Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rodd Keith

Rodd Keith (born Rodney Keith Eskelin; January 30, 1937 – December 15, 1974) was an American multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. He is perhaps the best known figure in the obscure musical sub-genre known as song poem music.

He worked for several companies active in the song-poem business, a practice also known as song sharking, and generally dismissed as a scam.

Keith recorded hundreds of musical compositions based around lyrics sent in to song-poem companies by amateur songwriters, based upon small ads in the backs of mass market magazines promising success in the profitable field of songwriting. After a letter was sent by the company, the amateur songwriters would then be convinced to pay the company a fee to have a recording made and records pressed. Keith sang on many of these recordings as well as playing several different instruments, including saxophone, accordion, and all manner of keyboards.

During the late 1960s he had his most prolific period working for Clarence Freed's Preview Records label in Los Angeles. Keith masterminded recording sessions for hundreds of 45s and dozens of albums, working with female singers Teri Thornton, Charlotte O'Hara, and Nita Garfield (who used "nomes de disque" Teri Summers, Bonnie Graham, and Nita Craig respectively). Thornton, a promising jazz vocalist in the late 50s and early 60s, had fallen on hard times, while the latter two were ambitious singers and songwriters who'd had material recorded in the C&W and R&B markets.

Keith, who was born into a religious household and was even a musical evangelist for a time, fell in with a hard-living crowd in Los Angeles during the late 60s and early 70s, experimenting with different psychedelics. His music, at first jazzy, somewhat stilted, and ill-suited for the pop world, became more loose, funky, and with the times.

In December 1974, by which time he'd moved over to Maury S. Rosen's MSR Records, Rodd met his death on the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (which ran on December 16 of 1974) Rodd was seen "leaping or falling from an overcrossing onto the Hollywood Freeway," and he "plunged down the Santa Monica Blvd. overpass onto the northbound freeway about 5:15 a.m. and drivers could not avoid him." It has been suggested that this was a suicidal act, but Rodd's heavy drug use at this time has led others to claim it was an accident.

In the 1990s, record collectors who seek out old vinyl recordings rediscovered these obscure discs. Several compilations of these songs were released on compact disc, including several which featured the work of Keith exclusively. Keith's son, avant-garde saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, provided commentary on these releases. Although Ellery never actually met his father, he was told by many people that he was some kind of musical genius. Keith once remarked that he spelled "Rodd" with two d's because "God only used one."

"This American Life", an NPR show, had an interview with Ellery Eskelin, who spoke about his discovery of his father's works. This show originally aired August 15, 1997.

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