Chicago in the 1980’s. Tad Robinson gets an influential mix-tape:
“I remember Rick Estrin, the great harmonica player and singer, when I moved to Chicago as an older person, when I was in my 20’s. He showed up one day ‘cause he had heard me sing. He came down to a gig and he handed me a cassette. And he said ‘I know you know Percy Sledge, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson. But, here’s a cassette of some people you really need to know.’ And he was basically saying after hearing me sing, he felt like those were people I had to be hip to and it was people like James Carr, O.V. Wright, Howard Tate, you know, Bobby Womack, Johnny Taylor. And I became a total freak for Johnny Taylor, Bobby Womack, Dusty Springfield. All these people that I had not been hip to. And, I always kind of was appreciative that he, he heard something, Rick heard something in me that made him say, ‘oh, this guy’s gotta know about these people.’ And it’s true I had not really been aware of some of those artists and it opened up a whole ‘nother kind of scene and the literature of those great songs.”
Tad Robinson, the venerable singer and harmonica player whose work over the past two decades has defined the sub genre Soul Blues, has built his career on moments like this one. Robinson has consistently made himself available to guidance and mentor-ship from veterans and peers. Having his own kindness and openness reciprocated in countless ways, Tad Robinson is smart and alert enough to use the information and guidance he receives, without ego or guile, to dig deep into the tradition, develop his craft and push forward his own unique style.
Tad is a stalwart Blues singer and harmonica blower of the great 90’s Blues resurgence. Emerging in 1980’s Chicago with a fully formed, amber warm voice that conjures the timbre and texture of the innovative creators of Soul music that he is a student of, Robinson was part of that harp blowing, soulfully voiced crew of Bluesmen including William Clarke, Billy Branch, Kim Wilson, Estrin, and many others. In the 21st Century on Severn Records, he has become the standard bearer and the dynamic revolutionary of Soul Blues, taking the Southern Soul Sound of the 60’s and 70’s and marrying it with his own highly personal style. Tad is a generous, humble and unassuming powerhouse who creates his art through collaboration, relationship, and hard work. From his home base of greater Indianapolis, Robinson sums it up this way:
“I’m a gigger, if someone calls me for a gig I’m gonna do the gig. I don’t care if I’m the sideman or the leader, I’m gonna show up because that’s what I do.”
Tad, a singer with a deep, confident and distinct tenor, describes the mechanics of his singing technique and the development of his voice:
“When I was young and inexperienced I did a lot of unhealthy things to my voice. Oftentimes screamed myself hoarse thinking that people liked that, or that it was my duty to really dig in and get that raspy quality. But through the years you develop a keen sense of your limits as a singer, and you know exactly where you might hurt yourself. You learn to deliver songs using a healthy, comfortable range, and you learn how to let the microphone do the work for you. I’ve never warmed up, but I always open shows with a few songs that sound powerful, but don’t require too much vocal range out of me. Kind of slide into the set before really opening up the throat.”
Robinson is a strong and soulful harmonica player even though he doesn’t give himself enough credit for it. Blowing less on recent records, the harp has always been an important part of Tad’s music. Tad unassumingly describes the mechanics and quality of his harp playing:
“I’ve had a standard endorsement agreement with Hohner since 1984, one of my proudest accomplishments. I love that company so much, even though, frankly, I don’t think they consider me very high on the list of modern players, and neither do I. I just play what I play, and sometimes I surprise myself. I used to blow with the standard set up: Astatic JT30 (microphone) through a Fender Bassman (amplifier). But in recent years I’ve been blowing using an SM57 mic using any old amp that is around. Mostly Fender. I also have a nice custom made amp by an Indianapolis company called Hook, which sounds a lot like a Fender Deluxe amp. I’m not a gear-head at all. But I am very particular about harmonicas. I’ve played Hohner Marine Bands (Model 1896) for my whole life, since I was about 11 years old. And now I play the enhanced Marine Band that Hohner offers, the Hohner Marine Band Crossover. When I play third-position style harp on a chromatic harmonica, I generally play a Hohner Chromonica 270. For recording, I generally just blow through the vocal microphone.”
The journey of growth and identity for musicians is long and never ending. A great musician is always learning and developing. For Tad Robinson, the journey is all about relationships and the guidance, mentor-ship and collaboration he gets from his peers, veteran teachers (like Estrin) and supporting musicians or sidemen.
