ROBERT GORDON, LINK WRAY AND ME - 1977
"When he showed me the new album I asked Robert, "Where on earth did you find that curtain?!" He replied, "Are you kidding??? I sewed every one of those on there myself!"
(He had been running a leather shop in DC before he'd moved to NYC and joined Tuff Darts)
(My career was) Red Hot
by Charlie Messing
© 2023, all rights reserved
This is the closest I came to making it in the big time.
Back in 1977, my bandmate Paul Presti came to me with news. I guess he knew somebody who knew somebody - he got wind of an interesting project. Robert Gordon, known in NYC as the vocalist in Tuff Darts, one of the best-liked punk bands, was starting a solo career as a rockabilly singer, and he needed to assemble a band for an album and tour. Paul was trying out. Paul invited me to do likewise, the idea being that he'd play lead guitar and I'd play rhythm, the way we did in the Unholy Modal Rounders [ED NOTE: Holy Modal Rounders off-shoot]. At that point, the Rounders were just scraping by, so we were open to new things. I had liked rockabilly since 1956, so I went along.
We went down to a rehearsal studio which was way more plush than the ones we usually saw. It actually had a sound man behind a glass window handling the PA full time. Whoa. There was a drummer and bass player there, guys we didn't know who were also trying out. We all got set up and tuned and waited for Robert.
Robert arrived, dapper and confident. He had a 1950's haircut which enjoyed frequent combing. He was serious about becoming a star. He came in, took out some charts and lists, gave a few tips to the sound man, and soon we were playing rockabilly. He was a real good singer. Paul, being self-assertive, started getting into his lead guitar work. Robert gave pointers once in "Mystery Train" and "Baby Let's Play House." Different people tried out on bass or drums and sometimes, the soundman would play a clip from the original record, to keep us on track He showed us feisty old tunes like "Bopping the Blues," with rotating cast on drums and guitars. A few on each, if I remember right. When Robert decided to call it a night, some people were called back for the next day, some not. Paul and I were among those asked to return.
After we started playing on the second day, Robert asked me to try some lead stuff. He must have liked what he heard, because he asked Paul to play rhythm. For the rest of the rehearsals, I was the lead guitarist. This had never happened before in my life. I was certainly no virtuoso. I just had a feel for that old stuff, which I loved. We rehearsed, and Robert got his voice in shape for the recording sessions which were coming up in three or four weeks.
As Robert's album sessions drew near, he told us that Link Wray, a legendary guitarist from Virginia, would be his co-star on the album. Robert knew him from long ago, since he was from Washington DC. He was quite excited about it. I was too, since I had always loved Link's great distortion-laden landmark hit instrumental "Rumble" in the early '60's.
The rhythm section, as it turned out, would be hired guns Howie Wyeth and Rob Stoner, NYC musicians who had been in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band. Robert asked me to keep coming in, to show Howie and Rob the songs with him. So with a shrug to Paul and the current rhythm section, I alone survived the cut and made it to the band that would do the album.
I started hanging out with Robert. I saw his apartment on the Upper West Side. It was nothing fancy but very clean, with linoleum on the floor and a metal bed. We went in for a brief visit - I guess we were stopping in on our way somewhere else. Maybe we were dropping some groceries off. As he took a can of tuna out of the bag, he said, "I live on this stuff."
Robert invited me along to visit friends. He asked me to play a tune, since there was a guitar there, and then he sang with me for his friends in their little apartment. That was something - I'd never before tried to arrive and play like a commando. I wasn't used to impressing people - I was a shy guy. But now I was out there playing for other people who played.
Richard Gottehrer, the producer, dropped in on our rehearsal sessions from time to time. He was the guy who'd signed Robert to Private Stock Records, and he was going to make him a star. He was an older curly haired guy with a bright expression and a lot of eagerness. He was looking forward to getting the album together. He gave us a hello, but did all his talking to Robert in private.
Howie and Rob came to a rehearsal, and we showed them the songs. They were quite professional and learned everything quickly. The music came together and in a few days, we were ready for Link. Link's plane was delayed, causing some suspense, but he finally arrived and came to rehearsal. He was a little skinny guy with an elaborate hairstyle and dark sunglasses. He had the most amazing way of playing - he'd been a rock and roll pioneer for twenty years by then. And he played deafeningly loud. We did one rehearsal with him so he'd know what keys we were in and what kinds of tempos we were after, but he was already in shape and eager to start recording.
The sessions were held at Plaza Sound, on top of Radio City Music Hall. It was a giant high-ceilinged room with a vocal booth at the far end and a control booth on the near end. We arrived everyday and got tracks down. Howie and Rob brought a friend of theirs, a guitar player named Billy Cross (Rob was in another band with Billy, named Topaz). Often Billy doubled a part. On a few songs, he and I had complimentary parts. That way, we didn't have to ask Link to play any background parts, so he could concentrate on leads. It all went pretty well - I had an old Gibson SG someone had lent me, and Billy had a Fender. I recall one song where our guitar parts didn't sound right, and Richard had us trade guitars. It worked - the part I was playing sounded way better on a Fender, and the other part sounded like a Gibson part. Richard knew his stuff.
