Not hip – not hippy: Biff Rose
For a long time nothing was heard of Biff Rose. At the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s this high-voiced singer-songwriter was part of the hippy scene. With his satirical texts – accompanied at first on the banjo then later on the piano – he was successful for a while. David Bowie, John Denver and Pat Boone covered his songs and Bruce Springsteen played in his warm-up program, but he never really broke through to the big time. Maybe his odd humour was not to everyone’s taste.
With the programmatic album ‘Bone again’, alluding perhaps to George W. Bush’s experience of being ‘born again’, he turned to the public again after a break of twenty years and did so as controversially as before. Political correctness is not his cup of tea, so no one is safe from his puns - no Jew, Arab, Black, Mormon, Nazi or Russian. Some listeners less able to see things from several angles have now and then accused him of being anti-Semitic and racist.
Above all he is a master of lascivious jokes and far-fetched plays on words. His most recent album (2004) was called, with a slightly veiled but evidently political slant, ‘The Knight Wigguh and the Nippie Higger´ with text-lines like: ‘We don’t want black people being Muslim, we want ’em loving Jesus. So they can yell and scream in church on Sunday, sober up with me on Monday. Them from bloody Jesus, me from Bloody Mary.’ He sings of Isodore, the first Jewish hurricane, the ‘Nazi love-song Lili Marlene’ and of ‘…my girlfriend Boo dancing at the Gaza Strip.’ Less controversial are his John Lennon parodies: ‘And Mother Mammy comes to me, whispering words of wisdom ‘Get it be’,’ or the slightly changed rap lines of the Fugees ‘It’s electric dot com ... dot com ... ready or not here I dot com’ (The original comes from the Delfonics, though the Jackson Five have likewise offered a version).
It all began in the mid-60s as Biff Rose from New Orleans played the banjo and ad-libbed his way through New York cafés. In 1965 he was honoured by an article in Time Magazine then moved on to Hollywood, where he turned to writing gags for television. Soon he went back to songs, and in 1968 his album ‘Biff Rose is the Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side’ appeared.
He accompanied many of his early songs on the piano but he arranged others for strings, woodwind and percussion. His style as a pianist is mostly said to be ‘old world’ in evoking boogie-woogie, old Hollywood films, Broadway musicals and vaudeville music of the 30s and 40s. In his newer albums he extends his style, using rap elements and parodying Randy Newman and Bob Dylan.
Richie Underberger writes in the All Music Guide: ‘Musically Biff Rose was firmly rooted in the time before the Second World War. With his straightforward piano style and his hopping singsong melodies he sounded like an old Broadway musician. He presented his works with a whining voice suggestive of the Tin-Pan-Alley recording-studio heads who would puff cigars and tell him: ‘Listen, boy, we like your music, but you ought to stick to writing. We’ll find some other guy to do the singing.’ His texts are a different kettle of fish. He had this sly and cheeky tone, both mimicking and mocking alternative culture… His words were too oblique to go down well on Broadway or on the easy-listening pop-market.’
A Portrait of Biff Rose
Cherry Red (rough trade)
Thorn in Mrs. Rose´s Side/Children of Light
Fill Your Heart With Biff Rose
What´s Gnawing At Me/Molly (1968)
Buzz the Fuzz/Gentle People (1968)
Take Care of My Brother/Myrtle´s Pies (1969)
I Forgot to Tell You/The Captain (1970)
Garbage/Lord I Done Bumped Into You (1972)
Biff, Cliff, and Warren (1961)
Banjo and Ballyhoo (1963)
The Thorn in Mrs. Rose´s Side (1968)
Children of Light (1969)
Biff Rose (1970)
Half Live at the Bitter End (1971)
Uncle Jesus, Aunty Christ (1972)
Hamburger Blues (1974)
Roast Beef (1978)
Thee Messiah Album/Live at Gatsby´s (1979)
Bone Again (1996)
The Elizabethan Period (2000)
E-Stir Parade (2003)
Live at The Earl of Oldtown (2003)
The Knight Wigguh and the Nippie Higger (2004)
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Exhibition, Film Programme, Music, Conferences
(23 August 07 - 04 November 07)