Rodd Keith Revealed

By Ellery Eskelin
Reprinted from LCD (WFMU-FM Radio's Magazine)



"Leaping or falling from an overcrossing onto the Hollywood Freeway, a man identified as Rodney Eskelin, 37, address unknown, was struck by numerous cars and killed. Police said the victim plunged down the Santa Monica Blvd. overpass onto the northbound freeway about 5:10a.m. and drivers could not avoid him."

This news item ran in the Los Angeles Times on December 16, 1974. Rodney Eskelin was my father. I was recently at the New York Public Library and decided to search the records for any mention of this event. I had always suspected that there would be and here it was. I was familiar with the circumstances of his death but was shocked by the bold matter of fact delivery and yet strange as it sounds, able to draw a certain amount of strength and comfort from the reality of it. Sometimes I feel that my father probably had a more profound effect on my life than anyone I've ever met. It's quite a legacy especially given the fact that I had almost no direct contact with him before he either accidentally or intentionally left this world.

Rodney Keith Eskelin, (or Rodd as he spelled his name), was considered a musical genius by every person that I've ever spoken to who knew him. For most of my life this story would remain a deeply private one, difficult to gain a perspective on let alone try to relate and share with others. In 1994, however that all changed. I discovered that my father Rodd Keith (as he was known in the music business), had himself been discovered by an intrepid record collector and was now gaining cult status for his work in the "song poem" industry. "Song poem" music refers to those "send us your lyrics" ads that you've probably seen in magazines. Rodd was one of the people who set those words to music and recorded the songs which were then "sent around" as promotion on behalf of the client. A strange process that produced even stranger results. This is Rodd's (and my) story.



Rodd's musical beginnings centered largely around the church. His father found religion in mid-life, became a minister and took his wife and three sons into the heartland of America to preach the Gospel. A very musical family, the Eskelin's formed a singing group and traveled throughout the Midwest performing for revivals and even cutting a few 78's along the way. At an early age Rodd showed great musical prowess playing a variety of instruments and writing choir and instrumental arrangements for various church groups. After finishing his religious schooling in Florida, Rodd was assigned to a church in Baltimore to handle the music program. It was here that he met my mother Roberta, (also a musician), married her and took to the road, traveling across the country playing music while looking for a place to settle. "Rodd and Bobbie" were a two keyboard team playing piano and organ. They eventually wound up doing a weekly live television program in Wichita, Kansas in the late 50s called "Just a Song at Twilight". It was here that I was born in 1959. By this time, however, Rodd's ties to the church and religion were becoming tenuous. He had always been something of the charming eccentric (part of what made him attractive to my mother in the first place), yet it soon became apparent that Rodd had his own way of looking at the world and that it was not always compatible with the practicalities of family life. They made it as far as California before things took a turn for the worse. Out of work, roaming the streets of Los Angeles, child in tow and their few possessions piled in a little red wagon, Rodd's detachment and nonchalance in the face of potential homelessness proved too much for my mother. She decided that this was no life for a family and returned to Baltimore with me in 1961. I was eighteen months old.

Growing up in Baltimore wasn't so bad. It's an insular sort of place though and begins to take on a surreal quality the longer you stay. In any case, it's a long way from Los Angeles and any conception of my unknown father was somewhat vague at best. All in all though I was pretty happy. After all, I was new to the world and didn't yet realize that the situation was at all unusual . My mother continued to play Hammond B3 organ and performed all over town with her own group. I got to hear a lot of music at an early age and was inspired myself to take up the tenor saxophone in 1969. I was ten years old and within a few weeks I announced that I was going to become a jazz musician. I actually knew this the first day we brought the horn home but I waited a while to say it since I was very serious and didn't want anyone to think that this was simply the impetuousness of youth talking.

Stories of my father's musical prowess inspired me. "He could play any instrument he picked up" my mother told me. He drove her crazy by always waiting until the last possible moment to write new arrangements for their show, coming up with fantastic music right off the top of his head and expecting her to sight-read on live television. This was all very effortless for him and he didn't seem to understand her consternation. Rodd loved "progressive" jazz and played his favorite records in my room when I was a child. He was sure that it would have a beneficial effect on me someday. Maybe that explains a lot about how I turned out!?! My mother was afraid that Rodd's far out taste in music would scare a young child. In any event, Rodd's predilection for modern harmony was beginning to get him into a little trouble at church where his improvisations at the organ were met with some disapproval. Churchgoers complained about the "sick cow" sounds that Rodd was making out of their precious hymns. Back at home Rodd and his father-in-law (a fine guitarist) played "what chord am I playing?" games, each trying to stump the other by grabbing a handful of notes on the organ and defying the other to figure out what the hell it was.

