Fenton Robinson, Blues Great and Display Ad Model

Dec 11, 2017

Dear Reader: Please don't mistake this blog as an endorsement of cigarette smoking. I chain-smoked Pall Malls, Kools, Marlboro Lights and other coffin nails for 23 years and have never regretted the cold turkey dues I paid in quitting them 26 years ago. But the display ad seen below, which I found posted on the Facebook page for "Dave's Orbit" last week, was just too cool to ignore. It shows the bluesman Fenton Robinson posed between a garland of hip poetics in a Newport ad that ran in Ebony magazine in January 1970.

Emmett McBain

I traced the image on Google and discovered that it was the creation of Emmett McBain, a Chicago-born artist and advertising executive who was a trailblazing African American in the advertising age of Mad Men. McBain enrolled in summer art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago when he was 14, and after graduating from the American Academy of Art, was hired as the assistant art director at Playboy Records. His album jacket for the 1958 Playboy Jazz All-Stars earned national recognition in Billboard, and once he opened his own agency, McBain Associates, in 1959, he designed album jackets for Mercury and other labels, including LP's by Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, John Lee Hooker, and Cannonball Adderley.

McBain went on to work on the marketing launch of the Ford Mustang at the Detroit office of J. Walter Thompson, and by the late '60s played a major role in promoting "Black Is Beautiful," "Diversity Is Beautiful," and other campaigns centered on black history, entrepreneurship, and image-making.  He introduced the first black Marlboro Man in the early '70s, by which time his agency, McBain-Burrell, was the largest black-owned design firm in the country. When he died in 2012, his colleague Lowell Thompson said, "In a land of Mad Men, he was one of the maddest, happiest, and hippest." Earlier this year, McBain received a posthumous AIGA award for "exceptional achievement...and contributions to the field of design and visual communication."

How it was that Fenton Robinson came to sit for the Newport ad is hard to establish, but I'll assume his music was known to McBain, who may have seen the photogenic guitarist on stages in Chicago. Robinson, who moved to the Windy City in 1961, was born on a plantation in Minter, Mississippi, on September 23, 1935. Inspired by T-Bone Walker, he fashioned a cigar box guitar when he was ten, and once he moved to Memphis eight years later, he took lessons with guitarist Charles McGowan and came under the influence of B.B. King. He found work with local legends Earl Forrest, Buddy Ace, and Roscoe Gordon, with whom he played on the hit single, "No More Doggin'," and made his own debut for Meteor Records in Memphis in 1956. Robinson's Meteor release included his original, "Tennessee Woman," a tune he recut a year later after he'd signed with Houston-based powerhouse Duke Records.  Charlie Musselwhite, whom Robinson toured with in the early '70s, recorded "Tennessee Woman" as the title song on his 1969 album for Vanguard. On Robinson's Duke single, note the spelling of his first name as Fention, which was apparently correct until he dropped the "i" in the mid-'60s.

Robinson's signing with Duke was preceded by a period in which he worked out of Little Rock, Arkansas, with fellow bluesman Larry Davis, who was playing bass at the time. Though uncredited, aficionados early on recognized that it was Robinson who played the stunning lead guitar on Davis's classic blues, "Texas Flood." Prior to the song's reissue in the mid-'70s, I knew it primarily as a stirring feature for guitarist Duke Robillard, who eventually sang it on Roomful of Blues' debut album in 1978. Davis's devastating lament about "flood waters in Texas" was later adopted as a signature tune by Dallas native Stevie Ray Vaughan. In a biography of Vaughan, Caught in the Crossfire, co-authors Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford, write, "The black blues legends remained his favorites. He once gave $5,000 to Larry Davis, who had been credited for writing "Texas Flood." When Stevie later learned that Fenton Robinson, the lead guitarist in Davis's band, was the actual composer, he laid some cash on him too." 

Duke was operated by Don Robey, a notorious Houston nightclub owner with reputed mob ties. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Johnny Ace, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Junior Parker were among the nest-selling artists who recorded for his Duke and Peacock labels, but their successes were invariably compromised by unfavorable contracts and Robey's heavy-handed practice of assigning lucrative composer credits to himself. Among his dubious claims were "Texas Flood," "Farther Up the Road," and "As the Years Go Passing By," a modern blues classic by Peppermint Harris that Robinson made the premier recording of in 1959 with "Little Booker" (James Booker) playing piano.

With the expiration of his Duke contract in 1961 and subsequent move to Chicago, Robinson played South Side clubs in bands led by Otis Rush and Junior Wells. A 1965 missive by Neil Patterson for England's Blues Unlimited magazine reported, "In both bands, he plays some fine guitar in the B.B. King style of so many Memphis residents and sings slow, good, dragged-out blues much better than his records suggest." Robinson recorded sporadically for a few Windy City labels in the mid-'60s, and introduced three tunes ("Say You're Leavin'," "Directly From My Heart," and "Somebody Loan Me a Dime") that would remain in his repertoire for the rest of his career.  

"Somebody Loan Me a Dime" was made for Palos Records in 1967. It became a local hit, the biggest ever for the fledgling Chicago label, and when it was covered by Boz Scaggs, with Duane Allman on guitar, in 1969, it became an anthem of blues-rock, but the Texas-born singer was named as the song's composer. Years of legal wrangling ensued before the copyright was reassigned to Robinson, presumably before his Alligator take on the tune was heard on the soundtrack of the 1980 movie, "The Blues Brothers."

This live version of "Somebody" was filmed in Chicago in 1978 for the BBC series Blues: The Devil's Music. In an episode devoted to established Chicago bluesmen Billy Boy Arnold, Louis Myers, and Good Rockin' Charles,  Fenton was introduced by the series host Alexis Korner as the most musically sophisticated and urbane of modern blues artists, "the blues of today."  (Click here for a pristine look at the complete episode.) 

Notwithstanding the influences of T-Bone, B.B., and most likely Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robinson developed a highly personal, jazz- and funk-infused style that consistently displayed freshness and creativity. His plaintive voice was one of the most relaxed and unaffected in modern blues, and I can't help but think he would have made a fine country singer as well. I first saw Fenton when he appeared with Charlie Musselwhite at Lennie's-on-the-Pike in Peabody in 1971. I was familiar with his Duke singles by then, but knowing little of his current status, it was an unanticipated surprise to find him working with Memphis Charlie. Three years later, with his critically acclaimed Alligator debut bringing him long overdue attention, he began making occasional appearances at New England clubs. By 1978, when I began hosting a weekly blues show at WCUW in Worcester, he'd become such a personal favorite that I named the program after the title of his newly released, Grammy-nominated album, I Hear Some Blues Downstairs.  

Robinson had devoted followings overseas, especially in Japan, where he was hailed as the "Mellow Blues Genius," an appellation owing both to his musical style and his intellectual interests, which reputedly included reading Tolstoy, Kafka, and other heavyweights. But major success eluded him, and a conviction for manslaughter in a traffic fatality resulted in a brief prison term in Illinois. Perhaps as a community service requirement related to his sentence, Robinson reportedly warmed to the assignment of presenting educational programs about blues in the Illinois public schools. Fenton Lee Robinson was 62 when he died in Rockville, Illinois, in 1997.