“It’s a constant journey, it’s a constant trip, just like other professions. Everybody is always tryin’ to hone their skills at whatever they do, and soaking up all the different influences and advice people can give you. But, for me I think that in some respects I’m kind of a late bloomer in that I’ve been doing this for years and years. But, only in the last decade or so did I kind of arrive at what I would call, you know, a real trademark style of my own. And a lot of that is, to me, the mentors that you meet through your career. I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve had mentors in my life. And a lot of times they’re your sidemen. They become your sidemen. And those people, oftentimes, your sidemen know you as an artist better than you know yourself. People that can tell you, ‘you know, here’s a good song for you.’ They almost become to you what they used to call A&R men or A&R women. Artists and Repertoire people. And those people are the people that shape you without you even knowing it. Because they’re throwing music at you that they think that you are really adapted for. Sometimes a singer, him or herself, is the worst judge of exactly what material they shine on. Because, you know, singers think they can sing anything (laughs).”
“You know, ‘cause your always learning and your always being taught by the people around you. Particularly singers, you know, we really engage with those, the musicians, who go through all the trials and tribulations with us.”
Some of the people who have gone through the trials and tribulations with Tad are,
“People like Alex Shultz, the guitar player. We kind of came up together in New York City way back in the day. And Alex, he acted as a kind of long time music director in my band. He also co-produced my first Severn record Did You Ever Wonder? He actually brought Severn label to my attention. Alex, he’s always, played, he’s played on almost all of my records… so he was one of those people that helped me find that voice. Dave Specter was another guitar player that I worked with. He kind of heard the Chicago Blues thing that I do and he helped me mold that. David Earl at Severn Records has been probably the most pivotal and important music, record man, you know, record guy, in my career. Because he came along and he heard something in me and he really developed it over the last decade and gave me some great opportunities.”
Tad Robinson, the “gigger,” is the ever collaborative leader:
“Singers, we’re kind of called the band leaders, we’re the leaders right? They say’ oh, it’s the Tad Robinson Band’ right? In essence we, the singer, particularly a stand up singer who doesn’t play guitar or piano on the band stand, it’s a real communal thing and we’re only as good as our band. So, I’ve been really lucky to work with just a lot of really creative musicians. You know they work with a lot of other people, they’re serving those other songs that the other artists do. When they’re focusing on the Tad Robinson Band they’re all in. You just can’t ask for more than that.”
“You’ll keep coming back to the best. The sidemen, that really have a heart for what you do. There’s no shortcut, nothing substitutes for being totally conversant in the style, and educated about the style. Like all the sidemen I’m mentioning are people who have studied Blues and R&B, you know, they’ve been doing it for 20 years. 20, 30, 40 years. They also bring a wealth of other music to the party…Their ears are open you know, it’s surprising how much their knowledgeable about a lot of other styles and they are hearing everything that comes up the pike.”
Tad’s Indianapolis based band is that crew that brings the heart to his music. Kevin Anker, de facto musical director and keyboardist, Paul Holdman on guitar and vocals, Dave Murray on bass and Brian Yarde on drums give Tad’s music shape.
“Right now I have a great guitar player here in the Indianapolis area named Paul Holdman, who is really coming into his own in the Blues world. And is known now as one of the real finest Blues guitar players in his own right. He’s another guy that you know, he’s one of those people that I lean on to mold that style that I’ve been working on. I’ll say also, Kevin Anker, my keyboard player who also is the current Fabulous Thunderbirds keyboard player. Kevin Anker is in my group and he’s been on the last four records for Severn…I’m lucky to have him on my team. And again, you know, and not only that, he’s also a songwriting partner of mine. So in that respect he’s right on the front line of creating the bedrock of what our sound is.”
Tad Robinson developed his sense of collaboration and exploration from formative childhood experiences of pop culture, family and the cultural revolution that was his native New York City in the 1960’s.
“Well for me, it was a very fertile time for music, you know, in the 20th Century, to grow up in the 60’s. So, you know, everybody sees their childhood through rose tinted glasses, but it still seemed to me that that was an age of the great R&B voices. So, growing up in a time, on your transistor radio, on AM radio in New York City, you could hear everybody from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder, to Levi Stubbs with the Four Tops to, you know, Dusty Springfield and into Eric Burden and John Lennon and the British Invasion and their take on American R&B. It was really a fortunate time to grow up if you had eyes on being a singer. ‘Cause, you know, you had, who else?: Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, people who come to mind. So as a child, those were the voices, that’s the soundtrack of life. And so, it made an indelible impression on a kid like me.”
