Gimme Five: Duke Robillard on solo sides, dates with Tom Waits and Herb Ellis

On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to blues legend Duke Robillard, founder of Roomful of Blues and former member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Find out more about the one-take genius of his famous “Blues A Rama” instrumental, and the early influence Chuck Berry’s Chess sides had on the young guitarist. Go inside memorable performances alongside Tom Waits and Herb Ellis. Robillard also shares unique insights into his terrific new album, Low Down and Tore Up

“WHAT’S WRONG,” (LOW DOWN AND TORE UP, 2011): A deep cut from New Orleans R&B artist James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, this humorous tale of personal misfortune — performed in that classic Chess Records stop-time style — was originally issued on Checker Uniss and credited to Sugar Boy and the Cane Cutters in 1954. Already a favorite of Robillard’s live shows, it has a crackling live feel on the new album.

Robillard: Almost all of the vocals and all the instruments were done live, other than one extra guitar. That really makes a difference in the way it feels. I used to be more of a perfectionist, but I’ve learned that live stuff — whether the people know it or not — has this energy that you pick up on. I think that’s very important to music. I heard Sugar Boy a little bit later; that wasn’t at the beginning of my period of listening to the blues. Within five or 10 years, though, I got into him. There were mistakes on all of that old stuff. But the joy of the music is what matters. When things are recorded live like that, without sophisticated recording techniques, then everything meshes into the whole sound.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Duke Robillard talks about the sweeping influence of T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry on his music, working with Bob Dylan, and his jumping 'Low Down and Tore Up' project.]

“TRAIN TO TEXAS,” with Herb Ellis (MORE CONVERSATIONS IN SWING GUITAR, 2003): There was an age difference – Herb Ellis was born in 1921, Robillard in 1948 – as well as genres to mesh in this meeting of the minds. But Robillard had been there before, having appeared over the years alongside jazzers like Count Basie, Jay McShann and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, among others. In fact, Robillard and Ellis established such a fast friendship that 1999’s Conversations in Swing Guitar became the first of a series of collaborations, including this follow up.

Robillard: When I made the first album, the original idea was to do one or two songs with a lot of my favorite guitarists — people who were influential to me. I wanted to get Les Paul, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis and then some of the more contemporary players like Jimmy Vaughan. But we started having a lot of trouble, as we went through management, getting people to allow their artists to do it. Except for Herb Ellis. The guy who was helping him as a manager knew of me, and told Herb: ‘This will be good. You’ll have a good time.’ We went into the studio to record two songs, and we ended up recording all of these things. It just clicked immediately.

“IT’S MY OWN BUSINESS,” with the Pleasure Kings (ROCKIN’ BLUES, 1988): This Chuck Berry song was originally featured on 1966’s Fresh Berrys for Chess Records, and included Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Reformulated by Robillard more than two decades later, “It’s My Own Business” became a highlight of this late-1980s smaller-scale blues trio release, featuring Thomas Enright on bass and Tom DeQuattro on drums — and another example of the importance of Berry’s work in Robillard’s music.

Robillard: The very first blues I ever heard was the flip side of “Maybelline,” a song called “Wee, Wee Hours.” (Issued in 1955 by Chess, this B-side was also a hit — reaching No. 10 on the Billboard R&B charts). I was, like, 10 and I didn’t know what the blues was. But that sound, the slow blues, it just grabbed me. Then “School Days” came out (in 1957, also on Chess), and the flip side was “Deep Feeling.” That featured a steel guitar, in a slow blues instrumental. I just knocked me out. Those two tunes had a really big impact on me. My earliest influences ended up being Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy — especially “Three-Thirty Blues.” When I heard that song by Duane Eddy, I didn’t know what it was. It just really gassed me. I became totally addicted to it.

“MAKE IT RAIN,” (PASSPORT TO THE BLUES, 2010): The only cover in a 13-song cycle that was nominated for a Blues Music Award for traditional album of the year — and it’s a memorable one from Tom Waits. Robillard toured a few years ago with Waits, gaining a new insight into this unique singer-songwriter’s style. He’s since covered “Make It Rain,” as well as “Low Side of the Road.”

Robillard: Those were kind of natural tunes for me. Some of his music wouldn’t be natural for me, but the ones that are bluesy — those are the ones I’m interested in. Playing with him took a lot of work, and a lot of rehearsal. As far as me learning to appreciate his music, and be comfortable playing it, that was immediate. But the reality of Tom Waits’ music is that it is different and, at times, complex. You have to absorb a lot of different elements to fit in. So, a lot of work and preparation goes into it. It was really fun, though, once we had done that. I really enjoyed it.

“BLUES A RAMA,” (GUITAR GROOVE A RAMA, 2006): Robillard’s album title telegraphs his intentions here. This is a lovefest of guitar, and nowhere more so than on the 16-minute centerpiece instrumental “Blues A Rama,” which found Robillard sewing together so many of his key influences on the instrument — fluidly moving across a series of styles from the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Guitar Slim and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, among others. And he reportedly did it all in one take.

Robillard: Part of my interest in the blues has always been the sounds. Early on, I learned how to reproduce sounds of artists doing different things, playing a certain way, muting strings, playing with a pick — whatever. I have been known for that my whole career, being able to play in many different styles. I would do something like this song every once in a while live, just pull something out. And when I got to the end of Guitar Groove A Rama, after I had finished all of the tracks, I thought: ‘Maybe I should put an extra track,’ and this is what happened. I was tempted not to, because it felt like showing off. So I decided if I did this, it had to be completely live. No overdubbing. All of these sounds were done by changing the pick up, or playing with my fingers — attacking it differently. And, yes, it was done in one take, after a couple of false starts. The first few times, I had trouble getting the capo on and keeping the guitar in tune. But then, by about the third time I tried it, I was able to play the entire take.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.