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For Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding, it's now or never

By Ken Burke, September 2007

Robert Gordon can't recall exactly where he was or what he was doing when he heard that Elvis Presley had died, but he definitely remembers how he felt. "It was just heartbreaking, and I literally just didn't go out of the house for like three days, and I just listened to his music," the singer reminisces from his New York home. "I think I wept when I first heard the news. It affected me, and that was strange because I didn't realize that I would ever be affected like that. It just really hit me hard."

(Photo: Robert Gordon, left, and Chris Spedding, right)

That was 1977. It is now the 30th anniversary of Presley's death, and Gordon is currently paying tribute to him with a new album on Rykodisc done with guitarist Chris Spedding, "It's Now or Never."

Asked if recording a collection Elvis tunes in his own inimitable style was a long cherished dream project, Gordon chuckles and replies, " Not really. In fact, I shied away from it for many years. But we felt that it was the right time, being that it's the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death."

However, Gordon is quick to acknowledge Presley's impact. "In all honesty, when I was nine years old, I heard "Heartbreak Hotel,' when it was on the charts...and that just blew me away. I don't know if that had any bearing on me becoming a singer or not, but I had never heard anything like it. It just got into my soul, and I think that was the turning point for me. You know, Elvis is one of my main influences. I can't deny it. There are many others, but he will always be right at the top of the list."

Ironically, Gordon rose to fame shortly after Presley's death. Until then, rockabilly was at best, a European phenomenon with only pockets of support in the underground punk and oldies scenes, respectively. Once Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, American fans began to realize that the early music he created was in serious danger of becoming extinct.

However, it's important to note that Gordon had embraced those rebellious sounds prior to any official declaration of a revival - he had cut his first LP months prior to Presley's passing - subsequently emerging as the first mainstream act of his generation to be billed as a rockabilly.

Although Gordon is rightfully chagrined by the rockabilly tag - he has sung pop, country, and punk during his 30-plus year career - his LPs for Private Stock and RCA capitalized on the genre association by featuring " 50s guitar god Link Wray and tunes associated with the likes of Jack Scott, Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette. Indeed, Billy Lee Riley said that of all the modern practitioners who perform his raving rockabilly standards " Red Hot" and " Flying Saucers Rock and Roll," " Robert does "em the best!"

The singer's first official nod to the King occurred on 1978's " Fresh Fish Special," an album title inspired by the prison haircut Presley's character received in the movie " Jailhouse Rock" and included "I Want to Be Free" from the film's soundtrack. 1979's " Rock Billy Boogie" LP featured a smart recreation of Presley's seasonal favorite, " Blue Christmas."

However, it wasn't until recently that the Washington, D.C. native gave serious consideration to recording a full album of Presley tunes. Deciding that the project would provide " a little closure," the singer threw himself into it with gusto.

Gordon's previous studio disc - 2005's " Satisfied Mind" - was leased by Koch's Nashville affiliate. Augmenting his "50s rock n' roll style with the "60s Nashville Sound, the album was a career highlight for the singer. That said, once Koch closed its country division, he was left without a label and he needed the support of a good friend to get the ball rolling again.

"Fortunately, I have a dear friend named Kenny Caskey," explains Gordon, " who's listed as executive producer on the record, who backed the project. Otherwise, it never would have been made. Once we decided to do the Presley thing, I knew who I was going to use because I had done the Koch record down in Nashville, and I liked Johnny Neel and Jimmy Lester very much. We worked with a new bass - player Dave Polmeroy, who was a pleasure to work and a fantastic player. So, I felt that with these players, I couldn't go wrong."

Recorded in Nashville, the 15-song compilation also boasts the return of Gordon's finest guitar foil, Spedding.

"He's really the man that works best for me on stage," observes Gordon who has worked with such guitar greats as the late Danny Gatton and Wray. " It's a delight to be on stage with him again. Actually, it's been about 13 years since we've worked together live on stage and about 20 since we were in the studio together. So, this whole thing is a real reunion. We had played together for about 10 years, and I think we had taken it about as far as we could, so that was a good long run. I missed working with him a lot over the years, I can tell you that."

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