Community mourns loss of rock ’n’ roll legend Roddy Jackson
Local residents, artists and music fans around the world are mourning the loss of rock ’n’ roll icon Roddy Jackson of Merced who died on Wednesday, Dec. 7, after complications from surgery, according to family members. The longtime performer was 80.
“Roddy was a musical genius who left a great legacy,” said vocalist Cheryl Lockett, whose father Kenny Craig performed alongside Jackson in the Blue Notes band that originated in Merced back in the late 1950s. “He could literally play anything. He was a multifaceted musician. He knew music theory, but he also felt it. It was in his genes. It was this gift that he had. He played rock. He played soul … whatever he was feeling. He knew how to manipulate those chords. He was something else.”
Jackson started performing as a drummer at age 12 on the airwaves of KYOS in Merced after he formed his first band, The Dreamers. From there, his music career, as well as performing on stage, would last a lifetime. A little over a month ago, Jackson was doing his “rockabilly thing” for an intimate audience at Vinhos wine lounge in downtown Merced. “That was the last show that I experienced,” said Lockett, who had the opportunity to join him for a blues medley that thrilled the crowd.
George Rodrick “Roddy” Jackson was born on April 9, 1942, in Fresno, and his family moved to Merced when he was still a young child. The son of a musician, he enjoyed an early passion for music and band performance as he attended Fremont School, and then Merced High School
As a 14-year-old freshman, Jackson found himself playing boogie-woogie and R & B on the piano in the Merced High band room, and he attracted the attention of a young black guitarist named Kenny Craig.
“My father was saying to himself, ‘Who is this white boy playing soul?’ recalls Lockett today. “They never said a word to each other. They just started jamming together [along with black alto player, James Burkes]. The bell rang and my dad said, ‘Hey, I know a good drummer,’ and Roddy said, ‘Bring him in,’ and it was Buddy Wiggins [a black drummer who played in the school band] …
“They weren’t doing it to be famous,” Lockett added. “They loved the music and grooving.”
Writer Opal Louis Nations later described what happened next:
“All this attracted the attention of white stand-up bass player Larry Snelling who fell in with the groove. Soon, students began to rush for the band room. The place was filled in a flash, and the kids were going crazy. Those unable to get in pressed against the walls outside. Girls got hysterical and started screaming. Pandemonium erupted when the combo broke into Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk.’ The jam session caused such a ruckus that Roddy and the musicians decided to compete in the talent assembly. For the talent assembly the band added Clarence Lewis to the group. Clarence played bongos and second sax. After turning the talent assembly into a near riot, and easily grabbing first place honors, the band knew they were going places.”
The Blue Notes played up and down the Central Valley, including the California Ballroom in Modesto, the Stockton Ballroom, and at places in Fresno and Capitola.
Jackson dreamed of joining the Specialty Records label that had launched the career of his idol Little Richard. When the Blue Notes got the chance to audition for the label, a young Sonny Bono with the record company was impressed with Jackson. Bono was able to convince Art Rupe, the head of the label, to sign Jackson as a solo artist, but the rest of the band was left out.
“He got the Golden Ticket — or so he thought,” said Lockett about that period. “He got recognized, and was able to play in places the rest of the band members could not. He had a good ride, and went on with the rest of his career, but he had to.”
Jackson went to Hollywood on Dec. 12, 1957 to record his first single, “I’ve Got My Sights on Someone New” and “Love at First Sight” with Sonny Bono. It was Specialty 623 and released in January 1958. “Love at First Sight” went to No. 1 in Salt Lake City and Central California.
Jackson was scheduled to appear for American Bandstand on Feb. 14, 1958, to get national exposure and possible widespread fame, but his appearance was cancelled by Rupe at the last minute over the fee dispute between Art and Bandstand.
Later that year, on Sept. 8, Roddy recorded the two classics “Hiccups,” and “There’s A Moose on the Loose.” This disc would become a classic in future rockabilly collections.
Jackson continued a close relationship with Bono, and they even co-wrote the song “She said Yeah” that was first recorded in 1959 by Larry Williams and later covered by The Rolling Stones, The Animals and Paul McCartney.
Jackson had his third single recording with Bono on March 25, 1959. “Gloria” and “Any Old Town” were produced in Specialty 666, but not all went well. The label dropped Jackson in May 1959.
All through this productive period, the Blue Notes continued to perform with Jackson but mostly in the Central Valley, and they were not included on any of his recordings. Jackson ended up leaving the Blue Notes in 1959 after a break with the band’s manager.
Jackson joined the Army in 1961 and served three years, receiving an honorable discharge in 1964. He spent the rest of the ’60s working odd jobs and playing music with a variety of artists in California and the Central Valley region. However, in 1968 he moved to Lodi and took a long break from music and performing.
Jackson came back to Merced in 1981, and returned to music, playing at a piano bar called Culpeppers on 18th Street between K and Canal Streets. The bar was owned by his brother Rick Jackson.
In the years that followed, Roddy joined other local artists in local band ventures and community performances. Outside of these gigs, he eventually established himself as a music teacher, landing his first teaching job at Dorothy’s Music Center. He was later hired on as a music and theater teacher in Ballico.
Then in 2003, Jackson received a call from “Now Dig This” — a UK magazine that wanted to write a life story of Jackson. After the article was published, Jackson started to get invites to perform his original tunes at music festivals in the United Kingdom.
“It was the second Golden Ticket to land at his feet,” Lockett said.
With all the new interest, Jackson began to tour Europe and the United States, and he was well-received, earning widespread praise for his resurgence on the scene. Also, with a growing new fan base for Jackson, the 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 unreleased. Then in 2007, Jackson’s album entitled, “Roddy Jackson — Central Valley Fireball” was released.
Jackson continued to perform and teach until his passing last week.
He is survived by his wife Kate, sister Annette Rambo and her husband Dawson, brother Rick Jackson and his wife Mary, and sister Roseanne Ackerley. Other surviving family members include his stepson Clint Child and his wife Chanda, stepdaughters Kathleen Siering, Jenee Weiner, Robin Freitas and Lora Hill and many grandchildren.
Jackson was preceded in death by his stepson Chris and stepson Adam Trelatsky.
Plans for a local memorial service or celebration of life are pending.