I Died Today: The Music of Rodd Keith
It was 1966 and I was just a little kid in Lansing, Michigan, with two years of accordion lessons under my belt and no understanding of the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll or the horrors of war. One of my favorite songs on the radio was “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, who sang in a quavering tenor to a stately parade-snare rhythm about the glory
of killing Vietnamese. In my childishness I thrilled to the stirring refrain as trombones rose golden like the sun upon a sea of heroic baritones: “Silver wings upon your chest / You are one of America’s best” and so on. It went to number one on the charts, and every time I heard it I felt like marching around the house.
One Sunday afternoon my father’s friend Mr. Aquino showed up at our door with a man he wanted my dad to meet and a box containing several dozen copies of a 45-rpm single. I sat in a corner of the living room watching as they took over our phonograph. The song, “I’m Going to Vietnam,” was an obvious imitation of Sadler’s record, but lacked the stirring refrain, the big trombones, and the heroic baritones. It sounded some like some guy singing in front of a wedding band, with a trumpet player trying hard to sound military.
I’m going to Vietnam
I’m going to fight
To try to free the land
From the Red Blight
‘Cause freedom is the goal
Of all mankind
It gives us hope
And peace of mind
Mr. Aquino and his friend watched anxiously for my father’s reaction. They knew he owned a bar with a jukebox, and that many of his regulars–workers from Oldsmobile, Diamond Reo, and Fisher Body–were veterans of World War II and Korea who tended to be very patriotic and might just go for another soldier song. But although this singer had a nice voice, he didn’t sound like much of a soldier. I could tell my father wasn’t impressed, but his years behind the bar had taught him much about tact. He grinned broadly and said, “What’s on the other side?”
Mr. Aquino and his friend smiled back and invited him to give the b side a twirl. It was completely different, a bouncy, catchy rocker with a combo organ. Now the singer was crooning some nonsense about ukuleles, palm trees, and hanging out on the beach with a beautiful girl. I liked this a lot better. But my father was scowling, probably because this was just more of that same rock ‘n’ roll crap he had to listen to pounding on his jukebox all day. Finally he got up and lifted the needle from the record, cutting the singer off mid-phrase. He turned to our visitors and smiled again. “The usual junk,” he said.
They fell over each other to agree with him, but they were nonetheless very excited about “I’m Going to Vietnam” and said they hoped he would give it a chance on his jukebox. My father said something pleasant but noncommittal, and steered the conversation to other matters. After the men left, he shoved their record into a drawer and we forgot about it.
It stayed there for several years, until I reached adolescence and became obsessed with rock music. Some of my junior-high classmates already owned impressively tall stacks of 45s and I longed to catch up. Figuring every decent single I could grab would help my cause, I dug out the long-neglected record and examined it. The b side I had liked was called “Island of Love.”
There’s a place where the sun and wind
Love to play all through the day
You can see the palm trees sway
And hear the ukuleles play
The song about a lovely girl
Who loves you more each day
You hear her whisper “Please don’t go,
Oh please don’t go away”
The white sand is your bed
The stars are the roof over your head
You share love so rare
With a beautiful girl that you met there
So all of your life you vow
By the stars that shine above
That you will always stay with her
And never leave your Island of Love
Those silly words, that inconsistent rhyme scheme–how rinky-dink. And that singer, identified as Rodd Keith, still sounded a little out of place, like a lounge crooner ordered against his will to make a rock ‘n’ roll record. I’d never heard of him or the songwriter, Louis D. Wisner, but decided anyway that “Island of Love” would be a plausible addition to my collection. So in it went, bringing the total of discs in my stack to three.
At first none of my seventh-grade friends were impressed with “Island of Love” since they’d neither heard it on the radio nor seen it in a store. But in time some of them grew to like it, and owning the record brought me a certain small distinction within my circle. Anybody who wanted to hear “Island of Love” had to see me.
The record traveled with me to college, where it spent the disco years sleeping in its paper sleeve. But in my senior year I fell in with a crowd of punk/new-wave musicians who loved to go sifting through used-record bins for forgotten 60s singles to cover–the more obscure the better. I was in a band too, and one day it occurred to me that I had a record that was more obscure than anything. So I dug out “Island of Love” and played it for Mike, our lead guitarist.
“Nice bridge,” he mumbled. “It’s weird though.”
