Big Blues King
Photo: Duke Robillard, founder of the legendary Roomful of Blues, brings his road band to town.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Duke Robillard is getting married next month, and his bride-to-be is home in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, his first love is lying on the bed of his room at the Hyatt during our conversation before his performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Robillard, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, explains that he became smitten at a very early age.
"I decided when I was six years old that I wanted to be a guitar player," he says, glancing over at the instrument on the bed. It all started after Robillard heard "In the Wee, Wee Hours," the B-side to the Chuck Berry hit "Maybelline."
"It really hit me," he says.
There was one hurdle for the young Robillard to overcome before attaining his goal: his mother forbade him to own a guitar until he was a bit older. In the eighth grade, Robillard finally found a way to get one without incurring the wrath of his mother--he built the instrument from marine plywood for a science project. "It was a little hard to play," he recalls.
In 1961, Robillard''s mother allowed him to get a real guitar, and for the next six years he taught himself how to play it. Then, in 1967, his music career started in earnest when he founded the band Roomful of Blues. The group started out as a blues-rock outfit, until Robillard discovered jump blues, and decided to add a horn section. That''s when things took off.
By 1974, the group was touring with Count Basie, and by the late ''70s, Roomful of Blues had a record deal with Island. After their self-titled debut, the guys moved to the Antilles label and released 1979''s Let''s Have A Party.
After the release, Robillard left the group to pursue a solo career. In the early ''80s, Roomful of Blues was the backing band for Robillard''s idols, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Big Joe Turner. "That''s what we aspired to," he says.
Later, with half a dozen solo releases under his belt, the renowned guitarist joined The Fabulous Thunderbirds for their 1991 release, Walk That Walk, Talk That Talk, before going back out on his own. "I just missed being a bandleader and doing my own music," Robillard says.
Robillard has been doing real well ever since he left the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The guitarist has picked up three W.C. Handy awards--the equivalent of a Grammy in the blues world--and performed on Bob Dylan''s Grammy-winning 1997 album, Time Out Of Mind.
While listening to his new album, Exalted Lover, it becomes obvious that the blues guitarist is having a fulfilling personal life too. On songs like "Real Live Wire" and the title track, Robillard sings about love like a man swimming in it.
The guitarist met his future wife on New Year''s Eve, 2003, when a show he was supposed to play was cancelled. It turns out that she had tickets to his cancelled show. "It was one of those fate kind of things," Robillard says.
Even though there is a lyrical consistency to Exalted Lover, the album''s music is a mix of jazz, rock, blues and R&B. Robillard believes there is one common thread that weaves the disparate sounds together. "My songwriting touched on all the parts of American music that are important to me," he says. "My music is all rooted in blues."
A couple of hours after our chat, Robillard is on the Garden Stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival with his band. Dressed in a black hat and a black shirt with dark sunglasses, he looks a lot sharper onstage.
Playing guitar on his first number, "Swingin''," he moves about like a bobble-head toy. During his second number, a song from the ''20s titled "Just Because," Robillard quick-strums chords like a dog nonchalantly scratching an itch.
After the song, the legendary Kansas City pianist Jay McShann is helped to a seat behind an immense piano. Backing McShann, Robillard lends his crisp soloing while McShann sings a song about a woman who does stupid things when she drinks.
During the set, Robillard keeps turning in his seat to look back at McShann. It is a move that suggests the blues guitarist is consistently amazed that he has achieved his childhood dream.
Duke Robillard and his band play at 9pm on Tuesday at Viva Monterey, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $10. 646-1415.