Stories of Rodd's eccentricities were equally intriguing. He apparently had little regard for the conventions of practical life. He was a pretty laid back guy but was intense about his beliefs and had to argue everything. He loved to mess with people's minds, not in an unkind way yet it seemed to amuse him particularly if he could get a rise out of someone. A very bright guy, he loved to talk and make up outlandish stories, the weirder the better. He could go on endlessly and if my mother protested, she was admonished with the advice that she just needed more discipline. Occasionally his imagination would get the better of her, from his calm and serious explanation that those strange middle-of-the-night sounds on the roof were definitely demons, to his alarmingly casual comments about potential "lifestyle arrangements" where their marriage was concerned. Even more shocking was his rationalization of why it was OK for him to have loaded up the trunk of the car with stolen instruments from the local music store (where they worked) to sell as they traveled the country looking for work. She always stressed though that Rodd was a loving person whom everyone liked a lot and who got along well with everyone he met. He never seemed to get upset and had a live and let live attitude about life that was actually very inspiring to her and the people they knew. It was this liberal attitude toward life that led to recommendations from their friends that they might like to live in California.

Maybe it's a strange sort of story for a young kid to hear about his dad but I was very, very impressed. We didn't have much contact from Rodd's side of the family after the split. Then around 1973 we started getting letters from Rodd's mother. The whole family was now in Los Angeles and she gave us the run down on everyone 's activities. She mentioned the Rodd was now in the recording business. "People from all over the country send him either poems or words and music and Rodd makes records from them. He can just read through the poem for a few minutes and then make up the music and immediately sing and play it", she wrote. I'd never heard of anything like that before, sort of an odd line of work it seemed to me. I guess it didn't really impress me as being a very big deal and after a while it sort of slipped my mind. She ended her letter by inviting me to come visit them and meet my father. My mother thought that perhaps I was now old enough to handle Rodd's "unusualness" and was planning to send me to Los Angeles the next summer. Unfortunately that meeting would never take place. The next letter we got was an account of Rodd's death and the circumstances that led up to it. Rodd had become involved with drugs.

My initial reaction was rather calm, which surprised me a little. Having no working recollection of this man made it all seem a little academic at first. It took a little while for it to hit me but then it became all too real. The shock of realizing that I'd never get to know that man who had so inspired my imagination became immense. I was fifteen.

Over the years, I began seeking out people who knew him. The responses were uncannily similar as if these people, many of whom did not know each other, were all speaking from the same script. "Your father was a musical genius" are usually the first words out of their mouths. The stories of his drug use and odd behavior were startling. Here was a guy that liked to walk on high balconies just for fun. At least that's what a couple people seem to remember his doing once before he died. No one knows whether Rodd's death was intentional or an accident. I've met people who feel strongly one way or another but most don't really know. The older I get the more acutely I feel this loss. It doesn't get any easier. It just gets harder.

In 1976 I flew to Los Angeles to meet the Eskelin family. It was a wonderful time. I remembered the letter my grandmother had written in which she mentioned Rodd's work. Were there any recordings of him playing I wondered? After all these years I was absolutely desperate to hear anything that might exist. My grandparents had some records stored away and promised to make a tape of them and send it to me in Baltimore. Some months later it arrived. My mother was just as anxious as I was to hear it. We sat in the living room and put the cassette on. The sound quality was pretty poor, kind of hard to make out. "Is that Rodd singing" my mother asked. It sounded like a pop thing, kind of commercial. We looked at each other. I didn't want to say anything but this really sounded terrible. My mother said that this was not at all what Rodd was capable of. We were both disappointed. So this was to be the legacy I thought. A talented guy who got involved with drugs and died way too early. I felt destined to have to go through life unable to truly relate my feelings about it to any one else. Rodd had, however, remarried and had a daughter, which meant I had a sister, although her whereabouts were unknown. My grandmother said that Rodd's second wife left California and they didn't know where they went. After many years they finally got in touch and I met my sister Stacey for the first time in 1986. We hit it off immediately. Stacey had little recollection of Rodd either due to the fact that he and her mother also split up early. Because of that, Stacey and I share a deep bond where our father is concerned. Here was someone who knew what I felt.

I recently made another trip to California to visit the family. My uncle Jerry brought out a big box of records that he had been keeping. There were all recordings of Rodd. There seemed to be at least two hundred records there. Thinking back to my first experience with Rodd's music freaked me out a little. I didn't want to hear this stuff. I was desperate to hear anything that Rodd may have recorded that would have indicated the kind of genius that everybody spoke of, but I wasn't eager to sift through a pile of what I thought was probably junk. My uncle even offered to give me any of the records I wanted. I passed and said thanks but maybe another time although I did glance through the pile. Most of them were under the name Rodd Keith but there were a few under the name Rod Rogers. I learned that Rodd sometimes used that name to record under, a curious fact that didn't mean much at the time and might have been totally forgotten had it not been for you guessed it, WFMU free form radio.

