In the 1960s, singer-songwriter Roger Salloom hung out in San Francisco with the likes of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. His band opened for rising stars like Santana, Procol Harum and Van Morrison. He was on the same label as Creedence Clearwater Revival, and label honchos told him they thought he was going to be the household name.
It didn’t happen. Creedence took off instead. Santana grew huge. Salloom’s band released a critically acclaimed record, Salloom, Sinclair and The Mother Bear, that was named by the Chicago Tribune the Top Album of 1968. But through a quirk of fate, timing, the market, his character, or a combination of all four, Salloom’s career never took off.
The question of why some people make it while others – often equally talented – don’t, is at the center of the fine documentary So Glad I Made It: The Saga of Roger Salloom, America’s Best Unknown Songwriter. The film, directed by Chris Sautter, is more than just a backwards look at the ups and downs of the music business. It’s an exploration of what success actually means in a life – whether it’s measured by stadiums or true friendships.
The story picks up in present-day Northhampton, Massachusetts where Salloom lives in a modest house with his wife Donna. With the support of friends and family, he is working on a new cd – staging a comeback of sorts.
A chronic self-deprecator, he’d be the first to point out that you can’t come back from somewhere you’ve never been. And that right there might be one clue to his obscurity. Salloom doesn’t have the ego of a star. He’s good natured, laid back and more inclined to laugh than rail against his misfortune. Asked who his new cd might appeal to, he cracks, “It will appeal to people without any taste.” About making a dent in today’s music scene, he says, “What’s working against me is A) my age, B) my age, and C) my age.” That he’s right doesn’t make it less funny.
So what’s his music like? His voice is the most extraordinary thing. It has something of Bob Dylan’s rasp in it, but it’s warmer, with a richness all its own. His singing casts a spell – your attention is immediately riveted to its smooth, honeyed texture. It’s the “radio-worthy” sound that defined many 70s singers from Gerry Rafferty to Neil Diamond.
Salloom also has some affecting songs. As a performer he has presence and personality. So what happened? Well, a familiar white whale looms large over this story. The vision and talent that propelled Dylan into the stratosphere and made him the lodestar by which everything else was measured was a forbiddingly high bar to reach. Not that many didn’t try. Dylan was Salloom’s idol. The release of Nashville Skyline prompted Salloom to move to Nashville. At one point, disillusioned with the music business, he took to the road, and a photo from that time shows him looking exactly like Dylan in his Woody Guthrie-worshiping years.
It’s fine to have idols (Dylan’s new autobiography makes clear he had many) but maybe not when they’re your contemporaries and comparisons are too close and painful. You get the sense, watching this sensitive, intimate film, that Salloom failed to define a strong musical identity for himself. His music incorporated blues, folk, bluegrass, jazz and anything else he pleased, including a psychedelic rock period that he says he now regrets. “The music wasn’t good enough,” he says, in one of the film’s most somber scenes. “I shouldn’t have fooled around with all that psychedelic rock – I should have paid attention to the basic traditional forms of music in this country. I should have honored that.”
It’s painful to hear him judge his past. We can all look back at things we regret in our lives (except Nobodygirl, she’s too young). Salloom comes across as a warm, well-adjusted human being, which is success of another kind. He raised two boys on his own, having gotten custody after a divorce. He is surrounded by supportive friends. But for anyone who’s ever dreamed big, there’s always the nagging question (once posed in a Judds song): Why Not Me?
So Glad I Made It: The Saga of Roger Salloom has a screening in Nashville Jan. 25 and next month in Los Angeles. Other special and film festival screenings are ongoing. You can listen to some mp3s from Roger Salloom’s website (“When you can’t do anything,” “Fortunate”) and on the film’s site.