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 [having] a band sound. The main thing is making the arrangements complimentary to whoever is singing.
RC: Your band is in really tight form on this record. How does the process begin for you? Do you have it all mapped out before you head into the studio?
DR: It depends [on] if the musicians are actually there to do the session live. With this album, some people were and some people weren’t. For the people who weren’t able to be there live, we were close enough and knew each other’s music well enough that it really went smoothly. It was actually a very easy project to do. We recorded the tracks mostly live. There were just a few horn and guitar overdubs. But overall, the music tracks were all pretty much live.
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 [the] Duke Robillard Bluesmaster is now being hand-built for me. A dozen will be handcrafted and made available as a limited-edition Duke Robillard Bluesmaster model.
RC: I recently learned that you once worked at Guild Guitars. What did you do for them?
DR: I was in final inspection and adjustments. You know, like filing down frets? I also made adjustments on necks, [and] glued on bridges, all on acoustic guitars. The Guild factory [was] in Westerly, [Rhode Island] at that time [and] was just making acoustic instruments.
RC: Speaking about Rhode Island – it has an incredibly rich blues scene. What’s the origin of that?
DR: Well, if you go way back to the big band and jazz era, people touring on the east coast would always stop in Providence. There was one spot, The Celebrity Club in particular, that was a jazz club that also had blues people play. T-Bone Walker and Billie Holiday would play there along with all of the bop and swing era people. There was also Rhodes on the Pawtuxet that was a huge dance hall, a ballroom, that all the big bands used to play. There also were a number of different cultures present in Providence. It’s just an interesting rich cultural area. But maybe the biggest influence was the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival.
Jazz, folk and blues as you know are all intertwined. That’s a big part of it. When I started up Roomful of Blues, that really drove a lot of interest in horn-driven jump and 1940s-era blues. It really became very popular not just here but up and down the east coast and a lot of musicians started learning to play that kind of music. I’d like to think that we had SOMETHING to do with it. But there are all kinds of great musicians here, from rock to jazz to folk to singer-songwriters. We have got it all here.
RC: When you collaborate on someone else’s record does it give you a sense of freedom because there’s less pressure?
DR: Sometimes leading a band gets a little tiring, especially when you’re looking to yourself for inspiration. I always get a lot of great backup from my people. But when you are the leader they expect you to come up with the new material. So sometimes it seems like it would just be easier to pick up the guitar and play for others. When I do play as a sideman it really is so much easier and I do enjoy it. But that’s just a momentary thought because I do love doing what I do and I have great guys in my band as players and people.
RC: On a personal note, I have to ask you about recording with one of my all-time favorites, singer Johnny Adams, especially on his award-winning album Room with a View of the Blues. What was he like to work with?
DR: Johnny was a quiet and fairly reserved guy. He played guitar [but] would never play in front of me. Scott Billington, who produced the record and who knew him better than I, told me that he was a really good jazz/blues guitar [player]. He always appreciated the way I played, so it was a real pleasure to be able to record with him. I did some gigs with him too, but [playing with him in] the studio was really special because they always had great material for him to work with. That made it fun and exciting.
RC: I see that you are starting to book some live dates here in the northeast. Is there any chance that your tour takes you outside of New England?
DR: It’s been really hard to plan ahead. I was actually supposed to play the Iridium [in New York] in a few weeks and we just got cancelled. The same thing happened with a gig in Philadelphia. It depends on what work is available and how much time there is between gigs. I’m not really sure just yet because it all really does depend on the COVID situation at that [particular] time.
Header image courtesy of Pat Quinn.