Taking on the British Invasion
Fifty years ago this month, Bobby Comstock’s version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was trying and failing to make it into the US and UK charts. It’s interesting to me not just as a favourite record from an almost freakishly fruitful year but as an example of one response to the British Invasion: an American artist copying a British approach to an American idiom.
Born in 1941 in Ithaca, New York, Bobby Comstock is a singer and guitarist who nibbled at the fringe of the Top 50 in 1958 with a lightly rocked-up treatment of “Tennessee Waltz”. It was released on the Triumph label, started by Herb Abramson after his departure from Atlantic Records, and since the 17-year-old Comstock’s early patrons also included Alan Freed and Dick Clark, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t do better. Five years later, having fallen in with the successful publisher Wes Farrell and the songwriting/production team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richie Gottehrer, he released “Let’s Stomp” on the Lawn label. Despite climbing no higher than No 57, it became a party favourite and was widely covered over the years. Thanks to his association with Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer, he also played guitar on the Angels’ wonderful “My Boyfriend’s Back”, a girl-group classic.
“I’m a Man” is something very different and vastly superior: a raw blue-eyed R&B record with a crunching guitar/bass/drum riff, sinister organ, and lashings of echo on Comstock’s very impressive vocal. I don’t know who plays the eight bars of jagged guitar solo — probably Bobby himself — but it’s as impressive as anything Jimmy Page produced in his days as a teenaged session man over on the other side of the Atlantic.
Comstock grew up in the middle of the doo-wop era, and his earliest heroes included Chuck Berry, but I’d guess that “I’m a Man” sounds the way it does because in the summer of 1964 he and his band, the Counts, had supported the Rolling Stones on a handful of East Coast dates, finishing at Carnegie Hall. As he watched the chart-storming English longhairs delivering their interpretations of hard-core R&B songs to audiences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylania and Harrisburg, West Virginia as well as on Seventh Avenue in New York City, he must have felt he’d been given a licence to try it himself.
The single came out on Ascot Records in the US and United Artists in the UK; the copy I bought back then is pictured above. I had a Saturday job in a record shop at the time, and I guess that’s how I first heard it, while checking out the new releases. It certainly didn’t get much, if any, radio play.
Comstock had no more hits but made a good living for the rest of his career as a performer and backing musician — to artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — on the rock and roll revival shows promoted by Dick Clark and Richard Nader. He’s now living in retirement in Southern California, leaving the rest of us to carry on listening to “I’m a Man”, a highlight of his 24th year.