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'Elvis of the Valley' still on fire

"Here's Roddy Jackson ... 16 years old, blond, crew-cut, freckles ... plays piano and sings ... a talented teen-ager the kids will like!

Roddy has the clean-cut appeal of Pat Boone, the looks of Ricky Nelson, the punch of Elvis Presley, and a unique style of his own.

We feel that Roddy Jackson is a 'natural' and he merits your immediate attention."

-- Taken from a 1957 Specialty Records press release

Roddy Jackson still pauses, awe-struck, when someone calls him a rock 'n' roll legend.

It's one of a number of lofty titles he hears occasionally -- such as the "Central Valley Fireball" or "The Elvis of the Valley."

He can't help laughing about it. "My wife says I am legend in my own mind," he joked. "She really knows me -- so don't talk to her. She'll tell you the real story."

The real story of Roddy Jackson compels Mercedians of any generation to pay attention. It's the classic tale of early success, bitter failure and astonishing comeback -- all told in the rhythms of rock 'n' roll.

From folks who grew up with him in the music's earliest days to teenagers who now tune in Hank Williams III on their iPods, Jackson's long strange journey is, quite simply, cool.

If there was anyone during the late 1950s who seemingly had the stars aligned in his favor, it was Jackson. By age 15, he and his rockin' band of brothers, the Merced Blue Notes, were packing civic halls and auditoriums with screaming teenage fans from Stockton to Fresno.

His voice, which could pivot effortlessly from a gravelly roar to a velvety lament, attracted the attention of an aspiring record producer by the name of Sonny Bono, who viewed the young Jackson as Little Richard with blue eyes.

Jackson made a name for himself as a prolific multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, co-writing "She Said Yeah" -- a song later covered by The Animals and the Rolling Stones.

His big break, however, was a scheduled 1958 appearance on Dick Clark's fabled "American Bandstand." It was a moment that was supposed to shoot him into the stratosphere like an Atlas missile of the time -- but he came crashing to Earth like the Hindenburg after his record company quarrelled over money with the show's management.

Years later, the onetime teen prodigy would completely turn his back on the music industry, disappearing from the scene altogether.

Fast forward to 2002, however, and a new generation of fans throughout Britain and Europe -- hungry for early rock 'n' roll-- would yearn to see the "Wild Man" in action. Not much later, he would be back on stage, entertaining thousands in London and Las Vegas.

"He's one of the last, really, remaining '50s rockers that can really do it -- pull it off and do in the way that they did back then," said Alec Palao, a Grammy-nominated reissue producer. Palao works for Ace Records, a British label that released a compilation of Jackson's music in 2007.

This Friday, Jackson will perform at the second annual Music of Merced Festival, a benefit for the historic Merced Theatre.

Pondering his myriad victories and defeats over the years, the 65-year-old Jackson has no regrets and lives with nothing less than a contagious enthusiasm for his future. "I am being counted among the big stars now," Jackson says.

This is the second coming of Roddy Jackson.


It's been more than 50 years since Jackson and several buddies held a jam session at Merced High School that would usher the formation of the Merced Blue Notes.

Regardless of his age (he turns 66 next month), anyone who wonders whether Jackson has still "got it" only needs to spend about five minutes with him at a piano.

Seated in a small rehearsal room at Gottschalk Music Center, where he teaches piano and drum classes, Jackson's long fingers dance gracefully over the piano keys, as he belts out "There's a Moose on the Loose." It's a musical yarn about a teenage party that gets broken up after it's invaded by animals from the zoo. At the time the song was released in 1958, Jackson was "the No. 1 guy -- the lead singer of the number one band in Central California."

His own musical odyssey began April 9, 1942, when he was born to Rod Jackson, a recognized jazz guitarist in Merced and Lucille Jackson, a woman who played piano and sang at home, but never shared her musical talents publicly.

By the mid-1950s, young Jackson had joined his first band, the Dreamers -- a group he said played "cute" songs, such as "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" and "Mr. Sandman," in addition to swing and dixieland jazz tunes. The Dreamers were also featured on a family-oriented program on radio station KYOS.

One day his father would bring home a record that forever changed his life: "Ain't that a Shame" by Fats Domino. "We literally wore it out. We had to buy another one, we played it so many times," Jackson recalled.

