Born Rodney Ronald Louis Bernard, 12 August 1940, Opelousas, Louisiana
Rod Bernard is one of the principal purveyors of swamp pop, a genre that grew to maturity in Louisiana in the late 1950s from the strains of Cajun music, New Orleans R&B and country and western. Bernard made his professional debut as a singer (accompanying himself on guitar) on KSLO Radio, Opelousas, when he was only ten and two years later, in 1952, he became a disc jockey at the same station, playing the country hits of Hank Williams, Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell every Tuesday evening. By the mid-50s he became aware of rhythm and blues (or race music, as it was still called then in Louisiana) and started playing artists like Fats Domino, B.B. King and Jimmy Reed. His radio name was now 'Hot Rod'.
In 1956 Rod formed his first band (the Twisters) and cut four crude sides for Jake Graffagnino's obscure Carl label the next year. These two singles were hardly heard outside of Opelousas, but the next record, "This Should Go On Forever", for the Jin label in October 1958 was quite a different story. Bernard first heard the song performed live by Guitar Gable and his band, who had a singer calling himself King Karl (Bernard Jolivette). Rod asked, "Karl, what's that song I like, when are you gonna put it out?" The answer was always "It's gonna be our next record", but Excello, the company where Guitar Gable was under contract, would not release "This Should Go On Forever". Rod then asked Karl, who wrote the song, if it would be all right if he recorded it himself. He said sure and taught Bernard how to sing it. Floyd Soileau was willing to record it for his fledgling Jin label, with Rod's composition "Pardon Mr. Gordon" (a good uptempo rocker) as the intended B-side. It took more than eight hours to get acceptable takes of the two songs.
Bernard told John Broven : "When we finally got the final cut, I had a terrible nosebleed and I sang the song with a towel all wrapped around my face and that's how we did 'This Should Go On Forever'. Maybe that was the key to it, maybe I should have kept singing with a towel around my face." The record took some time to start selling, but once Huey Meaux and the Big Bopper started playing it on their Texas radio stations, "This Should Go On Forever" soon became too big for Soileau to handle and he leased the master to Leonard Chess in Chicago, who reissued the record in February 1959 on Argo 5327. It reached # 20 on the Billboard pop charts and # 12 on the R&B hitparade, selling some 475,000 copies. In the UK it was released on London HLM 8849 in April 1959. Rod went on a national tour to promote the record and appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand (with slightly amended lyrics!) and the Alan Freed Show.
But Chess didn't put much effort behind Rod's second Argo single ("You're On My Mind", written by Roy Perkins) and his new manager, Bill Hall, who had previously managed the late Big Bopper, signed Bernard to Mercury. Only the first Mercury 45, "One More Chance", made any chart impression (peaking at # 74 in late 1959). The subsequent singles were mainly vacuous teen ballads, complete with tedious violin sections and vocal choruses, more
"pop" than "swamp". After the Mercury contract expired in early 1962, Rod recorded for Bill Hall's new Hall-Way label, where many of his sessions were backed by Johnny and Edgar Winter (then still completely unknown). It was a marked improvement. The first Hall-Way single, the catchy Cajun favourite "Colinda", sung in French and English, was a regional hit and "I Might As Well", "Forgive" and "Loneliness" are now considered as minor swamp pop classics, though personally I prefer the uptempo B-sides ("Fais Do-Do", "Boss Man's Son", "My Old Mother-In-Law").
Rod's career was interrupted by a six-month stint in the Marine Corps boot camp, but upon his return in late 1962 he founded the Shondells (not to be confused with Tommy James's group) with fellow swamp poppers Warren Storm and Skip Stewart. They recorded a handful of singles and an album of television performances for the La Louisianne label, owned by Carol Rachou, with whom Bernard also formed his own short-lived Arbee label in 1965. The first Arbee single was a great Chuck Berry-type rocker, "Recorded In England", a sardonic comment on the English beat-group domination of the time. Rod's brother Oscar 'Ric' Bernard did the fancy Berry-ish guitar work on that record.
The 1970s were relatively uneventful, enlivened only by the release of four albums on Jin (with both old and new recordings) and one on Crazy Cajun. Around 1980 Bernard recorded an LP of Fats Domino covers for Jin, but the masters were misplaced until 1991, when eleven tracks were finally released as "A Lot Of Dominos". In 1984 Rod Bernard more or less retired from the music business in order to concentrate on a career in television advertising, although he returned to the studio in 1999 to record the album "A Louisiana Tradition".
Further reading / acknowledgements :
Discography : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursb/bernard_r.htm
Recommended CD :
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