Check This Action: Blue Steel

Check This Action: Blue Steel
Freddie Roulette, with Deke Dickerson on bass.

Freddie Roulette was one of the most amazing musicians I ever heard, knew, or saw – the absolute monster of blues on a Hawaiian lap-steel guitar. He passed away Christmas Eve at the age of 83.

He was truly one of a kind, not only for his choice of genre and instrument, but for the way he expressed his passion. There were a few other blues steel players before him, like Hop Wilson and L.C. “Good Rockin’” Robinson, but Freddie was far more sophisticated.

While living in Chicago, harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite heard the obscure “Coast To Coast” by Bo Dudley (not to be confused with early rocker Bo Diddley). He couldn’t tell what he was hearing until one night when he found Freddie playing with Earl Hooker. At times, Hooker would play bottleneck through a wah pedal while Freddie played lap steel.

Musselwhite bassist Karl Sevareid recounts, “Charlie played that record for his new band in Berkeley in ’67. We thought our heads might explode. Then, in Chicago on our first road trip, he took us to hear Earl Hooker, and there was Freddie. A couple of months later, he joined the band.”

In ’92, Freddie told guitarist Randy Resnick, “Musselwhite sent for me when he was in Massachusetts, and our first gig was in Hartford, Connecticut, with B.B. King.”

Roulette was the inspiration for the late David Lindley to include lap steel in his multi-string arsenal. He told the story of his band, Kaleidoscope, being on a bill with Musselwhite at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in the late ’60s. Hearing what he first thought was a saxophone, he ran from the dressing to find Roulette playing Hawaiian guitar and smoking a pipe.

In 1976, I interviewed Freddie for a “Pro’s Reply” column in Guitar Player. He talked about his love of country music, songs like Kay Starr’s ’50s hit “Wheel Of Fortune,” his A7 tuning, and explained that his technique was all in his right hand. And yes, his ability to pick with his bare fingers was something to behold, but the way he executed slants and reverse slants with a Nick Manoloff laminated bar was no mean feat. High to low, that tuning was E-C#-A-E-C#-A-A-G, with the low A strings doubled and the G an octave higher.

I saw Freddie sit in with Lindley’s El Rayo-X at Keystone Berkeley, where I also saw him play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. As usual, he rose to both occasions and had the band and audience cheering and shaking their heads.

In 1980, Musselwhite alumnus Tim Kaihatsu invited me to be part of the Rat Band when they played a Christmas party at Larry Blake’s restaurant in Berkeley, and Freddie was in the lineup. The ghostly fills he played through a Roland Space Echo weren’t obtrusive, but they were so inventive I almost lost concentration when it was my turn to solo.

“Being a steel-guitar player, I have to stretch that instrument way beyond its original intent in order to make it, which is what I do,” Freddie told Resnick. “So I have to be creative, which I am – not to a great success I would want to be, but, you know, I can get by.”

Years later, Kaihatsu called to tell me that Freddie’s only steel (a single-neck National New Yorker) was stolen while he was rescuing his belongings during a house fire. The instrument was his sole means of making a living. I called Lindley at his home in Southern California, guessing he’d help an old friend. He took down Freddie’s address, and the next day, Freddie opened his front door to find Lindley’s roadie handing him a double-neck National that David had driven to the Burbank Airport to be picked up by his roadie at Oakland International. Over the years, Roulette played with Harvey Mandel and the group Daphne Blue. He appeared with Mandel, Henry Kaiser, and Steve Kimock on Psychedelic Circus, and Kaiser produced Freddie’s Man Of Steel album, with Lindley participating.

Being primarily a sideman, Roulette’s recorded output doesn’t reflect his awesome talent, but the few examples are more than worth a listen. He played on Hooker’s Two Bugs and a Roach, was part of Musselwhite’s all-star Chicago BlueStars in 1970, and played on the harpist’s Memphis, Tennessee album. Mandel produced his first solo album, Sweet Funky Steel, and Freddie released Back in Chicago: Jammin’ with Willie Kent and the Gents and Spirit Of Steel.

He covered everything from “Norwegian Wood” to Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” the theme from Endless Summer, the standard “Honeysuckle Rose,” and even the novelty speedster “Holiday For Strings.” One of his favorites – and best – was his version of Ray Charles’ “In The Heat Of The Night.”

Sadly, in recent years he suffered from dementia.

The photo here is from Deke Dickerson’s Guitar Geek Fest in 2012. Deke recounts his version of the Santo and Johnny oldie “Sleep Walk”: “The choice seemed too mainstream, but boy, was I wrong. Freddie played the heck out of it, in his own inimitably weird and unique style, and tore the house down.”

© 2023 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author.

This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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