Duke Robillard on Muddy Waters, Count Basie, and More
Duke Robillard was a tender age when he first got a dose of the blues.
“The very first blues I ever heard that knocked me out was ‘Wee Wee Hours’ by Chuck Berry,” says Robillard, the gifted guitarist who was a founding member of the Roomful of Blues and a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “It was the flip side of ‘Maybellene,’ Chuck’s first record. My brother had the 45, and I was about eight years old. That slow, easy plaintive sound just took me away. It was another five or six years before I even knew it was the blues, but it made me search for more music like it.”
Robillard no longer has to search, because he has been releasing his own blues songs for decades, and last month released his new CD, Blues Full Circle, on Stony Plain Records. Jimmie Vaughan joins Robillard for a dual guitar attack on “Shufflin’ and Scufflin’,” and guest vocalists Kelley Hunt and Sugar Ray Norcia add their very different singing styles to the album.
“It’s a Duke Robillard Band album of straight, traditional late ’40s and ’50s-’60s blues with mostly original songs,” Robillard says. “I feel it’s some of my best work.”
Robillard says Blues Full Circle truly represents a full circle of blues for him. Eight songs are new compositions, and he wrote three 30-40 years ago while in Roomful of Blues. He says the sound is “straightforward small band, old school blues,” and the album is a full-time return to active performing and recording after rotator cuff surgery and rehabilitation.
Blues Full Circle follows The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard, a 2015 album that was named Best Acoustic Album of the Year at this year’s Blues Music Awards. Robillard says that The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard began as a few bonus tracks for a European album, a tribute to T-Bone Walker.
“I had been learning a lot of old acoustic music and listening to a lot of early recorded American music such as the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers and Jimmie Rogers besides Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, Tampa Red, and many other black and white artists from the ’20s and ’30s. I was basically doing homework trying to learn more about the early American black and white music and its origins. I began learning tunes and found it very interesting.
“So I started recording tunes, and, when I had the tracks, I just kept going, adding in things as I went along over about a 10-year period. I had no idea it would turn into an award-winning album! It’s another addition stylistically to my catalog, as I continue to dig deeper into the roots of American music.”
Robillard formed Roomful of Blues in Westerly, Rhode Island, in 1967. He led the band through many lineup changes for the next decade before he became tired of the group and was replaced by another great guitarist, Ronnie Earl. Chris Vachon became the band’s hot guitarist in 1990, and the band is still going strong today.
“Roomful of Blues has had some ups and downs but has managed to keep on for nearly 50 years,” Robillard says. “That is amazing. The band was my concept, and I feel the first 10 years were a really pure musical experience. It went on to more fame after my stint and had some great versions. Other than my original horn-version lineup, the band with Sugar Ray Norcia and Ronnie Earl was my favorite. It’s always been a great band, though, and still is.”
After Robillard left Roomful of Blues, he became Robert Gordon’s guitarist and then spent time in the Legendary Blues Band. The Duke Robillard Band, Duke Robillard & the Pleasure Kings and the Fabulous Thunderbirds followed, and Robillard released many albums solo and with the bands.
Which albums are the definitive ones — his proudest achievements?
“That’s a big question!” Robillard responds. “I’ve made a lot of recordings. I’m proud of my first two albums with Roomful of Blues, and the first of my solo albums I feel strongly about is Swing with Scott Hamilton and his group. Probably, my other favorites of my own recordings are: After Hours Swing Session, Duke’s Blues, Conversations in Swing Guitar, More Conversations in Swing Guitar, Stomp! The Blues Tonight, Low Down and Tore Up, A Swingin’ Session with Duke Robillard, Wobble Walkin’ with my trio, The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard and Blues Full Circle.
Which of the numerous albums he has released took him furthest away from the blues? “That’s a difficult question to answer,” says Robillard, a two-time Grammy nominee. “From the beginning, I realized all the music I loved had elements of the blues. Rock and roll had the musical form of the blues; country had the lonesome feeling and down lyrics, and swing jazz had the blues riffs and often employed the blues form. I realized how they were all related, so I understood the best melting pot of American music very early. I also learned early on how to compartmentalize all the different styles to learn and play them properly without letting in other techniques or influences when I wanted them to be pure. So I view my recordings in two categories, and I make no apologies for any of them. Some are what I feel are pure, and some are a melting pot of American music. Both are legitimate, and both are important for growth. Still, all my recordings have true blues on them, but some are a mixture. I don’t like to analyze music and categorize it — that’s for critics to do.”
Like Robillard, Bob Dylan has never been keen on analyzing and categorizing his music. Dylan brought Robillard into his band three years ago, but, within three months, Robillard was gone.
Rolling Stone reported in July 2013 that it was “unclear why Robillard is off the tour.” Robillard, the magazine said, posted a “cryptic message” on Facebook: “For sale: Bob Dylan CD and record collection, slightly used.”
Robillard backed Dylan on 27 shows, and I was at one of them on April 6, 2013 — the second night of the tour at the Mullins Center on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. I thought it was a pretty solid Dylan show, but I left somewhat frustrated, because, although Robillard played well, so few solos emerged form his talented fingers.
So, I ask Duke today what happened with Mr. Tambourine Man.
“I thought this question might pop up,” he says. “Well, as you know, Mr. Dylan is a complex man. I don’t feel the necessity to answer your question here. I am working on a book about my life in music, and, in that book, I will most likely reveal the story of my short time with Dylan. I wish it had not gone the way it did in the end. The first tour was extremely enjoyable, but, by the second run, things had changed somehow. That’s life.”
There’s so much more to the musical career of Robillard than his work with Dylan, so I ask him what is his legacy in popular music.
“Lord only knows,” he responds. “I know I have had an impact on some guitarists worldwide, because I hear it in many players’ recordings and live shows. I But, honestly, I stole it all — or mostly all. There are a few phrases that I happened upon that can truly call my own. But, mostly, it’s my overall taste that has impressed the most. Who knows actually? I hate to analyze myself.”
How about analyzing other musicians then? Duke, if you are only allowed three albums to live with, which ones would they be? “That’s a hard one,” Robillard says. “Ten albums is hard enough — but three? Geez! Okay, off the top of my head, No. 1 is Duke Ellington at His Very Best. Even choosing between Ellington recordings alone is nearly impossible, but that record has fabulous material and is the famous band with Jimmy Blanton.
“No. 2 is Billie Holiday’s small band recordings with Teddy Wilson. These recordings are great young Billie with the best of Ellington and Basie players along with New York City’s finest swing- era musicians playing simple swinging head arrangements behind Lady Day. No. 3 is the Best of Muddy Waters — Muddy’s earliest hits, including many with just his guitar, voice and bass drum and many with Little Walter. Pure Muddy at his finest. The true essence of the blues.”
Robillard says it’s also very difficult to identify the best concert he attended as a spectator. “That’s a nearly impossible question to answer!” Robillard exclaims. “There is no one definitive show. It was possibly seeing Muddy Waters and then sitting in with him at Paul’s Mall [in Boston] in the mid-‘70s. Or getting to open for and then hearing the Count Basie Orchestra with Freddie Green in the early ‘70s. Or seeing the James Cotton Blues Band at Club 47 [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] in the late ‘60s, or seeing the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the basement of The Old Grist Mill restaurant in Seekonk, Massachusetts, in the early 1970s. These are some of the best memories for me. Any of the aforementioned shows and dozens more influenced me as a musician. Just can’t pick one!”