I'd become a huge fan of WFMU not long before that trip and had even gotten to know some of the staff. They had been playing some of my records on the air and I'd even played live on Doug Schulkind's show. One day a catalog from the station arrived in the mail. I was leafing through the pages and happened across a record called "Beat of the Traps". The description of this "send us your lyrics" music sounded very much like the type of work Rodd did. It reminded me of an interview I heard on the station with someone who collected this kind of music. I only caught the very end of it but it made me think of Rodd. I wondered if they had any of his records though I sort of doubted it. I almost turned the page when I noticed the cover of the record. "MSR Madness featuring ROD ROGERS". My jaw hit the floor. Could it be? No way, I thought. I held the page in front of me for a long time, my mouth still hanging open. Who else could it be?! I had to find out. 'FMU would be having a record fair the next week so maybe I could get it directly. I called the station and spoke to Doug about it. "I think I might know the identity of Rod Rogers" I told him cryptically. I put the date of the fair on my calendar. There was no way I was going to miss this. The day arrived and I made my way downtown to Mary Help of Christians Church, the scene of the fair and found the WFMU table. There was the record. I still wasn't sure if this was Rodd so I bought the LP and quickly left to listen to it at home. While waiting for the bus I took the record out and began reading the liner notes. Tom Ardolino (drummer for NRBQ) had been collecting "song poem" music for over twenty years and this collection was his cream of the crop. Towards the end of the notes he mentions that Rod Rogers turns up on a lot of these records also under the name Rodd Keith. SHIT, THIS WAS IT!! He had even been searching for information about Rodd and called one of the record companies that put his music out. The guy who answered the phone told him that Rodd had died and then said, "Yep, he was a keyboard genius". UNFUCKINGBELIEVABLE!! Not only was there interest in Rodd's stuff but he was considered some sort of exalted visionary of a new genre of music. AND they were calling him a genius to boot! I quickly returned to the fair to buy another copy of the record and drop the bomb on everyone that Ellery Eskelin is the son of Rod Rogers. I met Byron Coley (who put the record out on his label, Carnage Press). He was polite but I could tell that the thought that I might be some sort of delusional nutcase was not far from his mind. I still remember the incredulous look on David Newgarden's face as he walked past me muttering, "I can't believe that Rod Rogers is your father".

The best was yet to come. I got home and put the record on. It was bizarre. My mind stopped working. It was clearly some sort of attempt at pop music but man it was strange. It was like nothing I had ever heard and I loved it. The words were rather odd and the music was blatantly fucked up but it was also really charming. Rodd's cuts really sparkled. He sang and played with a zest and enthusiasm that turned each twisted song into a gem. Compared to the stuff I heard as a kid, this was something else altogether. My mother enjoyed it a lot even though she said that it still didn't show what Rodd could really do. He was "just playing around" but his personality came through strongly she thought. Considering the title cut "Beat of the Traps", Rodd's borderline psychotic (drug induced?) rant about the drums, I realized that his personality must have been something far beyond my wildest imagination. Needless to say, I got my ass right back to L.A. and got a hold of all those records.

Since then, Phil Milstein (co-producer of "Beat of the Traps" and "The Makers of Smooth Music") and I have been busily researching song poem music. Here's how it works. Companies like MSR Records, Preview and Film City would take out ads in magazines soliciting the public for lyrics. The companies then paid someone like Rodd to set them to music and record them. The records would serve as a demo for the customer. Fame and big bucks were just around the corner. For a fee of course. It was called "song-sharking" and was just this side of a scam. Rodd did this type of work for easy money on and off from the mid-60s up until his death in 1974. In the beginning he played the Chamberlain, an early keyboard sampler. A predecessor to the more well known Mellotron used by the Moody Blues and the Beatles, the Chamberlain used actual tape loops of a variety of instruments and even voices. Rodd was one of the first to master the instrument and I still don't think anyone has ever exploited it to the degree that he did. Check out the song "Little Rug Bug" from "Beat of the Traps". It's done entirely on the Chamberlain. Later on Rodd hired studio musicians from the L.A. scene, continuing his habit of waiting to the last minute to come up with great arrangements right of the top of this head, going straight to music paper sometimes while eating lunch and holding a conversation at the same time.

