There’s another blog out there where the author is writing about singer Jess Roden. He remarks that none of his friends know who Roden is – they say “who’s she?” or refer to him as “Jeff Roden.” Well, here’s another piece about Roden, ‘cause he deserves to be remembered (not that he’s dead!) and ‘cause I’ve been exploring his discography a lot these last few months.
The music world is littered with artists who made their mark – either with a big hit or two or through a long, consistent career – but who eventually left music for another occupation entirely. Often it’s for financial reasons, or sometimes they just get tired of the scene; the pressure to sell records, the touring. Rock/soul singer-songwriter Jess Roden had a fascinating and artistically diverse run from the late 60s to the mid 80s before he mostly left it all to become a graphic designer.
But what a run it was, from the mod/soul of the Shakedown Sound and the Alan Bown Set to the Crosby Stills & Nash-influenced west coast folk rock of Bronco, to lead vocals with Robby Kreiger and John Densmore’s post-Doors project the (unfortunately named) Butts Band, to a string of funky rock and smooth R&B albums solo and with the Jess Roden Band. Along the way, he sang on Stomu Yamashta’s spacey jazz fusion/pop Go Too and on albums by Sandy Denny, Mott the Hoople, Paul Kossof, and Grace Jones.
Roden’s vocal style can perhaps best be compared to his contemporaries Terry Reid, Little Feat, early Robert Palmer, or Bobby Whitlock, but to me his voice is more “rounded” and adaptable to different styles. Recording for Island Records for much of his career, he benefited from that label’s fostering of artists, despite not having a breakout hit. He was one of those solid, dependable musicians who often hit levels of the sublime and the great, even if the average record buyer didn’t know who he was.
I often come back to those two albums by Bronco, done in 1970 and 1971 – my favorite period of his. Roden wrote or co-wrote many of the Bronco songs; the mix is heavy on acoustic guitar (played by Kevyn Gammond and Robbie Blunt, who had and would continue to accompany Robert Plant later on) and has a hazey, in-the-countryside vibe. Some of the standouts include “Bumpers West,” “New Day Avenue,” and “Amber Moon”, tracks which pair Roden’s soulful vocals with the country/folk in vogue at the time, but setting them apart from the rest of those harvesting similar pastures.
Bronco was exceptional, but in reality is just a window on one part of Roden’s oeuvre. His prior work with the Alan Bown Set (later called just the Alan Bown), when he was still in his teens, is smokin’ and reveals his early powerful singing style. Check out “Headline News”, the live “Boomerang” or the band’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” an arrangement said to have inspired Jimi Hendrix’s later recording of the tune.
Jumping back to his post-Bronco years, Roden returned to those soul roots, but with a more funked up, New Orleans feel as Island sent him down to the Crescent City to lay down tracks with The Meters, Alan Toussaint and Art Neville for his first solo album.
The remainder of the 70s saw him refining that template, with groove-based songs such as “Me and Crystal Eye,” “Under Suspicion,” and “I’m On Your Side” but also revealing his smooth “crooner” (and I use that word in a positive way) side with a cover of Tim Hardin’s “Misty Roses” (his highest charting single?) and other ballads like “Sensation” and “Feelin’ Easy.”
He released an acclaimed version of “On Broadway”:
Musically, one of his best of this period is “In Me Tonight,” featuring a horn and percussion heavy arrangement.
In 1980, he released his last solo album for Island, Stonechaser, perhaps an attempt to make a commercial, higher selling record. Often this is a recipe for disaster, and while it certainly is his most accessible album, cuts such as “Prime Time Love” sound a bit dated now. However, “Believe in Me” and the airy, relaxed reggae of “One World, One People” transcend the time and still sound good – especially “One World, One People,” a great album closer and bookend on his Island solo career (he would do one more project for Island in 1980 as part of the more “modern rock” band the Rivits).
Another album came from Roden in 1986, just credited to (and titled) Seven Windows. This was a bit of a left turn, featuring some ambient instrumental passages Roden composed on a home recorder, while as he says, listening to stuff like jazz guitarist Ralph Towner and other ECM Records atmospheric jazz/new age music. While his day job continued in graphic design, he also made another outing in a rock band called The Humans in the mid-90s. The Humans released a studio album and a live one, featuring originals and covers of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
You can find copies of most of Roden’s work without too much trouble (apart from Seven Windows, which is trickier to find) used, though you’ll need to go the vinyl route unless you’re willing to pay big bucks for out of print Japanese CD reissues. He’s not really well represented on the streaming services either. If you’re really lucky/persistent you’ll find a copy of the limited edition Hidden Masters Jess Roden box set, which is brilliant and extensive. Though, copies go for upwards of $500 – $800 on ebay/amazon used (I should clarify that they’re listed for that much, whether they sell for those ridiculous prices is another story…). There’s also a Best Of compilation from a few years ago, but even that’s out of print (!) Fortunately, both Bronco albums were released on a 2-for-1 CD, which is easy to get (at this point).
For a much more detailed biography, check out the Jess Roden website, which is based on the Hidden Masters box set and includes reflections and insights and archival photos from the man himself.
Video, surprisingly, is pretty rare but here he is with Densmore and Kreiger post-Doors: