No 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.