Singer-guitarist Jody Reynolds, the West Coast rockabilly provocateur whose riveting, morbid 1958 hit “Endless Love” sold more than a million copies, died in Palm Desert, California, on Nov. 7, following a lengthy illness. Born Dec. 3, 1932, in Denver, Colorado, Reynolds was a stylist of drastically offbeat vision. His lyrics were spare, evocative; his song structure often highly unconventional. (Hell, even his indie label — Demon Records — seemed weird.) “Unusual” scarcely begins to cover his music. While Reynolds cut plenty of straight-up, standard-issue horny rockabilly, he also churned out a memorable series of wildly disparate records, like “Night Girl,” an utterly relaxed and convincing mad-cool blues fraught with protopsychedelic imagery (her “halo shines at night … a crimson red”); some greasy, chugging strip-joint instrumentals with tenor sax paragon Plas Johnson (check their “Makin’ Out”); and later, some penetrating pop-country experiments, dueting with a pre–“Ode to Billy Joe” Bobbie Gentry (hear “Stranger in the Mirror”).
The consummate open-minded Westerner, he was raised in Colorado, later moved to Oklahoma for a time but professionally based himself in Southern California. As with every other rockabilly aspirant, Elvis Presley played a key role in Reynolds’ musical breakout and after an evening in 1956, when Reynolds got five juke plays of “Heartbreak Hotel” in a row for 25 cents, he went upstairs to his hotel room and wrote “Endless Sleep.” Although it took two years (and a rewrite nixing the original double-suicide climax) before anyone would release it, Reynolds had a created a masterpiece of gothic, death-fixated pop. With an eerie riff Reynolds said was inspired by the funeral bells he heard as a youth in Oklahoma, the record sounded as if it had been recorded in a mist-shrouded graveyard — full of wide-open space and atmosphere — and his vocal, pulsing with a numb, detached anguish, significantly anticipated the balladeer mix of drama and vulnerability Roy Orbison so effectively exploited several years later. Reynolds’ equally powerful and eccentric followup, “Fire of Love,” employed the same tender, tortured pathology but was just too odd to match the success of “Endless Sleep.” Like every other rockabilly, Reynolds’ moment quickly passed, but both of those songs proved vastly influential, with the former being recorded by the MC5 and Gun Club, while the latter was covered by Hank Williams Jr., John Fogerty, Marc Bolan, Nick Lowe and Simon Stokes — to name but a few. A magnificent aberrant, Reynolds’ approach to rock & roll constituted an entirely separate artistic order, one that remains unique.