I remember it being a rather cantankerous gig, and rather a weird atmosphere on stage. The british pub and bar scene of the time had some great voices. Remember Willie Finlayson of Meal Ticket and Bees Make Honey?

    June 3, 2013
    • Robert and Jess recorded together several times, including the ‘Lancashire Hustler’ album by Keef Hartley …a little jealous of you seeing Butts Band live Martin! 🙂

      June 3, 2013
    • One thing Jess told me, which I didn’t put in the blog, was that at one point Robert invited him to go on tour, as a kind of Sam and Dave duo. He was tempted, but decided not to. I asked him if they’d decided which of them would rush across the stage and leap into the arms of the other as, Messrs Moore and Prater used to do… he said they hadn’t got that far.

      June 3, 2013
  3. Brian French #

    Brilliant crit
    Brian French
    aka Frenchy

    June 3, 2013
  4. neilmorton #

    Very informative piece about a treasured talent. Made me dig out the old vinyl of the Jess Roden Band’s You Can Leave Your Hat On; the title track is still the best recorded version of the Newman song. I was surprised to discover I had three more LPs of his, so my own retrospective is in progress – what a soulful voice, so refreshing after all the mannered styles since. A shame we didn’t hear more of it but still grateful for the offerings. Thanks for the memory jog, Richard. Cheers, Neil Morton

    June 3, 2013
    • Thanks, Neil. It sounds to me like you need to spend more time with your record collection…

      June 3, 2013
  5. Richard Roberts #

    So glad somebody has devoted time to Jess Roden. Could you possibly do the same for Kokomo, Steve Gibbons and there was a singer called Graham Bell ….. in fact, maybe I could send you a list of acts that should have made it and didn’t.

    June 3, 2013
    • You could try! I’m definitely going to write something about Kokomo, as soon as I’ve been to see Tony O’Malley at one of his regular 606 Club gigs and dug out the cassette from (I think) 1975 containing their live version of “I Can Understand It” from the Hope & Anchor…

      June 3, 2013
      • I remember going up to see Kokomo in Glasgow around ’75 I think…’Rise n Shine’ had just come out. What a superb band. In response to your ‘Sam&Dave’ anecdote…my word, to imagine Robert and Jess doing a show like that……that’s proper vocalist 101.

        June 3, 2013
  6. Niall Brannigan #

    Well done, Richard. This project is very close to my heart and it needs shouting about. Neil Storey has done a wonderful job putting it together. In all of the reviews (all favourable) I’ve seen no one has mentioned the fantastic job they have done of cleaning up some of the old tracks. Richard Bailey’s drums sound fantastic, The JRB live tracks sound like the band are in my front room and even the Bronco tracks sound so much better than the originals. I urge anyone that loves great 70’s music to buy this collection. It is truly one of the best, most rewarding albums I’ve heard in a long time.

    June 3, 2013
    • Niall – well said. In an era where ‘cash-in’ seems to be the buzzword, and hastily rehashed compilations are seemingly thrown together to fleece the fans, it must be made clear that this project stands head and shoulders above such things. It is a feast for the completist, the audiophile, compiled and restored with the care and attention to fine detail that we can normally only dream about. We can rejoice that Hidden Masters exists, for with its existence comes the promise of more to come. Are you listening majors? This is how to treat your artists and their back catalogues.

      June 4, 2013
  7. Dick Atkinson #

    Lovely piece, RW. Moreover, this is a great boxed set. A wonderful job by Jess, Neil & Jayne.
    Heartily recommended to all.

    June 3, 2013
  8. Bruce C #

    Great to see Jess getting more exposure….enjoyed the Radio London interview and hope to get to hear the Bob Harris R2 piece….seems like JR is just too nice for the music business!

    June 4, 2013
  9. Paul Tickell #

    Like Richard Roberts this article for some reason got me thinking about Graham Bell (Heavy Jelly, Bell and Arc etc) but also about Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth who like Roden were on Island.

    June 4, 2013
  10. stewart gunn #

    another fine piece to add to the ‘Roden revival rumble’ which seems to be underway

    also echo the comments re Kokomo – Tony O’Malley is gigging around, would love to see him get more exposure

    the groove merchants in O’Malley’s & Hamish Stuart Band are second to none

    June 4, 2013
    • Phil Shaw #

      Kokomo (and Arrival), of course, contained another underrated singer, Dyan Birch.

      June 4, 2013
  11. Paul Tickell #

    Arrival’s ‘Friends’ was a great single.

    June 4, 2013
  12. Phil Shaw #

    As so often happens after Richard’s pieces, I found myself rooting out albums and singles and reappraising them in the light of what I’d read.

    I first became aware of Jess Roden when he fronted the Alan Bown Set, who were huge (don’t laugh) in Stoke-on-Trent where I spent my teenage years. They could pack out The Golden Torch or The Place and were so popular they managed to carry a lot of the ‘mod’ audience with them after forsaking soul for pysch-pop in 1968.

    What was striking then in the soul days was how they struggled to translate the ‘live’ sound (check out the album London Swings: Live At The Marquee which they shared with Jimmy James & The Vagabonds) to their studio recordings, which sounded flat and anti-climactic. Jess could rival Steve Marriott on his day but it didn’t come across on vinyl.

    The psych stuff had great moments – a version of Nirvana’s We Can Help You which I can’t get out of my head after playing it today, and what’s claimed to be the first cover of All Along The Watchtower, – but also twee tosh about how the “teddy bears have got the scene sewn up, their life is all honey and buttercups” on Toyland.

    I read that We Can Help You made the Top 30 only for the pressing plant to go on strike and sales to lose momentum. I have a similar tale to relate, having interviewed Jess and Pete Wood at Island for a feature in Time Out about The Rivits around 1979. Jess overlooked my gushing about The Alan Bown Set and gave me some good stuff. It never appeared, because of another strike I recall. Belated apologies to him, and to Neil Storey (who set it up) for that!

    One final thing. First time I saw Jess with Alan Bown was in a marquee on a hot summer night in a farmers’ field alongside Keele University. If there’d been a roof they would’ve raised it. I drove past there last week and there’s a hall of residence now. Thankfully, Jess’ great music rolls on.

    June 4, 2013
  13. Robin Bryson #

    Lovely piece Richard – the Jess box set is on order and due for delivery tomorrow!

    As others have said Kokomo were a delight to see. I saw them at Watford Town Hall (which is actually even less glamorous than it sounds) on the Naughty Rhythms tour with Chilli Willi and Dr. Feelgood, on a night where the audience didn’t really give their subtle and sophisticated sound the hearing they should have. Or maybe they did, as my main recollection is of being more than slightly transfixed by Ms Birch…!

    June 6, 2013
  14. Brian #

    Totally agree about the greatness of Jess and that Kokomo rendition introduced me to the breadth of Bobby Womack. Richard, any thoughts and insights in to Bryn Haworth, another forgotten talent.

    August 25, 2013
  15. Nicolas Martin #

    Jess was brilliant, and most of his music has lost none of its freshness and vitality. All of his CDs should be available, at least for download.

    March 6, 2014
  16. stewart gunn #

    Kokomo will be gigging this summer – Richard, please spread the word. Too much to hope that Jess will follow…….?

    March 7, 2014

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