Happy Birthday! Duke Robillard
Is there a more versatile and accomplished guitar player in popular music than Duke Robillard? Duke excels at blues, jump, swing, and rock’n’roll, and he’s worked with an impressive range of artists, from blues legends Joe Turner, Charles Brown, and Jimmy Witherspoon, to jazz greats Herb Ellis and Jay McShann, to rockers Tom Waits, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Bob Dylan. Duke appeared on Dylan’s critically-acclaimed 1997 release, Time Out of Mind, and he’s been playing lead guitar in Dylan’s touring band since April. The Providence native founded Roomful of Blues in 1967, and embarked on a freelance career around 1980. In recent years, he's operated Blue Duchess Records for which he produced his old friend Scott Hamilton's impeccable tribute to Billie Holiday, Remembering Billie. October 4 was Michael John "Duke" Robillard's 65th birthday.
While Duke enjoys international renown as a guitarist, I have him to thank for turning me on to jump blues. In the '60's, it was the Mississippi blues current running from the Delta to Memphis to Chicago that was a key influence on blues-rockers Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, and originators like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King benefited considerably from the shadow cast by their disciples. But Robillard and his young colleagues from Rhode Island focused on a musical stream whose tributaries included boogie woogie, Kansas City swing, Texas shuffles, and New Orleans r&b. Riffing horns, fluid guitar licks, eight-to-the-bar piano, and infectious dance rhythms were Roomful’s stock-in-trade.
Decades before the advent of retro acts like David Johansen and Brian Setzer, Roomful revived the sounds of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, Chuck Willis and other artists whose joyous music captivated black America in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. Jump blues had a direct impact on early rock'n'roll, but was largely neglected by the 60's. Was it too upbeat and social for the Age of Aquarius? My generation romanced the mythic virtues of hard times and personal anguish over the drive for a good time, but Roomful led the way in combining uproarious r&b and impassioned deep blues, and 45 years later they're still at it.
(Roomful of Blues; Duke Robillard, second from left)
Roomful's dedication and command impressed many of the legends, including songwriter Doc Pomus, who co-produced their debut album in 1977. It speaks to a different era altogether for a band of this caliber to have waited a decade before making its first record. From that session, here's Duke singing Larry Davis's classic blues, "Texas Flood."
Speaking of pre-vinyl renown, Big Joe Turner reputedly told T-Bone Walker's widow in 1975 that his legacy would live on in the capable hands of Duke Robillard. And in this short clip, Duke recalls a humbling exchange with Count Basie when he came to see Roomful at Sandy's Jazz Revival in Beverly, Mass., in 1974. Duke is in good company in admitting to some nervousness; even Thelonious Monk was distracted when Basie sat opposite him as he played "Blue Monk" on the CBS television production, The Sound of Jazz. According to Monk's biographer Robin D. G. Kelley, he said "the next time Basie had a gig in town, he was going to 'sit across the piano and stare at him the whole time'."
I’ve heard Duke countless times over the years, often in nightclubs where the dance floor was packed all night and occasionally at big ticket venues. But one of the most memorable was at the former Sheehan’s Café in Northampton in 1991. When I arrived with three friends late on a Saturday night, our presence nearly doubled the meager turnout, but Duke was playing Magic Sam’s “Easy Baby” as though it was SRO. He then poured a torrent of emotion and virtuosity into Big Walter Price’s devastating slow blues, “My Tears." I’ve seen plenty of inspired playing before small houses, but Duke’s tour de force for seven paying customers will always epitomize for me what it means to be a dedicated performer driven by an inner passion for the music.
Here's the 40-year-old Robillard in Germany playing a T-Bone Walker-styled instrumental, “Duke’s Mood.”
Duke formed the jazz-oriented New Guitar Summit with Jay Geils and Gerry Beaudoin a decade ago. Here at the Stoneham Theater in 2011 they play "Broadway," a Swing Era favorite recorded by Count Basie with Lester Young in 1940.
Here's Duke in 2010 playing “My Tears.” His solo recalls the storied performance that Albert Collins made on the Big Walter original, one that I wrote about last year when Price died at age 97. Read that post here.