One of three children to Ray and Phyllis Robinson, Tad reminisces:
“I came from a family, they weren’t musicians, but, they were. It was a musical family in that everybody was very interested in music. My dad was a magazine editor, but he was also a pretty good crooner. He could sing kind of like the way Bing Crosby would sing and people like that, because that was his era. Because he was born in ‘20, so his era was the 30’s and 40’s and all the great songs that came out of that era. And then my mom too was musical, and she worked in City Government. She worked in the parks department as an administrator and she would kind of help with things like open spaces and Shakespeare in the park and things like that. So the arts were important in our house.”
“And then my brother played guitar and my sister sang. And my brother introduced me to all of, he was older, he was my older brother, he bought all of the 45s. So he was spinning on his record player all the tunes of that time (the 1960’s), like I’ve said. From the Beatles to the Stones to Motown, Otis Redding on through Aretha, Stevie Wonder, etc. So that was the music going, you know. Between my parents love for the show tunes, all of the Broadway stuff we experienced being New Yorkers, and then we were getting the constant flow of new music from the Rock era. And I mean at that point I wasn’t hip to the Blues scene, being a little kid in New York. But, it was the voices that led me later to discover the more earthy, more obscure artists that were always there but were invisible to me. Because I was a child of the 60’s and hearing what was popular. It took a while to claw through and get down to the artists that were more essential.”
Music was all around young Tad who had a proclivity for it. His inspiration came as much from pop culture as the influence of his siblings’ musical experiments:
“When I was growing up, we had an upright piano in our apartment. I fooled around and began trying to write simple songs and accompany myself singing. I had a rudimentary self taught piano ability that made it possible for me to bang out the unadorned chords. This was the 1960s, and my sister, Nancy, was very into the folk music scene. Artists like Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Donovan, Dave Van Ronk. Oftentimes I remember singing harmonies with her. And my brother, Steve, would chime in too. This was mostly on the standard folk repertoire and protest songs of the era, anti-war songs, workers’ rights anthems, left-wing stuff. It was so fun and natural to get that effortless three-part-blood-harmony going. I view that experience as the seed of me wanting to sing. In 5th grade, I was in my first rock band. Through high school I continued to be in bands, plus that’s when I got seriously into harmonica as well.”
In actuality that seed for singing was in Tad when he was born:
“One of my best childhood friends tells me that his mom remembers me when we were playing as little toddlers in the sandbox and I was singing James Darren’s ‘Goodbye Cruel World.’ And so you know, I was a mimic, I was hearing what was on the radio and it kind of dawned on me that I could do that.”
The influence of his family, his City and the decades of his youth gave him the raw material to feed his natural talent and move his art forward:
“I took a few voice lessons and I learned a lot about being a musician that way. I learned philosophical things from voice teachers, but not too much that helped me with the type of singing that I wanted to do. I got that from listening to records by folks like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Eric Burden and David Ruffin. That was the source material, and would always continue to be.”
After a short stint at his father’s alma mater, Columbia University, Tad decided he needed a change:
“After a year at Columbia, where I was less than a half hearted student. I decided I wanted to study music, and I ended up moving to the Midwest and attending Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington. Being a singer, I still wanted to know something about theory, and I thought that would be the place to learn. Bloomington…was where my serious education in the blues scene would happen. I was in a little blues band in my I.U. years. We played as openers for Muddy Waters, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bo Diddley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and others, as so many of the up-and-coming roots music bands of that era did. It was kind of a rite of passage.”
After undergrad in Indiana, Tad attended the graduate school of Blues Dues Paying in Chicago, where a burgeoning new wave of young Blues musicians was taking shape.
“That’s to me the time of my life when I was an apprentice in this music. Because when I was in Chicago in the 80’s the main people doing the music were people like Jimmy Johnson, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Willie Dixon, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Levell White. And so this was the music that was all around me in Chicago. And so then I fell in with the people that I really respected. Like Steve Freund, who’s one of the most creative Blues guitar players I’ve ever heard. He was a person in Chicago who was a real important linchpin between the post war Blues like Sunnyland Slim and Lonnie Brooks and all those people and to the white cats that came later that were fascinated with the music. Like me. And like Ken Saydak was another one. He was a great piano player coming out of the Blues tradition.”
“And I was always really intimidated when I came and I heard Steve Freund and Ken Saydak and people like that who were doing Blues in such a non-compromising and traditional way. But, also making it their own and making it seem honest. And that’s when the light bulb went off in my head. That’s what I really want to try and accomplish. To be in that scene and yet not be a fraud (laughs). Because that’s what I saw in them, I saw they were totally genuine in what they were doing. They weren’t like a guy wearing someone else’s suit that didn’t fit right. They were totally at home in the music and totally respected by the people who were the innovators, the creators of the music. I felt like I came late to the party.”