That song, combined with "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets (a song Jackson first heard at a local sock hop) sealed the deal for the young Jackson. He decided that his heart belonged to rock 'n'roll.

He would teach himself to sing by listening to Little Richard. "I heard those two recordings and I said, 'I want to do that kind of music,'" Jackson said.

The first meeting that led to the formation of the Merced Blue Notes happened in the music building of Merced High School in 1956. Jackson was inside the building playing boogie-woogie piano while another student played drums. Moments later, two more students walked into the room carrying a guitar and a saxophone. Another arrived with a stand-up bass. Then a full-scale rock 'n' roll jam session erupted -- one that garnered the attention of a throng of students who could hear the music blaring from the building.

"Next thing you know, there's all these high school students, coming in there, screaming and yelling. The place filled up, they were outside placing their faces against the window," Jackson said. "This was like a total shock to us. We were just having fun."

From that initial meeting, the jam sessions became more frequent, and a core group was formed.

The 1950s lineup of the group, which would change over the years, included Jackson, Gil Fraire, Clarence Lewis, Buddy Wiggins, Kenny Craig and James Burkes.

The band moved forward under the wings of then-Merced Fire Chief George Coolures, who viewed the group as a way to give teens an extracurricular outlet and entertainment option in a town where few existed. "He was really into helping young people," Jackson said.

Although they were first known as just the Blue Notes, Jackson said they added Merced to the name to avoid confusion with a Fresno blues band with a similar name.

Besides being one of the Central Valley's first rock bands, the Merced Blue Notes were also one of the first integrated rock bands. Jackson was white, but all the other members were black or Hispanic. "When we started jamming, it just happened to turn out that these other guys were black or Hispanic," Jackson said. "I was brought up hearing (black) music from birth because of my father. So to me, it was the most natural thing in the world."

Still, the fact that the band was racially integrated did not sit well with some members of Merced's community. In the mid-'50s, many people viewed rock 'n' roll as the devil's music -- a heathen, hip-shaking form of expression that promoted race-mixing, viewed as a threat to so-called polite society.

As a white boy singing black music, Jackson received many threats and verbal hits from whites -- and a few others. "Most of the blacks and Hispanics liked it. But there were some that didn't. And I got threatened and everything," Jackson remembered.

The resistance only fueled his desire even more to sing rock music -- and fight against the status quo of segregation. "I got so angry, that I just said, 'Now I know I really want to do this,'" Jackson said.


In late 1956, the Merced Blue Notes played their first gig at the American Legion Hall in Merced.

Sporting a blond flattop, Jackson was a freshman at Merced High School -- a night that would help build the band's name in the Central Valley. "We had no idea what was going to happen. The place filled wall-to-wall with kids. We packed the joint," Jackson enthused.

Following the band's success at the American Legion, Coolures began booking gigs in cities along Highway 99 -- places like the Stockton Ballroom and the California Ballroom in Modesto. "We got calls all the time to play everywhere," Jackson said.

"(The Blue Notes') music just seemed to grab you somehow," said Dave Honey, today president of the Merced Union High School District board.

As a youth in Manteca, Honey saw the Merced Blue Notes perform live around 1961 (by that time Jackson had already left the group). "The music before that was more of a milder type of music, like Perry Como and that type of thing."

Jackson, who sang bluesy lead vocals and played piano, would evolve as frontman for the band, along with lead guitarist Kenny Craig.

As Jackson's talents blossomed with the band, however, so did his hopes and dreams. By 1957, he asked Coolures to help get the band signed with a major label. Jackson had his eyes focused on one label in particular: Los Angeles-based Specialty Records -- the label that helped launch the career of his idol Little Richard, as well as such artists Larry Williams and Guitar Slim.

"Things were different then. You could call a major label and say, 'Hey, I'm pretty good, I want you to hear,'" Jackson said. "You could schedule an appointment, go down there and they would give you a listen. You can't do that anymore."

After weeks of being "nagged" by Jackson, Coolures finally made the phone call to Specialty Records. An appointment was set to meet with Sonny Bono -- a young A & R scout, producer who would latter find fame and fortune performing duets with Cher.


While the audition at Specialty Records surpassed Jackson's expectations, events didn't unfold as planned.

While Bono liked Jackson and wanted to sign him to a deal, he asked Jackson to ditch the rest of the band.