“That’s why I like it!” I gushed.
“Cheesy singer,” said Mike.
“Yeah, sort of Elvis meets Paul Anka, don’tcha think?”
Mike’s eyes followed the spinning turntable. “Who’s Rodd Keith?”
“Hell if I know. This might be the only record he ever cut.” I told him the story.
“What’s the other side sound like?” he asked.
“Give it a spin.”
Mike listened to the first 20 seconds of “I’m Going to Vietnam” with a pained grimace. Then he lifted the tone arm, cutting off the singer in mid-phrase.
We never did cover “Island of Love.” But the record has remained in my stack to this day. I occasionally throw it on the box in the morning to give myself a lift. It’s a good song to shave to, and I’m not the least bit annoyed by its 30-year patina of surface noise. One morning not so long ago, as Rodd Keith sang for the 1,000th time about his beautiful island girl, I scraped at my stubborn chin stubble and wondered again: Who is Rodd Keith, and where did this disc come from? Now there was no one to ask–Mr. Aquino had passed away years earlier and my father no longer remembered anything about it.
One evening soon after that when I was dinking around with my computer, I posted on the Reader’s Web site an inquiry concerning the current whereabouts of some long-forgotten acts: Patty Waters, Fever Tree, Belfegore, the Pointed Sticks. As an afterthought I added Rodd Keith to the list. A few days later came the reply: “Rodd Keith is found!”
This message was from Ellery Eskelin, a noted New York-based tenor saxophonist and composer who brought his trio to the Empty Bottle in May. He urged all readers to check out a couple of Web addresses to which he provided links. In one of them, American Song-Poem Music Archives, was a Rodd Keith discography that to my amazement went on for pages. There I found the story behind my 45, and it was stranger than I’d imagined.
“Song-poem music” is a collectors’ term for records produced by “custom labels,” mail-order outfits that used to take out tiny back-of-magazine ads that typically read: “SONG POEMS NEEDED. Record producers urgently need lyrics and poems to be set to music. Send us your poems for free appraisal!” Hopeful amateurs answering the ad would quickly receive a letter raving about their lyrics’ commercial potential and offering–for a fee–to set them to music and promote the records to radio stations across the country. Any “song poet” naive enough to send money would receive a small box of 45s and promptly be forgotten by the label.
In the 60s and 70s these labels employed hundreds of clock-punching studio musicians who hacked and improvised their way through 30 to 50 songs a day with no rehearsals and no retakes. One of the clock punchers was keyboardist-singer Rodney Keith Eskelin–Ellery’s father–who recorded under such determinedly nondescript names as Rodd Keith, Rod Rogers, and Gene Marshall. People who worked with him say he was a naturally gifted musician who throve on pressure; he could slap together quirky, memorable pop tunes in minutes. Though he viewed the gig as a form of prostitution, he strove to make the best music he could under the circumstances. No one knows exactly how many records he cut, but there may be thousands–few of which were ever pressed in quantities of more than a few hundred.
In recent years, song-poem records have captured the attention of collectors, who mostly agree that Rodd Keith was the premier talent of the genre and hunt for his discs at yard sales and thrift stores. One of these connoisseurs is NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, who included several Rodd Keith and Rod Rogers sides on The Makers of Smooth Music, which he compiled for Byron Coley’s Carnage Press label in 1995. This CD must be heard to be believed; it features competent singers belting cringe-inducing lyrics with complete conviction, backed by musicians who never sound entirely sure how the song will end. The Keith/Rogers tracks are clear standouts, with ingeniously crafted arrangements that rise to transcendent levels of weirdness.
Rodney Keith Eskelin began his career as a child, in a gospel-singing family that toured the midwest revival circuit in the 1940s. Later he settled in Baltimore, where he took a job as a church organist, but the worshipers disapproved of his habit of pouring harmonically sophisticated jazz improvisation over the homely ham and eggs of the Protestant hymnal. So Rodd and his new wife, Bobbie, set out as an itinerant keyboard duo, briefly holding down a TV gig in Wichita before finally settling in Los Angeles. But work was hard to find in LA, and Rodd began to show signs of manic depression. His behavior soon sent Bobbie fleeing back to Baltimore with 18-month-old Ellery in her arms.