Dave Specter was a Chicago native who, like Freund, Saydak and Robinson, was pushing for his own sound within the tradition. Robinson and Specter joined forces in the 1990s for yet another collaborative and influential chapter in Tad’s growth as an artist:
“Dave was developing his own inimitable, really interesting, style. He’s a musician that, we are talking about, how do you get a trade mark style? Dave is one that you can pick him out right away by his sound and the notes he chooses…We were both in that same community. He was looking for a singer. I did some gigs with him. And he was kind and heard something in me and said ‘hey man do you want to record?’ He was doing a record at Delmark. He was doing his second for Delmark. After Barkin’ Bill Smith did his first record with him. So, I was in some high expectations, because Bill was such a great swinging singer. Dave wanted to do a different type of record. And we ended up doing a kind of earthy Chicago Blues record. I brought a little of the Soul thing to it. I did “That’s How Strong My Love Is” the O.V. Wright tune that Otis Redding had covered. So we kind of leaned in that direction for a minute on that record.”
“But, I don’t know. When you’re a singer, I mean I just looked at it as in Dave’s band I’m a sideman. And that’s just the way that I approached it. He would come out and do some instrumentals that are kind of his trademark, really cool compositions that he comes up with. And then I would come on and blow some harp and do some tunes. At that time, I worked for a while when he also had Jesse Fortune in the band too. And I also worked with Dave when he had Barkin’ Bill Smith in the band as well. It was kind of like a Blues Review. So Dave had that kind of Blues Review going on… You know every musician is always spinning a lot of plates. So when I was in Dave’s band I was also, like, doing gigs as me. And sometimes using Dave as a sideman. It’s almost like whoever gets the call becomes the leader for that date.”
Robinson’s time with Dave Specter did offer new exposure. In parallel with his Specter work he released his first solo Delmark record One to Infinity. Tad also took his first trip to Europe with Specter as featured guests of German band B.B. and Blues Shacks. This first European trip started an arm of Robinson’s career that he values deeply and has been long lasting.
“European Bands will invite you over because they are hip to your music and they want to get the chance to play with you and learn what you have to offer. It opens some doors for them… It becomes a symbiotic relationship. It opens more doors and you end up playing more countries. At this point I work about 21 countries in the world. They have become ongoing gigs that you come back to year after year.”
Robinson’s European booking agent Erkan Ozdemir, owner/operator of LowTone Music, has orchestrated Tad’s European presence and does a tremendous amount of work for other American Blues musicians going to Europe. Tad has first hand knowledge and respect for the European Blues scene and how it is a testament to Blues Power:
“Some of the European musicians who are playing Blues and R&B are really to be reckoned with… some of these cats are absolute head cutter great players and also great people. It’s a win/win. Because it makes the world a lot smaller place when you are able to go back to these countries and play with great musicians that are there. But, also have these almost, like, family connections with all these great people. The African American tradition of Blues and the gift of Soul Music and all those things have really resonated worldwide and are embraced worldwide. And are just cherished. And for me to be a part of that even though my music is a distant cousin to the early traditional Blues music that came out of the African American experience and the suffering of the abomination of slavery…It’s very interesting to me that it’s embraced all over the world, that music. And that’s part of what causes these strong relationships. We Americans who go over there to play, we develop it, it’s part of that whole history.”
Sixteen years ago Tad Robinson started a fruitful partnership with David Earl’s Severn Records. A label dedicated to high quality soulfully made music, Severn Records and the style of collaborative songwriting and recording he found there was the spark that ignited Tad’s current artistic breakthroughs; taking the grit and grind of the post-war harmonica driven Chicago Blues and marrying it with the deep pocketed bounce, hop and honey of classic Soul and R&B. Tad, humble and forthcoming about his newest collaborative process:
“When I was at Severn label for the last 10 years. David Earl, like I say, has been a real blessing to me. Because he’s allowed me to work with kind of like a house band that he’s developed over the years. So I’ve had Steve Gomes on bass, who is currently with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He is a great writer and producer. Steve is one of these guys, that he always has an idea for a song on the tip of his tongue. But it’s just like almost there, it’s in the back of his mind. It’s just about to be developed and he plays it close to the vest. Like he’ll say ‘well I have an idea’ and then it turns out he has an incredible idea. And he’ll sit down and he’ll say ‘but, man I just can’t get the last verses.’ So sometimes I’ve been able to work with people who have really been able to coax me out of myself and into writing with them.”