Bono's request tore Jackson "down the middle" because he wasn't willing to cut off his friends -- even with possible fame and fortune in the balance. "I am loyal to my friends. I am still like that," Jackson said. "I loved them like brothers, and I wasn't going to dump them."

Still, Jackson believes Bono's request wasn't motivated by a dislike of his bandmates' talents, but a desire to be in control of the group.

Neither Bono nor Coolures liked the idea of sharing power with each other over the group, Jackson believes. "Sonny wanted to take control. He had big plans. He thought I could be a really big star, and he wanted to be my manager," Jackson said. "(Coolures) wanted to be more methodical and build it slow. I felt, 'We're hot. the time is now.' I still think I was right too."

Despite Bono's insistence to drop the band, Jackson was signed to Specialty Records. He would commute between Merced and Los Angeles, staying at Bono's home while recording.

Although Jackson recorded with studio musicians, he frequently stuck with his band when playing live -- a decision that restricted many of his performances to the Central Valley.

Bono also wanted Jackson to move to Los Angeles and give him a professional touring band, but Jackson felt loyalty to his friends was also important. "(Bono) was thinking big-time touring, and by staying with the Blue Notes I confined myself to the Valley," Jackson said.

As a solo artist, Jackson still had some success outside California. The ballad, "Love At First Sight," achieved the No. 1 slot in Salt Lake City, according to the liner notes of "Central Valley Fireball."

That success would lead to a scheduled Feb. 14, 1958, performance of "Love At First Sight" on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. However, like so many other aspects of Jackson's career, the scheduled American Bandstand appearance veered off his career blueprint.


Payola, while illegal, during the 1950s, was a commonplace way for entertainment industry middlemen to make a quick buck.

American Bandstand in those days was no different, according to Jackson. It was also a system that Specialty Records reluctantly went along with -- at first. "If you were a recording label, you wanted to get your artists on there," Jackson said. "So they used that to leverage some money in their pocket."

Just days before Jackson was scheduled to have his potential big break on American Bandstand, he said a company involved with the program demanded an increased payola sum of money in advance from Art Rupe, the founder of Specialty Records. Rupe, who had grown weary of the payola system, viewed the demands as a form of extortion -- and refused to pay out of general principle. "It offended his sense of morality," Jackson explained. "He felt he was compromising his Christian beliefs."

As a result, Jackson not only lost his spot on American Bandstand -- all Specialty Records' artists were in effect banned from appearing on the show.

Jackson was crushed by Rupe's decision -- especially because American Bandstand could've exposed him to a nationwide audience. "If I had appeared on American Bandstand, I would have had a huge national hit, there is no doubt about it. We all knew it, Sonny knew it, Art knew it," Jackson said.

Rupe and Bono sat Jackson down and tried to explain why he made the decision not to pay the extra money -- but back then Jackson didn't understand and was furious. "I had tremendous respect for that man. But at that time, I thought (Rupe) was an idiot," Jackson said. "But he was enough of a man to look me in the eye and tell me the story, and apologize."

After the American Bandstand gig fizzled, Jackson continued to record for Specialty Records, putting out songs like "Moose on the Loose" and the rocker "Hiccups." Still, he was unable to crank out a big hit, and would never again have an opportunity at the level of American Bandstand. Not long afterwards, his contract with Specialty Records expired. By 1960 he had also left the Merced Blue Notes.

Although whether Jackson would have become a star after an appearance on American Bandstand is speculation, Palao admits such an appearance "quite possibly" could have made him into a celebrity. "There weren't that many obscure artists who appeared on American Bandstand who did not at least get some headway with their career after that," Palao said.

Palao said the sobering fact remains that Jackson's records at the time didn't achieve much success nationally. Still, the power of American Bandstand at the time, Palao said, was "pretty omnipotent. It's definitely not an implausible scenario that the record would have charted, and he could have gone to quite a career," Palao said.'

Jackson said he has a changed viewpoint today about the decision Rupe made. "It was many years later with a lot more maturity that when I look back, I admired the heck out of him for doing it," he admitted.


Although Jackson played in a few bands, playing saxophone and piano, after being dropped from Specialty Records, he marched in another direction. In 1961 he enlisted in the U.S. Army -- a decision he said was motivated by a need to change gears in his life.

