Funk Archaeology: Bassist Robert Rozelle, A True Unsung Hero

There are record collectors… And then there are people like Egon from Now-Again. Egon – who was the general manager of the Stones Throw label for 11 glorious years – is one of those rare creatures scouring the entire globe for the choicest bits of obscure wax, from Turkish psych to Zambian soul. In this edition, Egon pays tribute to the extraordinary bass player Robert Rozelle.

One person’s icon is another’s unknown. To some, the Velvet Underground is just a name on the banana t-shirt that hipsters adorn their children with. To others, mentioning the J.B.’s doesn’t evoke the sounds of one of the most important ensembles of the 20th century, but rather signifies the way that you order a couple nips of bourbon when slumming it at the local package store. But if you’re a regular here, you know that “Coltrane” could refer to the discography of both a man and a woman and that David Axelrod is not just Barack Obama’s famous adviser. So it will make sense to you that it’s hard for me to consider someone like Axelrod an unsung hero. He’s known and respected by generations of musicians. And so is Alice Coltrane, even if many early 20-somethings’ introduction to her started with a Flying Lotus interview.

The deeper into the underground you go, you’re likely to find a number of bassists inhabiting the unsung hero role.

If you’re like me, it’s even hard to call someone like the randomly recording soul and funk maverick, drummer Edward “Apple” Nelson, an unsung hero, if only because of the accolades lauded on his small run of 7-inch singles by those in the UK’s Northern Soul scene and those in Eastside LA’s lowrider cliques. A few years ago I tracked Nelson down, if only because I’m a fan of his music and had never known his story. Over the course of two years he allowed me numerous interviews, and I plumbed for memories of distant session musicians, the many departed friends that helped him record the small number of records he self-released in the ’70s.

In situations like this, I normally expect nothing more than a laundry list of anonymous musicians – lateral movement to find a vein of rich music originating from one of those persons is unlikely. But in the case of Nelson’s story, which, I’ll admit, is circuitous, subject to constant change, and must be taken with at least a few grains of salt, a name or two led to something interesting, something beyond the confines of the South Central underground that had been Nelson’s universe. And thus we’re here, considering the largely unknown, bassist Robert Rozelle: a real unsung hero.

The deeper into the underground you go, you’re likely to find a number of bassists inhabiting the unsung hero role. For every Bootsy Collins, there’s a Larry Graham. And for every Larry Graham there’s a Rick Chudacoff. And in the areas that rock and funk crossed over (all three of those bass players mentioned above would fit the bill), it gets even more difficult to name a musician who, some 40-odd years after his peak, is a recognizable name in any circle.

Nelson made the startling claim that he, Rozelle and a brood of musicians recorded “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man.”

I’ll admit that my appreciation for the SoCal psych band Love stopped before their Blue Thumb releases (with the exception of Out There, due to George Suranovich’s banging “Doggone” drum solo). And I certainly didn’t follow Love bandleader Arthur Lee’s trajectory outwards from his classic period. If I had, I wouldn’t have just scribbled what seemed to be another random name when I quizzed Nelson for the musicians who recorded with him on his sporadic clutch of releases. And I would have had a better context when Nelson made the startling claim that he, Rozelle and a brood of musicians – not James Gadson and other Kansas City transplants – recorded Dyke and the Blazers’ important funk single “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man.” I would have probably pestered him more for a connection to Rozelle, who still lived in Los Angeles when I first met Nelson in 2010.

Rozelle passed away in 2011, the victim of a car crash, and with him, his definitive story has been lost. But luckily for us, his relation to Arthur Lee – and his pivotal role in the posthumous release of the 1973 Love album Black Beauty last year – provided a pointed frame of reference for High Moon Records and their liner notes author Ben Edmonds. So we were treated, in Black Beauty’s lavish booklet, a peek into one hemisphere of Rozelle’s musical world, one that, for a moment, was documented extraordinarily well – if nearly lost for 40 years. Photos and recordings lauded as “revelatory” by SPIN went public within a year of the Nelson anthology Free and Easy, which I issued on my own label. It made me go back to Nelson and start asking more questions, forced me to look for Rozelle’s family (I have a number for his widow, and though none of my calls have been returned, I’m still ringing), and attempt to write something fitting about this unsung musical hero.

Arthur Monday - "What Goes Around Comes Around" (Stage Music, circa ’69)

As I noted in my liner notes to Free and Easy, it was Arthur Monday’s manic rant that relegated this obscure Los Angeles single to the funk freak show, not like local disc jockey Doug Moore’s Stage Music imprint had anything resembling distribution. But this is a bonafide funk masterwork, largely due to the interplay between Nelson and a bassist whom Nelson assumes must be Rozelle. While Edmonds states, in the Black Beauty liner notes, that Rozelle began playing bass in 1966 after seeing a Love show, Nelson recalls meeting Rozelle in the “early to mid 60s, and he was already playing the bass. He was staying in Inglewood, with his mother and stepfather. I met him through that circle of musicians that I gigged with.”

