Pop ’N Hiss: Robben Ford and Yellowjackets

Inside Story
Pop ’N Hiss: Robben Ford and Yellowjackets
Robben Ford onstage in 1979 with his ’63 ES-335, its tailpiece swapped to a TP-6 to ease tuning. Robben Ford, 1979: Paul Natkin.

In 1975, 24-year-old Robben Ford was making a name for himself on the Los Angeles music scene, where competition was fierce. As a blues-guitar prodigy, Ford had played behind Charlie Musselwhite and toured with Jimmy Witherspoon, but his life changed when he met Tom Scott of the L.A. Express, then replaced Larry Carlton in the band.

With a predilection for blues and jazz, Ford backed Joni Mitchell on her Court and Spark tour, then joined George Harrison on the Dark Horse tour. While amply plying his craft, Ford was left wanting.

“There was so much happening,” he recalled. “I got married and moved to Boulder in the summer of ’75 to study with Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I had a lot of money for a young kid and was trying to figure out my musical direction. Eventually, it became clear I needed to go back to Los Angeles and start working again.

“In L.A., Joni was cutting Hejira, and Jaco Pastorius was on that; I was the one who hipped Joni to Jaco. She invited me to down to the studio while Jaco was doing overdubs, and Joe Smith, the head of Elektra Records, came in. Joni introduced me and he said, ‘I’ve been looking all over for you! I want to sign you!’ I was shocked and said, ‘Okay… !’ (laughs)

To put a band together, Ford called keyboardist Russell Ferrante, with whom he’d toured while supporting Jimmy Witherspoon a few years earlier.

“I met Robben when we were 19 or 20 and living in the Bay Area,” Ferrante recalled. “He had a gig at a pizza place in downtown San Jose. I was surprised, because most of the night was blues, but Robben picked up a saxophone and started playing Coltrane and Archie Shepp tunes. Two years later, he heard me play at a bar in Half Moon Bay. Jimmy Witherspoon’s pianist, Paul Nagel, was leaving the band, and Robben invited me to join. The second gig I played with them was at Shea Stadium (laughs), then we went to Europe, opening for Eric Burdon. It was a life-changing experience.”

In 1977, Ford and Ferrante assembled a band with bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Ricky Lawson. This became the core group for Ford’s ’79 solo album, The Inside Story. Produced by Steve Cropper, it was the sound of L.A. at the time – a funky blend of accessible fusion and blues played with imagination and zeal, using soulful lines, hip phrasing, and a muscular groove supporting harmonic sophistication. The instrumentals “Magic Sam” and “For The One I Love” are, by themselves, worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be Ford’s big break. When Elektra then urged him to pursue pop music, his pushback produced a side project – Yellowjackets.

“As Robben’s band, we played a few gigs at The Baked Potato,” Ferrante remembered. “His manager approached me after one of the shows and said, ‘Would you be interested in getting a record deal for yourself?’ and he financed a demo that Ricky, Jimmy, Robben, and I made. That eventually got to Tommy LiPuma, and that’s how we were signed to Warner Brothers. Robben wasn’t part of the contract because he was with Elektra, but he was a big part of the music.”

The first Yellowjackets album has a strong musical connection with The Inside Story. Sophisticated funk fusion, heavy on groove and loaded with bewitching harmonic turns, Lawson and Haslip played deep in the pocket while Ferrante’s prowess belied his youth as Ford deftly navigated complex chord changes – his bop, rock, and blues vocabulary fit right into the era’s Steely Dan musical world view. Guitar fans raved about “Imperial Strut,” “Matinee Idol,” and “Rush Hour.”

“The tracks were recorded at Amigo Sound,” recalled Ferrante. “We’d been playing ‘Imperial Strut,’ but other tunes from the demo were released later – ‘Flat Tire,’ ‘Katy,’ and a tune of Robben’s called ‘Blondie.’ The only tune from our original demo that ended up on the record was ‘Imperial Strut.’ I’d written ‘It’s Almost Gone,’ Jimmy brought in an idea that became ‘Priscilla,’ and Ricky and I brought ‘Sittin’ In It.’ None of us had much studio savvy, so we relied on Tommy to direct.”

Ford also needed direction.

The Yellowjackets in a ’79 promo photo – bassist Jimmy Haslip (left), keyboardist Russell Ferrante, Robben Ford, and drummer Ricky Lawson.

“I didn’t have a guitar and amp that I liked,” he said. “It was a very strange transitional period; I played an early-’70s Strat on ‘Matinee Idol’ and had a Yamaha solidbody. The ’63 Gibson 335 was also in use. This was all part of my floundering. I played through Yamaha and Roland amps, and was unhappy with my sound. And the record company was making me jump through hoops about the next record.”

The album received accolades, airplay, and peaked at #16 on the Billboard Jazz charts. For many guitarists, it was their introduction to Ford.

“A lot of reviews talked about ‘studio musicians’ getting together,” said Ferrante. “But none of us were studio musicians except for the people Tommy brought in later. We were guys who played live gigs.”

Despite the album’s success, Ford had to push on with life.

“After that, I started moving into a solo-oriented thing, which is what Elektra and I agreed to,” he said. “The band was all in to do Yellowjackets, but I couldn’t sign with them. I was pursuing my own path on a different label. I stopped beating my head against the wall and moved to San Francisco.

“After a few months, I thought, ‘I’m ready to go again. What kind of record should I do?’ I’d go to L.A. once a month and play with Russell, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Roscoe Beck. I didn’t think about it; I was playing ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ and ‘Talk To Your Daughter,’ which was so the right thing to do. Talk To Your Daughter came out of it, which was nominated for a Grammy and got lots of airplay.”

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

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