Something Else! Interview: Blues legend Duke Robillard

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Duke Robillard, co-founder of Roomful of Blues and a former member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, has earned high praise from none other than B.B. King — who labeled him “one of the great players.”

B.B. isn’t the only one who’s noticed: A Handy award winner for best blues guitarist in both 2000-01, Robillard received a Grammy nod for best traditional blues album in 2006. A year later, he earned the Pell Award for Artistic Excellence, given in his home state of Rhode Island.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Duke Robillard talks about tunes from ‘Low Down and Tore Up,’ memorable dates with Herb Ellis and Tom Waits — and his lasting passion for Chuck Berry.]

Robillard confirms the notion that he is one of our very best (not to mention most fun) blues practitioners over the course of his new project Low Down and Tore Up — an energetic mixture of rib-sticking jump, gut-bucket blues and floor-stomping swing issued just last week.

“The vibe,” he tells us, “is just what the title implies: It’s collection of really funky blues from the late 1940s through ’50s — all cover tunes, things that I played with I was young and tunes I loved when I was first heavily getting into the blues.”

In the latest SER Sitdown, he talks more about Roomful and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the lasting influence of T-Bone Walker, playing on one of Bob Dylan’s latter-day masterpieces — and keeping the blues relevant in a digital age …

Nick DeRiso: Describe the early days of Roomful of Blues, a band that has become this legendary breeding ground for talent since you co-founded it in the 1960s.
Duke Robillard: I was always a record collector — I’d get these old 78s in the antique shops — and once I discovered Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan, I couldn’t believe that music. There were a lot of vinyl albums of that music at the time and, really, no interest in reissuing it. Joe Turner was the only one that never really went out of print. He remained popular, because Atlantic continued to re-release his records. As soon as I heard that sound, I said: “This is for me.” It’s more urban. Being white, I don’t have to sound like I’m from the Delta. It’s more natural for me to play more city blues. I just thought that I could honestly pull it off better — not to mention I just loved the elements of jump and swing.

DeRiso: Even now, I hear a real passion in your voice for this music.
Robillard: It needs to stay alive. That’s why I go back and forth so much on my albums: I don’t want to leave things out. Besides loving to play it, I want to keep this music out there.

DeRiso: How did you come to replace Jimmy Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the early 1990s? Was it difficult to move back into the band dynamic after so long as a solo artist?
Robillard: We were all friends. When they first came north, we were one of the first bands that they knew and loved — and we were way into them when I was in Roomful. We even booked gigs as a double bill to get them heard. So we were admirers. By the time Jimmy left, the rhythm section had formerly been in Roomful over the years. It seemed an easy, natural shift to me. Even though I was giving up my position as a frontman, I had enough respect for (band leader) Kim (Wilson) to do that and to see where it would lead.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Duke Robillard’s ‘Low Down and Tore Up’ reminds us of one of those blues records from long ago — dead set on nothing more than good-time joy and real-time emotion]

DeRiso: T-Bone Walker has always been one of your clearest influences, something you explored more fully in a 2004 tribute record. What makes his music so special to you? Was it that he got so much out of his instrument, so many tones, without the aid of technology?
Robillard: That’s a good point. But the thing that drew me in was that it was a very natural guitar sound, before people used any kind of effects — other than distortion. The thing about T-Bone was he combined blues and elements of jazz on the guitar before just about anybody was doing that. He was doing things that harmonically was blues but, rhythmically, it had elements of jazz. That was very modern for its time — futuristic, you could say, for a guitar player. He set the tone for all of electric blues guitar the way that Charlie Christian set the tone for jazz.

DeRiso: Do you hope that opens the door for listeners to explore deeper into the jazz canon, back to guys like Christian, Tiny Grimes and Kenny Burrell?
Robillard: That’s what it’s all about — taking what you learn from the people you admire and making it your own. Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Tiny Grimes and Oscar Moore with Nat Cole and Johnny Moore with Charles Brown — the list is gigantic. All of those people have influenced me; that’s where I come from. My first influence was probably Chuck Berry and that was very related to T-Bone. Chuck took what T-Bone did, and made it his own but putting in a different beat.

DeRiso: You appeared on Bob Dylan’s celebrated late-1990s recording Time Out of Mind, and more recently did a riveting slide-driven cover of his tune “Everything Is Broken.” How does Dylan fit into the blues legacy?
Robillard: I think I can hear the influence of blues all over his music. In the early days, he was influenced by a lot of the acoustic players. I could always pick up on the blues sound in his music. Time Out of Mind was challenging. It’s a great record, though my opinion is that it should have been remixed. There were often 12 or 14 people playing at the same time when the record was made, and that’s too many. (Producer Daniel) Lanois was looking for his signature sound, not really what Dylan had in mind.

DeRiso: How do you mean?
Robillard: His sound is kind of ambient; there’s nothing that’s distinctive — just a sound behind the artist. That’s why you can’t hear much of me on there! (Laughs.) It’s a funny thing, the way it was mixed. But I think, no matter what you did with those tracks, it was going to come out as Dylan’s finest record from the modern era — because the songs were so great. Actually, Daniel Lanois did not want me there, but Dylan called me. First of all, I was taking Lanois’ place as a guitar player – and he didn’t want any personality of a particular musician standing out. He wanted his sound, which is kind of a soup, with everything thrown together like a background sound. I spent nine days on that record, working 12 hours a day. He threw me out of the studio repeatedly, then Dylan would bring me back in. It was absurd. But at the same time, it was such an honor to work on that album and work with Dylan that I kept going.

DeRiso: For all of your old-school passions, there are also fun touches of modernity in your work — like last year’s digital-generation love song “Text Me.” Do you feel a responsibility to help shepherd this music into a new age?
Robillard: I wanted to make it relevant today, and make it relevant to my life at my age. I’m on the road a lot and my wife and I do text each other all the time. We can be apart a month at a time, and we can stay in touch, even when she’s at work and I’m in a van. We can keep in contact. I’m proud of that song, because I managed to do that without being stupid or tacky. It’s a tricky thing, to talk about something like that and stay true to the idiom. You’ve seen a lot of people throw things about modern life and technology into the blues — and it doesn’t always work. You have to be very, very careful. I’m just going on my opinion, though. You know what they say about opinions.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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