The Rhode Island blues scene has been remarkably vibrant for decades, with a rich history rooted in jazz, folk, and swing. At the center of that modern day universe is guitarist and bandleader Duke Robillard. In 1967, when he started the brass-centric ensemble Roomful of Blues, he ignited a fire that accelerated the genre not only in the Ocean State but up and down the entire east coast. It began a musical journey that would make him one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a highly sought-after sideman, and a tour musician backing artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. But it’s fronting his own band where Duke is perhaps the happiest, pursuing projects that inspire him and that bring music new and old to his vast legion of loyal fans. Duke Robillard just loves music and is one of the most prolific artists in music today. Since 1984 he has released a solo album almost every year. In addition to his own material, he has partnered often with Al Basile, Joe Beard, Gerry Beaudoin, Eddy Clearwater, Al Copley, Ronnie Earl, Scott Hamilton, Jay McShann, Jerry Portnoy, Jimmy Witherspoon and countless others. Hot on the heels of last year’s record with Scott Hamilton, Swingin’ Again, comes a rollicking musical ride called They Called It Rhythm And Blues. Here he and his band, along with a who’s who of guests like Kim Wilson and John Hammond, put forward an 18-track collection of songs, new and old, that sets sail from the first note. It’s a sizzling spin that showcases Duke’s style and skills, often trading standout moments with a band that is tighter than bark on a tree. We caught up with Duke and learned more about how this record came about, what drives his incredible output, and what makes his home state of Rhode Island such a rich birthplace of music, the blues and so much more.
Ray Chelstowski: You may be the most prolific artist that I have ever interviewed. How do you decide when it’s time to make a new record?
Duke Robillard: Well, I definitely make at least one record a year. I just don’t feel right if I don’t. I love recording and I love making musical statements, whether that’s resurrecting something or putting out new material. Every now and then I see some things that make me feel as if I have accomplished quite a lot, but I rarely feel that way.
RC: What drives your decision to pursue a specific theme?
DR: I kind of go by inspiration. I’m a spur of the moment kind of person. If I get an idea, I want to try and pursue it right away. There are a few projects that I’ve sat on for quite a while, waiting for the right person to work with so that I make the exact kind of record that I set out to make. Mostly it comes from listening to music, which I spend a lot of time doing. Something I hear just might inspire me to create a certain type of album. If the interest stays strong for a few days or a week then usually I start pursuing it and making plans.
RC: What inspired They Called It Rhythm And Blues?
DR: At this point in my life I wanted to make a diagram of the rhythm and blues that I love, as to where it specifically came from. I tried to come up with some obscure tunes and find things that show off enough of my guitar playing while still
RC: You have so many well-known guests on this record. How did you decide who would sing what?
DR: Well with John Hammond I just let him pick what he wanted to do. With Sue Foley, on the one where we sing together, I just thought it would be a great song for us. So, I sent it to her and she immediately liked it. I think we just picked tunes that suited the people who were going to guest, really well. In some cases they picked the songs, in some cases I picked them, and in others we collaborated on which songs would work best for the album.
RC: Horns have been such a big part of your music. Do you tend to be the one that charts their parts?
DR: No. Usually we just work up head arrangements. If I work with a lot of horns we may go with written arrangements. If we work with, say, three or four horns, very often one of the guys will write the arrangement out. Then there’s more that you can do and more thought has to go into it. The music I play is not complex so it’s not often that we have to write out arrangements.
RC: Did you lean on one particular guitar for this record?
DR: No, I played quite a few. I played at least four or five different guitars on this record. I played an archtop Kay Barney Kessel guitar, a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul; a custom-made James Murphy archtop, and a Finnish guitar. It’s called a Katar Popmaster. A similar model called