If “What Goes Around Comes Around” does feature Rozelle – and given Nelson’s description (“He was a laidback player, you know, but not the kind of bass player that just pounds one note.”), it’s a logical conclusion: This is his first recording and puts him on the stage with the likes of the then-unknowns Bootsy Collins and Michael Moore, who were offering these same kind of staccato basslines for funk Godfather James Brown and his stable of shoulda-been stars at the same time.

Dyke and the Blazers - "Let a Woman Be Woman, Let a Man Be a Man" (Original Sound, circa ’69)

When, in my earliest interviews, I pushed Nelson to offer up recordings he featured on from the period of his landmark Apple and Three Oranges singles, he offered a few names – Etta James and Marie Franklin are but two – but nothing shocked me like his claim that he recorded with Dyke and The Blazers for Art Laboe’s Original Sound label. When asked for which singles he might have recorded, he first named “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man.”

This lead to an immediate push back from myself and LA funk fan Cut Chemist, who was conducting the interview with me. For, of course, we were privy to the legend, and documentary filmmaker B+’s Keepintime short, where Gadson basically confirms that this never-annotated session featured his talents. “Well, I can’t say for sure,” Nelson said in a follow-up interview, as we listened to the extended version of the song, first heard by the public on a bootleg of Philadelphia radio DJ Sonny Hopson’s 1969 show, and later issued by BGP, “But that sure does sound more like me than it does sound like Gadson.”

“Well, I can’t say for sure,” Nelson said, “but that sure does sound more like me than it does sound like Gadson.”

Having had the time to listen to this record hundreds of times since that interview, in the context of Nelson’s known recordings and Gadson’s, I’m ready to call this one for Nelson. Oh, and there’s this matter of Laboe’s phone book, found last year in the detritus of his studio, after the contents were sold and pickers found their way in and sorted through the trash. In Laboe’s handwriting, under “D” for Dyke, there is a Phoenix address for one Arlester Christian, and an abbreviated personnel listing under “Dyke’s band”: “Eddie Nelson” on drums and – you guessed it – “Robert Rozelle” on bass. “Robert was with me when Dyke came to my house to gig and shoot heroin,” Nelson now states. “And sometimes we would go over to the hotel he was dealing drugs out of, over there on Central Ave. And yeah, I did two or three sessions with Robert at Original Sound.” Nelson also recalls Dyke’s later hit “We Got More Soul” was a product of those sessions.

Dyke & The Blazers - Let a Woman Be a Woman and a Man Be a Man

Apple and The Three Oranges - "True Love Will Never Die" (Sagittarrius Records, 1972)

All of Nelson’s releases on his self-funded, self-distributed Sagittarius Records label are obscure and rare; of those, “Down Home Publicty/True Love Will Never Die” is the most common, at least in L.A. No wonder, then, that “True Love Will Never Die” established itself early on as a lowrider standard. Nelson recalls that Rozelle is the bass player on this single, and listening to it next to “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man” and “What Goes Around Comes Around” confirms his belief, at least stylistically. This song, and Rozelle’s bassline (from one of the many bootleg lowrider compilation CD’s that circulate around East L.A.) was sampled recently by my partner Madlib – without my involvement, I swear – for a bonus beat on a Freddie Gibbs EP, as “Cold on the Blvd.”

“Him and Arthur Lee were like biological brothers, they were really that close," Nelson recalls

Love - "Good and Evil (Young and Able)" (High Moon Records, recorded 1973, released 2012)

Edmonds’ liner notes in Black Beauty’s extensive booklet make no mention of Rozelle’s work with Apple and The Three Oranges, which is acceptable given that Rozelle’s involvement in this ensemble was unknown by nearly all until Free and Easy’s release the previous year. But we are made aware, through Edmonds’ research, that Lee and Rozelle were rather close and that, at this low point in Lee’s career, it was Rozelle that gave him a direction for these sessions, which were recorded, cut to acetate, distributed to band members and friends, and then shelved. Case in point: the inclusion of guitarist Melvin Whittington, who Nelson recalls as the guitarist on the Dyke and the Blazers sessions he and Rozelle attended. “Him and Arthur Lee were like biological brothers, they were really that close,” Nelson recalls.

Ed. Nelson - "I’ll Give You a Ring (When I Come, If I Come)" (Sagittarius Records, 1975)

This later piece by Apple and The Three Oranges, released under Nelson’s name on this one occasion, is a confounding piece of soul music, as it sounds exactly like nothing that came before or has come after it. It’s been a strong Northern Soul spin for years and, as such, is part of the sung hero Nelson’s canon, but this song owes a great debt to Rozelle. It wouldn’t be the last time that Nelson and Rozelle would record together – “Soul Living,” recorded by Nelson’s later ’70s ensemble Everyday People Unlimited, features both men. But it’s the last known vinyl issue of the kinship these two shared and is a fortunate artifact of Nelson’s memory, as it allows us to now make the case for Rozelle’s entry into the funk and rock canon. A man who reached out to one of the psychedelic rock movement’s geniuses, and afforded him the ability to record one last masterwork. A bass player deserving of every accolade.

 Header image taken from the Black Beauty reissue from High Moon Records.

By Egon on February 10, 2014

On a different note