Newly divorced, Rodd turned to the song-poem industry as a way to pay the rent, and proceeded to nurture a newfound interest in LSD. Acid only exaggerated his mood swings; he ricocheted between periods of lethargy and sleepless jags of productivity in the studio. People who knew him insist today that he remained a remarkably charming, likable person even as his life spiraled completely out of control–but no one knows whether he was on a manic high or a suicidal low when, in 1974 at the age of 37, he fell from an LA freeway overpass and was torn to pieces by the speeding cars.
Ellery grew up in Baltimore hearing stories of his father’s musicality and eccentricity, and naturally became eager to reestablish contact with the man from whom he’d inherited an adventurous artistic personality. But just as he was preparing to make the cross-country trek, he received news of his father’s death. “The older I get the more acutely I feel this loss,” he has written in an essay posted on his Web site. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
When I found the Rodd Keith discography on the Web I scrolled several times from the beginning to the end and back, but guess what–no “Island of Love” or “I’m Going to Vietnam.” So I sent Ellery an E-mail explaining that I owned a record by his father that he probably didn’t know about. The next day I found not one but three excited replies from Ellery, one of which very politely inquired whether I might dub him a cassette copy. Of course I immediately did so, and in return he sent me a copy of I Died Today: The Music of Rodd Keith, a CD he recently compiled for John Zorn’s Tzadik label from a box of his father’s records given to him by his uncle.
The first thing I noticed about I Died Today was the slapdash, obviously rushed nature of the recordings and the bewildering jumble of musical styles. The arrangements careen between country, rock, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley, often mixing the genres into odd hybrids. The song-poem business gave Rodd a considerable degree of creative freedom, time pressure notwithstanding. Since customers presumably would be thrilled with whatever they got as long as it was pressed into a legitimate-looking record, Rodd had the license to mess around–and he used it to roam the entire range of 20th-century American popular music styles.
Some tracks have big horn sections and vocal groups, some only a keyboard trio, and a few feature Rodd alone at the chamberlain, a crude, unwieldly early version of the Mellotron that allowed him to mimic the sounds of an entire orchestra. But almost every track contains its share of interesting musical accidents; to say wrong notes abound on this CD would be an understatement.
Then there are the lyrics. Consider “The Hump Dance,” whose tortuous rhymes only seem more forced against the tightly arranged jingle that accompanies them:
Turn around nice and move your feet
Treat your date nice and be so sweet
Hump to a stance
That’s the Hump Dance
It’s crazy man and way way out
Ask Susie Ann if you have doubt
Look at her squirm
And you will learn
In a few cases, the words are less funny than sad–as in “T.V. Love,” a romantic country ballad whose author doesn’t appear to realize how much she’s revealing about herself:
Oh T.V. love is very sweet
Right on the screen is where we meet
And you’re my favorite T.V. star
Oh precious darling that you are
Oh T.V. love is good as gold
It’s the sweetest story told
But how I wish it all were true
And I could always be with you
Most of this stuff is good for an embarrassed laugh or two, but after a week of listening, I realized that some of the tracks are really quite nice. Neither “Don’t Throw My Love Away” nor “I Dreamed Too Long Woke Up Too Late” would sound terribly out of place on any 60s pop anthology; both sound like they might have had a chance on the charts if recorded with a little more care. On “The Flitting Firefly,” the ensemble jams a relaxed, swinging groove while Rodd sings the lyrics off the sheet between eloquent jabs at his Hammond B3 organ. “Cloud Nine” shows off his formidable harmonic skills, filtering Stan Kenton/Four Freshmen-type intervals into an R & B-based vocal-group arrangement to achieve an eerie texture reminiscent of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You.” And on “In the Stillness of the Night,” he caresses a set of halfway decent lyrics deftly enough to achieve a surprising moment of yearning melancholy:
In the stillness of the night
You came back to haunt my dreams
I wake up in despair
And find that you’re not there
In the stillness of the night
It’s tracks like these that really pose the question of why Rodd Keith wasn’t more successful in the conventional music business. His former wife, Bobbie, has said that his best work went undocumented; given the stories of his lightning facility in the studio, I wonder what kind of records he could have made under more advantageous conditions. It would be a mistake to assume too much, since someone with Rodd’s mercurial temperament may have needed the structure and built-in pressure of the song-poem industry to create anything at all. Even so, the conventional music business has long provided a haven for talented eccentrics, and I can’t help thinking it should have had room for Rodd Keith too.