I was there for seven out of ten songs on the album. Link had three songs he had written that didn't need other guitars, so he didn't request my presence on the day they did those tunes. I did one overdub - the rhythm part on "Bopping the Blues," the old Carl Perkins song. I did it in one take, so I was happy with myself. Also, we overdubbed some clapping and such. And of course, we all sang a rousing "Your gal ain't doodly squat." The sessions went well all around.
Link played through a big old Gibson amp about the size of a Fender Super Reverb. He'd replaced the speakers with heavy-duty ones that weighed 60 lb. each, so the amp was almost impossible to move. He set it with all the knobs on ten, and just used the guitar controls while playing. It was loud, yes indeedy.
"Red Hot" was the last song we found, and it became the hit single. We had decided not to use a few of the ones we'd been working on in rehearsal, so we needed another. Robert played us the record by Billy Lee Riley, and we listened. We went out in the studio and played the song a few times, and it sounded good. We recorded it. When I heard the final version of the song, when the record came out, I was surprised to find my part covered up by a piano, overdubbed later by Rob, playing the same thing. What can you do?
It seemed like most of the time was spent in the control booth listening to what had happened. Richard was enthusiastic, and Robert was very focused. He really wanted to be a star. The rest of us did everything that was asked. Whenever Robert or Richard made the slightest gesture, it was our job to catch it. The other guys were experienced hands and I was not, so I tried to stay focused on the parts, and on staying in the background.
Link was basically the star of the album. We were all in awe. We had heard him when we were still kids. He was a talented showoff, and this was a good gig for him because it was a chance for an old star to shine. Robert was, hopefully, the new star.
Robert could hardly wait to be respected in the industry, and he was just starting to get there. I hoped to cling to his coattails, but I wasn't sure what to do, since I'd spent so many years in bohemian obscurity. One day, I wore a really nice shirt I'd had for about ten years. It was light purple with an M.C. Escher pattern embroidered on the breast pocket by my wife. It was one of the few things I had left from the marriage. In the pause between takes of a song, with us all in position and wired with headphones and such, Robert complimented me, "Nice shirt." I said thanks. From the control booth, Richard chimed in, "You should give it to him." I smiled uncomfortably, and didn't know what to say. I wasn't parting with that shirt for anything. I've always wondered if that was the moment when they decided that, since I wouldn't give him the shirt off my back (or take a bullet for him either, obviously), that maybe in turn it wasn't so important to have me around.
At any rate, when it was time for Link to do his three songs at the end they didn't call me in. Of course, it might just have been Link's thing. I guess the other guys were there. Richard would say, "I'll call you tomorrow," and either he would or he wouldn't. That was the first time I realized that people said they'd call you as a way of saying "I have nothing more to say."
A week later, I called Richard for a check. I had to call more than once. Since no one had actually mentioned when we'd be paid, Billy had said he was sending Richard a bill. Since I'd never fashioned a bill or invoice, I just kept calling. When I finally got hold of Richard, he arranged to meet me in a bank, and I was there, and he scribbled the check and I had it. Over four hundred dollars, the most I'd had at one time for years, and with it, I got an apartment of my own. It was a milestone in my little life.
A month or two down the line, I was invited to do a live show with them. It was at Max's Kansas City, and the buzz was out and it was packed. We got together at sound check and ran through a few tunes - I had my Fender Vibrolux, Billy had a Fender Twin Reverb, and Link had his special customized amp (incidentally, a Twin is twice as loud as a Vibrolux). When it was almost time to play, Robert and I waited together in a stairwell, hidden in the middle of the crowd. It was like being in a foxhole - a good place for bonding.
We went on stage to thunderous cheers. Since Robert was our reason for being, we tried not to drown him out. With Link there, that was pretty hard. His guitar wanted to scream the whole time, but he'd dampen it between notes and cut the volume off between songs. I don't think I was heard, not a note, all night, not by anyone. I just played along anyway. The crowd loved it, though Robert wasn't entirely happy. He was a perfectionist, and he knew the sound wasn't right. When he was asked for an encore, we did "Flying Saucers," a hard rocking song at the top of Robert's range. When we started to play we found that Link had put us in the wrong key, one step up from where we usually played it. Or should I say from where Robert sang it. He was stretching for those notes.
When the set was over, Robert came over and said, "Get me out of here." I knew he felt bad about the last song. I guess we had bonded there in the stairwell, and together we moved off through the crowd, which was the only way out. By the time we were back in the dressing room, he was surrounded by well-wishers and he relaxed a bit.
I wanted to be in the touring band, of course. On the road with a rock and roll band, sending home five hundred a week - who wouldn't? But first I had to audition for Link. On the appointed day, I came into a rehearsal studio where he sat waiting. I had my guitar, he had his. He said, "Can you do this?" and showed me some elementary bar-chording. I couldn't do it. It was beyond me - bar chords were something I hadn't needed as a folkie and blues guy. He asked a few more simple things - "Can you do this? Can you do this?" I couldn't do the things he asked. He peered at me over his dark sunglasses. I packed my guitar away and slunk out the door. I told Richard, sitting in the next room, that Link had asked for a few things I didn't know, and that I could learn them all real quick. I said I was serious. I said anything I could think of. I said that he could charge me ten dollars for every wrong note, just like James Brown did in his band. Richard said he'd call me tomorrow.
