One Track Mind: Les Dudek "Old Judge Jones" (1977)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Les Dudek is one of those guitarists you may have never heard of but you’ve certainly heard him. He was the harmony guitar part on The Allman Brothers’ first major hit “Ramblin’ Man.” He added slide and dobro to Steve Miller’s dual classics Fly Like An Eagle and Book Of Dreams. And more recently, you know that screaming guitar riff you hear on the Fox Sports theme song? Yup, Les Dudek.

But Dudek’s burgeoning list of connections (which he also acquired from touring and recording with Boz Skaggs, Stevie Nicks and Cher) landed him a solo contract with big, bad Columbia Records while still in his teens. Four records between 1976 and 1981 resulted from that association, but Dudek made much more money as a sideman to the stars. Thusly, he has come forth with only two more albums since then.

The second of those Columbias, Say No More, came out in 1977 and while it didn’t set the charts on fire, the freewheeling attitude of album rock stations of that time made it possible to get it airplay and that’s where I first heard it. Say No More‘s music can best be described as a hybrid of Tom Johnston’s Doobie Brothers and, naturally, The Allmans. A guy who fits in with so many different rock stars is going to be a lot more likely to copy from them at the expense of developing his own style and to be frank, you can make that accusation about this album.

Dudek drew from the A-List group of sidemen; guys like David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, Chuck Rainey, Tony Williams, David Sancious and so on. With so much talent assembled courtesy of Columbia’s considerable stable of sessionists, engineers and producers, it wasn’t going to to be a dud, despite the lack of a signature sound. In fact, there are several bright spots on it. The brightest of these is “Old Judge Jones”

“Old Judge Jones” starts with a prominent single note guitar line not too distant from what you hear on the Allman’s “Jessica,” which was an uncredited co-write of his. And like that song, it’s a smooth blend of blues boogie and rock but with an extra serving of jazz and soul courtesy of the sassy background vocals of Clydie King, Shirley Matthews and Rebecca Lewis. But it’s also no instrumental; Dudek added some lyrics about a jurist who is one mean son of a bitch:

Old Judge Jones never gave a man a break
And on his hanging tree the leaves don’t shake
That man in black… what did he say?
A hundred years in one dark day

Les’ singing won’t blow anyone away but the song’s key was wisely set in his range and he actually gives it a sincere R&B rendering. And when he takes his turn to rip on his Les Paul during the solo break, he channels Duane Allman to a tee. Same blues notes, tone, everything. Maybe that’s why Duane’s old associate Skaggs kept Dudek in his band for five years.

There’s more to Les Dudek’s fascinating story, like when he turned down offers to join bands like Journey and Chicago. But when I think of Dudek I’m more inclined to think of his long-ago serious bid as a solo artist and “Old Judge Jones.” Except, of course, when I’m watching football on the Fox network.

Listen: Les Dudek “Old Judge Jones”

Purchase: Les Dudek – Say No More

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

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