A new year, a new label, a new release, and if you look close enough you’ll see a recently-acquired endorsement from Gibson/Epiphone. Has the Duke “arrived?”
You bet! He’s been arriving for two decades.
Since the 1976 Rounder Records release of the first Roomful Of Blues effort, the Basie/Rushing-style “big band” he founded in Providence in the mid ’60s, through his most recent effort, Dangerous Place (set for March ’97 release on the Evidence/Pointblank label), he’s most definitely in your town. This “purist at all costs” Kentucky-based 6-stringer has redirected the blues players of the world to the history and depth contained in the periphery of the idiom. Accepted on all musical levels in much the same manner as was the late Danny Gatton, Duke is the quintessential guitarist’s guitarist.
His multifaceted style is boundless but immediately recognizable, regardless of the time period he is honoring. Regarded as the man who carries the “T-Bone Torch” (by Bone’s widow, no less), as well as the player who filled Jimmy Vaughan’s coveted chair in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Duke’s list of recorded efforts as both sideman and leader is currently at arms length and growing. Perhaps the only question is whether or not there’s enough of the guitarist to meet the musical demands he has a reputation for undertaking. Some feel Duke is the reason there’s a “big box” on every blues stage in America.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with him before a gig with Robert Cray here in Dayton last summer. What follows is our conversation about his influences, his mind-numbing recall of (amongst others) the swing era players – horn players as well as guitarists – and the general state of “blues affairs,” in the 1990s.
Vintage Guitar:This pairing of you and Cray is a blues guitarist’s dream come true, the audience gets the archival and contemporary representations – both sides of the blues coin.
Duke Robillard:Well, I think it probably had more to do with the fact that we’re both with the same agency. The Rosebud Agency, out of San Francisco.
Back in ’65 or ’66, I think most readers would agree, Eric Clapton was pretty much responsible for making a lot of kids in the U.S. hip to Freddy King, and from that point, perhaps they might have discovered Jimmy Rogers, and that could have led to their discovery of the Delta masters, in sort of a backward chronological fashion. In much the same way, you have turned a generation of players on to the work of T-Bone Walker, which could lead to an interest in the work of swing blues players like Al Casey, Tiny Grimes and Teddy Bunn.
Well, that’s a very big part of where I come from, you know. My roots really start with roots rock and roll players like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy. Then I kind of went to blues, then I discovered R&B and from there I got into the swing-era jazz players, the bluesy players like the ones you mentioned; Tiny Grimes, Charlie Christian, and later Kenny Burrell, and of course, T-Bone really bridges the gap and is the father of modern electric blues. I took a great pleasure in discovering it for myself and turning everyone I met onto his music. Hopefully it’s spread a bit (laughs).
It used to be that, thanks in large part to your work, there were these pockets of interest in this kind of music, a few players here and there – certainly, Hollywood Fats and Junior Watson. It seemed, that all of a sudden there was this interest in Bill Jennings, it’s like a whole aspect of music history, swing history was being unearthed for a new generation of listeners and players.
Are you still traveling with a three-piece, Pleasure Kings format?
Four pieces, we have a saxophone with us on this trip, probably before long we’ll be traveling with two horn players, but right now it’s guitar, bass, drums, and saxophone.
The sax player’s name escapes me right now. Hasn’t he recorded with Providence-area performers Michelle Wilson, and perhaps the Love Dogs?
Right, Gordon Beadle.
That’s another thing that’s always amazed me about this swing and blues “craze,” if you will, is the concentration of players from the Boston and Providence areas, you’d expect it from Boston. But Providence?
Well, Roomful Of Blues started from there. We started playing that music in 1967, and added the three horns in 1970, and at that point there was no one interested in what we were trying to do – recreating the sounds of Louis Jordan, Buddy Johnson, you know, Joe Liggins, Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris – the real sounds of rhythm and blues from the ’40s and ’50s, and after a number of years, a few bands came along who showed an interest in that style of music, I would have to say that we probably influenced them to the point that they listened to it and then wanted to go seek it out, you know?
Now it seems as though there’s a litany of bands immersed in this style and it will be intriguing to see where this unified interest leads…
On Dukes Blues, your current release, its obvious, the love and understanding you have for each of the artists you portray, whether it’s Joe Liggins or Roy Milton, whomever. It’s like you almost become those players …
[laughs] Well I’m channeling…that’s what I’m doing…
But the catch is that there’s still that identifiable characteristic that comes shining through. It’s still Duke, although you’ve paid perfect respect to the artist you’re portraying, you haven’t taken liberty with the solo, but still, the listener will say “Yep!, that’s Duke…” It’s a special gift that allows you to keep your identity through out all of that “channeling.”
Well thank you very much, I appreciate that. I consider that one of my best compliments, when someone says that they can recognize me on a record and immediately say “…that’s Duke Robillard,” which I do hear often. Although, like you said, I do cover many styles and I emulate my favorite artists, and try to pretty much pay respect to what they’ve created when I play, for instance, Guitar Slim, T-Bone or B.B. Hopefully there’s some of me that comes out, as well…
Let’s, if we may, touch on your Temptation release. I think it caught a lot of listeners by surprise in that it took a bit of a foray into the “rock” idiom?
Well it’s really funny. I’ve been writing and recording, as well as playing live, songs that have a rock and roll bass, since the time of my first solo albums with the Pleasure Kings. I look at it as sort of being all the same. A logical conclusion, those songs being a little more developed in the sense that they are structurally more melodic and less blues, but still coming from a blues place, lyrically. But you know, I can understand the rock thing. A lot of people seemed to view that record that way, as being sort of being a left turn [laughs].
Probably viewed as just another surprise coming from a player that has that many facets to his style or musical personality, if you will.
Well, they’re all me…what I’m putting on the table.
That’s the most important thing. Duke, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Thanks for taking an interest in my music…
Photo: Larry Bussacca
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’97 issue.