Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Song A Day: Rodd Keith, "Ecstacy to Frenzy"

MAY 10, 2017



RELEASED 1968 ON 7” 45

This is a “song-poem” record. 

(What is that?)

Going back to at least the 1940s, would-be songwriters, encouraged by ads in magazines, sent their lyrics (and a fee) to companies that made records of them, writing the music and recording the track.

Some of these song-poems are incompetent, most are dull, and a few are sublime. Many are entertaining. None of these efforts ever became hits, or anything close to it, because these companies did nothing but send the buyer a box of records. Sometime in the 1970s, collectors of odd records began to notice these discs and started piecing together the genre’s odd history.

My vote for greatest song-poet is Rodney Keith Eskelin a/k/a Rodd Rogers a/k/a Rodd Keith. A former gospel organist, he moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s and found work in this under-the-radar field. Keith was a supremely gifted composer and instrumentalist raised on big band jazz, and he found “song-sharking” a lucrative way to support his lifestyle.

Under time and budgetary pressure, he cranked out hundreds of these records, writing the music and arrangements, playing keyboards and saxophone, and singing. His career in the song-poem field, which is all he is remembered for despite his tremendous talent, lasted from 1965 or so until his death in 1974.

The lyrics that Rodd Keith and other song-poem producers had to work with were usually clunky and unpoetic and sometimes completely off the rails. Most were love songs, while some commented on current topics like surfing, politics, drugs, hippies, go-go dancers, or the Beatles. 
Lyrics written by the man in the street and played by exhausted session musicians on a shoestring budget created music that truly sounds like nothing else.

Here’s perhaps my favorite example of the genre. Sometime in 1967 or early 1968, a John Kurzawa mailed Preview Records in Hollywood a quite sincere and accomplished set of words about some sort of mystical experience, perhaps drug-related.

Rodd Keith, perhaps hearing the Beach Boys and/or Beatles in his head, turned these lyrics into a layered pop masterpiece that evoked and matched the best psychedelic music of the day. It’s likely that he played all the keyboards and flute and sang every part on “Ecstacy (sic) to Frenzy.” Del Kacher, who invented the wah-wah pedal, is likely on guitar but the names of the bassist and drummer are lost to time.

Despite its provenance, “Ecstacy to Frenzy” doesn’t sound like the popular music of its (or any) time, featuring a slightly Latin rhythm, out-there lyrics, understated piano and guitar, that floaty flute, and an almost architectural vocal arrangement.

Rodd Keith, who by this time had dived headfirst into the psychedelic culture, never bettered himself. While many Keith often used the same backing tracks for different sets of lyrics (because, with so many customers, who would ever know?), this music bed seems to have been created expressly for this set of words and, to my knowledge, not re-used.

Few people, besides (assumedly) the lyricist’s friends, heard the record at the time. None of these song-poem companies ever promoted the records; they were in business only to make them. Some of these lyricists just wanted to hear their words brought to life, while others hoped to become stars. Given their obscurity even at the time, it seems almost a miracle that these records even exist at all.

But people are still finding previously undocumented song-poem 45s and albums. The genre is a spectacular slice of Americana, the words and dreams of real people existing entirely outside the web of mass-produced culture. My friend Bob Purse has an entire site devoted to them and labels have issued compilations of the best (worst?) of them.

I hope that you enjoy this record!

1 comment:

  1. Hey! Thanks for the shout-out. This is a really good one, of course. My ranking of it doesn't come close to yours (and all of my favorite Rodd Keith records are from his Film City phase), but it's a damn good record, and shows that Rodd could have been cranking out hits if he had the right breaks, and if he'd wanted to.