By that time, Jackson said he was becoming increasingly "out of control" and had also begun drinking. "I was scared. I did lot of crazy stuff," Jackson admits. "I would drink a lot, party a lot. I would drink and drive fast. I felt that I didn't have a direction."

Jackson spent three years in the Army, receiving an honorable discharge in 1964 -- just a few years shy of the high point of America's military involvement in Vietnam. He came back to Merced County, working as a radio DJ for a short time in Los Banos and playing in a few bands. "But I was still crazy," Jackson said.

He moved and played in several cities throughout the 1960s, Santa Cruz, then San Francisco, playing in the house band at Big Al's. By 1968, however, Jackson said it was time for a break from the music business, haunted by depression, emotional demons and the need to find the right direction. "I turned my life over to God because I was losing it. I was falling apart, literally," Jackson said. "I had thought about suicide. I just couldn't handle it anymore. That's another story, and it's pretty miraculous how it happened."

Jackson moved to Lodi and got a job bucking hay on a crew. "And the amazing thing was that I liked it," Jackson said. Over the years he worked in a cannery, as a forklift driver, then as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service in Stockton. Aside from family gatherings, during that time he'd rarely play music.


Jackson moved back to Merced by 1981. Although he was no longer a teen prodigy, he did get back into music, this time as a teacher. He landed his first teaching job at Dorothy's Music Center, and in 1992 was hired as a music and theater teacher in Ballico, a job he held for 15 years.

Finally, Jackson knew he was back in his groove again after parents began to compliment him on the positive impact he was having on their kids. Through music and theater, Jackson said he was able to help improve the self-esteem of many students. "That's when I realized, 'Wow. Being a teacher is a wonderful thing to do. It's fulfilling.'"

As karma would have it, however, Jackson's past with Specialty Records and the Merced Blue Notes would come full circle -- but in a way that would bring the success that had many ways escaped his grasp.

Unbeknownst to Jackson, a huge fan base of British fans with an appreciation of early rock 'n' roll music had emerged over the years, wondering where he had gone. Opal Nations, a freelance British music journalist based in Oakland, tracked Jackson down in 2002 and called him.

After an article by Nations appeared in the British magazine "Now Dig This," Jackson traveled to Britain and performed. He was embraced by thousands of fans. In recent years he has performed several times in Britain, including the annual "Rhythm Riot!" festival in Britain dedicated to early 1950s rock 'n' roll, blues and rhythm and blues. He performed at a similar festival in 2005 called Viva Las Vegas.

Jackson's fans remember the words to all of his old songs and generally go "bonkers" when he takes the stage, according to Nations. "They know all about him. They knew all about him before he came," Nations said. "They have his records. They worship the guy."

In addition to a renewed fan base, British-based Ace Records in 2004 released "Merced Blue Notes: Get Your Kicks on Route 99," a compilation of 26 songs by the group, several of which were previously unissued.

Last year, Ace Records released "Central Valley Fireball," a compilation of Jackson's recorded songs from Specialty Records, including a previously unreleased version of "She Said Yeah" performed by Jackson himself. Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Bono (who is credited under the alias Don Christy), still receives royalty checks from the song because it was covered by the Rolling Stone and The Animals.

Nations attributes Jackson's success overseas to a different viewpoint that exists toward early American music and rock 'n' roll in Europe. "Popular music, anywhere except the United States and perhaps Canada, is treated differently. It's treated as an archival, historical document in other countries," Nations said. "Whereas over here (in the United States), if you're off the charts you're in garbage. Nobody cares anymore."


Besides continuing his schedule performing, Jackson said he is eventually planning on releasing an album of new material.

Nowadays, Jackson views his life as having been on a divine path of many lessons learned -- one geared toward eventually leading him where he is today. He admits Rupe's decision to stand firm on his beliefs also probably was best for him. "If I would had have been catapulted into stardom, I don't think I'd be here to talk about this today," Jackson said. "I have no doubt that I would have killed myself. I was out of control."

Even though his years with the Merced Blue Notes and Specialty Records are far behind him, he believes the best are right in front of him. "I am going to follow this where it takes me," Jackson said. "I know anything's possible. I'm very ambitious and there's still some things I want to do."

And the fireball is still a-burnin'.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or