Often the results were good by any standards, other times it seemed like all hell had broken loose, probably the result of too many thirty song a day, unrehearsed, drug fueled sessions. The combination of what were usually pretty strange but sincere lyrics from "amateurs" and cut-rate production values make this the last place anyone might expect to find "works of art" but there they are. Even Rodd considered what he was doing to be a form of prostitution, calling it "commercial crap". He knew he was capable of much more but he threw himself into it none the less. He took pride in his work, trying to do each job better than the last, even if it was sometimes a bit tongue in cheek. That's what made it work though. Running through this work so fast that he didn't have time to worry too much about aesthetic issues forced him into a place in which conviction was everything. Rodd had a way of making the most out of a very limited set of circumstances, which is a quality that I hold in high regard in music generally. Since there was no time for rehearsal or second takes, whatever you played the first time was IT! If one person in the group took a wrong turn everyone had to figure out how to go with them in order to save the track. It's just like improvising. When mistakes get made that's where the music starts. That's been a valuable lesson to me as a musician. As the jazz world becomes ever more conservative and boring I'm more and more attracted to those players who are not afraid to make mistakes, players who make the absolute most of what they've got be they "virtuosos" or not.

Unfortunately for Rodd, more "legitimate" work was elusive. He seemed not to know how to focus his talents, his difficulties exacerbated by drug use and a growing disinterest in the "real" world. Stories of Rodd's drug use are harrowing. His personality seemed to be a natural for hallucinogens and he took to them with an almost religious fervor. Going in cycles, Rodd would be productive for a time then stop working completely, losing touch with day-to-day reality. During these times he forgot to pay his bills and would sometimes even lose his apartment. Debbie Davies (one time guitarist with Albert Collins and leader of her own band) was Rodd's girlfriend at the time of his death. She remembers Rodd and his friend Conrad (someone I'd love to find) brewing PCP laced tea, spending their days drinking and talking, creating a strange world and language that she could no longer enter into. Rodd's second wife Joni remembers being called by the police one night to come get Rodd. Apparently he left his apartment one night high on LSD wearing only a raincoat. He liked to be naked at home so he didn't feel the need to get completely dressed since he was only going out for a pack of cigarettes. Rodd caused quite a sensation on Sunset Boulevard as he somehow managed to catch the raincoat on fire and was forced to rip the burning coat off resulting in his arrest. She also told me stories about his apartment (in which he painted one room entirely black and decorated the walls with yellow garbage bag twist ties), his arrest record for shoplifting, and the time he almost ruined her hearing by firing a gun in the car. It was also suspected that Rodd may have even been living on the street for a brief period. If this paints a frightening picture, I must temper it with just as many stories of a bright, loving, easy going man who charmed everyone around him and loved his family as much as they loved him. It may well be, as Debbie now feels, that Rodd was manic depressive. Swinging in and out of functional life, taking LSD every day just to cope, Rodd seemed less and less interested in reality and slowly created a world of his own. His predilection for word play and story telling took on alarming proportions. He learned to talk backwards. He saw profound meaning in seemingly nonsensical word play. He talked endlessly but no one could understand him.

One story has survived though. Rodd spoke of making a movie. It was said that he liked to take pictures and had bought one of the first video type cameras available. Rodd described how the main character in this movie would jump to their death from a freeway overpass. Nobody thought much about it at the time. Two weeks later Rodd either jumped or fell to his own death in much the same way he described. Some of his friends thought he was depressed, perhaps the result of something in his childhood. Others swear that Rodd could have never taken his life intentionally. He certainly wasn't happy having spent so many years doing demos. There's a rumor going around that Rodd actually had his death leap filmed. It's probably a distortion of Rodd's movie story. Still, it's telling that no one that I've talked to has dismissed it as being totally ridiculous, as if it were actually within his character to have done so. All in all, there are just as many compelling reasons to think that Rodd's death was indeed an accident. I like to think that he had a lot to live for.

At the time of this writing I am almost at the age that Rodd was when he died. My sister Stacey is expecting her first child. Rodd would have been a grandfather. I did have one indirect contact with Rodd through a letter to my grandmother. I was about fourteen and I described for her my ambitions in music. She showed the letter to Rodd. He said that I had good taste in music and that he was proud of my talent in the music field. Thanks Dad.

Ellery Eskelin
New York City
1996


Ellery Eskelin plays tenor saxophone in New York and around the world. He has just produced a collection of his father's recordings titled "I DIED TODAY - MUSIC OF RODD KEITH", for the Tzadik label's new "Lunatic Fringe" series. Ellery's own latest recording is called "JAZZ TRASH". His sister Stacey Keith has written "DRIVE YOUR WOMAN WILD IN BED - A Lover's Guide to Sex and Romance" for Warner Books.

Anyone interested in the song-poem genre should visit "The American Song/Poem Music Archives."

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