Robert Gordon, Rockabilly Revival Icon, Dies at 75

Rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, whose albums with guitar greats Link Wray and Chris Spedding helped solidify his place in rock history and carry the genre over several decades, died Tuesday (Oct. 18) at Don Greene Hospice in New York City following a diagnosis of leukemia, according to Gordon’s friend and colleague Sam Grosso. He was 75.

Gordon’s most recent album was 2020’s Rockabilly For Life, which featured Spedding, Paul Shaffer, Albert Lee, James Williamson, Linda Gail Lewis, Kathy Valentine and others. He was slated to perform some dates in the U.S. and Canada this past summer with Spedding, Anton Fig and Tony Garnier, but was forced to cancel due to health issues related to his leukemia.

“Heartbreaking news about Robert Gordon passing away,” wrote Lou Molinaro, owner of the Hamilton, Ontario venue This Ain’t Hollywood, on Facebook. “He was like family at This Ain’t Hollywood. I will miss his ‘check one one. Uh huh’ during soundchecks. Gordie and I LOVED those moments. Wish I had one last chance to bring him back to Hamilton. Goodbye Robert.”

“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever think listening to his records as a teenager I would forge a working relationship and friendship with this rockabilly legend,” Grosso, former owner of Toronto’s Cadillac Lounge and current owner of the city’s Sam’s Place, says in an email. “So many great shows and so many wild stories. I will miss him dearly. Robert performed at the Cadillac Lounge more than any other venue [and] every show was sold out.”  

Born in Bethesda, Maryland, Gordon was drawn to rock ‘n’ roll after he heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” at age nine. He soon dug into the music of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane and others ’50s greats and cut his first recording at 17 singing with a band called The Confidentials. His career ramped up after he relocated to New York City and joined the punk band Tuff Darts (which can be heard on the 1976 album Live At CBGBs alongside tracks by Mink DeVille, Sun Ra and others). 

In 1977, Gordon cut his debut “solo” album, Robert Gordon With Link Wray, and followed with several others, including 1978’s Fresh Fish Special (with Wray), which also includes Presley’s famed background singers The Jordanaires and Bruce Springsteen, who played on Gordon’s rendition of the Springsteen-penned track “Fire.” An ad in Billboard that ran on March 11, 1978, read, in part: “Robert Gordon, the new voice of Rock and Roll, and Link Wray, the legendary guitarist, are together again! FRESH FISH SPECIAL follows their red hot first album – and it’s a killer! Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for it. Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Jack Scott are faithfully remembered in it.”

In 1979, Gordon released Rock Billy Boogie, which peaked at No. 106 on the Billboard 200. That was quickly followed by 1980’s Bad Boy and 1981’s Are You Gonna Be The One, which included the single “Someday, Someway,” which peaked at No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1982, Gordon ventured into acting, co-starring in outlaw biker flick The Loveless opposite Willem Dafoe. Gordon can also be seen performing with his band in a 1981 skit for Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV, in which he’s mistaken for astronaut Gordon Cooper.

Since then, Gordon has released nearly 20 albums, including live recordings and international releases. He also continued to tour; his last live show was in February.

“RIP in my dear friend Robert Gordon,” wrote Danny B. Harvey of the 69 Cats on Facebook. “It was your music that brought me to Rockabilly and it was an honor to produce and play guitar on your final endeavor! One thing everyone that’s ever met you can agree on, is you were one of a kind and they broke the mold after you were created. Say hello to Link for us .  F*ck ‘Rockabilly for Life’, ‘Rockabilly Forever’ Ok?”

In a lengthy Facebook post, musician Steve Conte began: “RIP RG. Sad news, Robert Gordon the Rockabilly icon has passed. That voice, now silenced. His take on Rockabilly Boogie, Black Slacks, Red Hot, The Way I Walk, It’s Only Make Believe and other classics won’t be heard again in venues on earth, but luckily we’ve still got the records.”

Noting that Gordon was one of his “favorite NYC singers,” Conte added that several years ago, Gordon asked him to replace the guitarist Spedding in his band. But in early September, he got a call from Gordon’s tour manager Bill Moser that Gordon had been “diagnosed with an aggressive form of Leukemia. And this was after he’d just gone through major heart surgery and was just getting over that surgery.

“I knew he was not doing well and perhaps didn’t have long so getting in touch with him was on my’ ‘to do’ list, but this morning I got the call that I missed my chance,” Conte added. “Rest In Peace Robert.”

Chris Eggertsen