“So at Severn Label a lot of times we’re writing together as a team. Kevin Anker, Steve Gomes and I have written a whole bunch of stuff together for my records, kind of on the clock. Like we’ll go to the session when it’s time to record and we don’t quite have a whole record’s worth. And we’ll just set up and we’ll write. And so that’s kind of a different way of writing. Some writers write every day. You know, I’m not the kind of writer that writes just like wakes up every morning with a cup of coffee and writes. I’ve kind of written for these projects.”
Tad’s Severn work is undeniably strong and distinct. 2007’s A New Point of View, with arrangements from the legendary soul maestro Willie Henderson, set a high water mark for what the sub genre Soul Blues can be. Modern and classic, hard and warm all at the same time. 2015’s Day Into Night fully realized the modern sound with a deep dark R&B thump that is bottomless and round.
On his fifth Severn release Real Street, Robinson fully stepped into the sweet Southern Soul Music he is inspired by.
“I was given a grant from The Arts Council of Indianapolis. I was given a grant to visit Memphis. And my idea for the grant was to kind of be a fly on the wall and just to visit Memphis for an extended period of time and check out the status of the Southern Soul Sound that Memphis is the birthplace of. And I was gonna hear, you know, who was still playing from the old days and what was the new take on the music. That was my original idea for the grant.”
“I did receive the grant. But, I mentioned it to some friends in the industry: John Nemeth, Dave Keller and Curtis Salgado. Kind of colleagues of mine if you will (chuckle). And they all mentioned, they said to me ‘man, when you’re down there you owe it to yourself to record with the Hi guys who are still around,’ rather than just going to Memphis and you know eating BBQ and taking in the sights and sound, they said ‘you owe it to yourself to do this.’ John Nemeth had names and he had the idea that I’d go to work with Scott Bomar at Electraphonic Recording. You know the guys kind of gave me that advice. And I mentioned it to David Earl at Severn Records, I said ‘hey man I got this grant. I have some money to make some recordings. I think I’ll go down there and record with Charles Hodges on Hammond, and Leroy Hodges on bass and Howard Grimes on drums.’ And he said ‘why make 3 tracks?’ He said ‘I’ll match the grant. Why don’t you go down and make a record.’”
“So you know that got the wheels turning. We both had the idea that I’d bring Kevin Anker along… I gave him (Anker) the ideas I had for the record, 10 songs. And with David’s blessing and The Arts Council of Indianapolis sending me and their blessing, I went down and recorded with the Hodges brothers and Howard Grimes. And Kevin Anker on piano and a great Memphis guitar player named Joe Restivo who rounded out the quintet.”
“The Hi Rhythm section brought such wisdom and grace and solidarity and joy to the session. I mean I couldn’t have asked for a better vibe in terms of how we all approached playing together. I mean it was truly like, not to be clique, but it was truly like coming home for me. And I am forever grateful for the spirit and the way they brought, what I consider anyway, to be their A game to my little session.”
Real Street was done in the old style and it shows. The band cut live in the studio on mostly 1st or 2nd takes. A Blues Music Award nominee, for Robinson Real Street:
“is certainly the most recent major sign post on my road in this journey as a singer, and it, you know, it comes in this very uncertain era that we live in. It’s something that I will always look back on and just marvel at how fortunate I was and how lucky I was to be able to work with the guys that were the architects of the Southern Soul Sound. When I found out I was going to work with them I went to my record collection and started seeing them in all of the liner notes.”
Tad Robinson lives a good life. He says:
“I am a family man: My wife, Amy, is an artist, a teacher and a realtor. My sons, Tyler and Avery are 31 and 24 respectively. We have two pugs, Leo and Louise… thought it would be incomplete not to mention that there is life outside of music! Ha.”
Robinson has made himself available to Blues and Soul music throughout his life and followed it’s calling from the East Coast to the Midwest, from Europe to Memphis. All the time, Tad has been open and ready for learning.
“There was a funny story: Kevin and I, we were trying to describe the type of groove we wanted on one of the tunes, on the opening track. And we said ‘Well, guys it’s kind of like ‘Trying to Live My Life Without You’ by Otis Clay, you know it’s kind of got that bounce.’ And Howard and the Hodges brothers looked at each other and said ‘oh, yeah we know that, we played on that.’”
This is a parable for Tad Robinson’s trip. Revere the source, know how it works, and create your own personal voice within it. Be a “gigger” and always show up.
Check out: Tad Robinson at http://www.tadrobinson.com.