So I didn't get to go on tour with them. I went home and said to myself, "You should know all those god damn things. What is wrong with you?" And so I practiced obsessively for a month until I could do everything Link had asked me to. It was the best guitar lesson I'd ever had.
After playing a few clubs up and down the east coast, Robert and his band of pros came back to New York to play CBGBs, and I went down to see them. Richard was there - he had the first box of albums, and was handing them to selected people. I got one as soon as he saw me. Someone who had been begging for one whined about it, and he explained, "He's on the album!" I had to hold onto it all evening at the club, with a hundred people seeing and wanting it. The show was good and Link didn't play anything in the wrong key. I envied them up there. When the second album came out, I taped it and played along with it, over and over, till I could play all the rhythm parts - for my own peace of mind.
Robert called me out of the blue one day, and magnanimously invited me over. I went uptown to his new west side apartment. Just inside the door was a large antique urn on a pedestal - he'd started collecting art. He was proud of the urn, and the place, and how he was doing. He showed me around, and told me I wouldn't believe what the place had looked like when he first saw it. The previous tenant had been one of those eccentric New Yorkers who never threw out their newspapers - the place had been full, floor to ceiling. You'd had to walk sideways to get through. Now it was spacious and bright.
We sat in the living room and Robert showed me his latest acquisitions, which were original albums from the '50's. He had about twenty Gene Vincent albums. I asked how much he'd paid for them, since they were in terrific condition, and all he would say was, "A lot." Below the albums on display was a closed cabinet with other types of music, like Led Zeppelin - he only displayed the showpieces. I'd have done the same. He lent me a tape he'd made at a show in Central Park, of the first time Bad Company had played New York. It was a great tape, by the way.
Every few minutes he'd get up and wander past the bathroom mirror and comb his hair. He was happy, and I congratulated him. I told him about my own projects - I was in a few bands. We talked for a while, then I left.
I saw Robert play when he came back to town. I saw him at NYU, when Bruce Springsteen got on stage with him and sang harmony in "Heartbreak Hotel." I saw him at the Palladium. I saw him at the Bottom Line. Billy and Rob had brought in a guitar player they knew who could basically play anything. He had my job. My favorite part of the Bottom Line show was the Elvis song, "I Want to be Free." The band yelled "O yeah" in the chorus, whereas on Robert's second album, the Jordanaires sang it sweetly. The yell gave the song a kick in the pants. Better.
A year later, Robert began appearing at the Lone Star Cafe whenever he played in town. I saw him there with Chris Spedding, who'd replaced Link after two albums. I went backstage that time and met Tony Garnier, the standup bass player [later in Dylan's band], who had masking tape thickly wound around the fingers of his right hand so he could play real hard without injuring himself.
Another time at the Lone Star, Danny Gatton was his lead guitar player, and Lance Quinn, Robert's new producer, played rhythm. Danny could pick up his beer bottle, full of beer, and play great slide guitar with it. That too was a good show. On my way into the club, I saw Link getting out of a limo, with a showgirl on each arm, walking to the door. I said hello and asked if he remembered me. He said, "Sure, Charlie, you played on Robert's biggest selling album." He went on into the club grinning, like a king (Link later lived on an island off the coast of Denmark).
A year or two later, I took a walk on the Upper West Side and came upon Robert. He was out by the curb, working on his Harley Davidson. He said he'd had a long ride through New Jersey that morning, and was tuning it up a bit. He gestured at the building we were in front of, saying he had a new apartment there. I asked if he ever saw Richard, and he replied, "He's a snake." Robert said he was doing well and had a new album coming out. I said I'd watch for it. I continued on my walk. It was a pleasant afternoon.
Robert kept going good until 1981, when he left RCA and kind of went underground. He'd do other albums since then, but he became a cult figure rather than a star. I tried to get in touch with him a few times, but he hadn't written back, and I don't really blame him. We were not that much alike, even if I can play like Carl Perkins.
I still hope to make it someday, but I'll understand if I don't. And I'm so glad I didn't make it big when I was young, because I never would have lived to grow old, which it seems I'm now doing. I was too much like all those poor doomed musicians whose bios I've now read.
Robert made it to one level, but not the level he wanted. I heard that for a few years, he had his own problems. Then one day he got mugged, and when he recuperated, he pulled himself together and left New York City, and moved back to the DC area. He still put out albums once in a while. He tried hard to be great, and for my money, he was. I just hoped that he was happy.
We all had quite a time back in 1977, making that album. It was very interesting for me, since I'd never worked with professionals before. It was great helping Robert in his career, and it was great working with the legendary Link Wray. It was the first time the big time had bent down to pat me on the head, and my fondest hope was that it would pick me up and carry me on my way. Of course, even for Robert in the end, it was only a stab at stardom, but it was worth a try.
RIP Robert, Link, and Howie. Guys, you were great.
Also see our article on Link Wray
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