Moving from a (smallish) town in Indiana to the (big, big, big) city of Chicago and immediately securing a gig as a working bluesman at Rosa’s Lounge could have been loaded with troubles, misfortunes and lessons learned the hard way for singer/songwriter/harpist and bandleader Tad Robinson. Instead, it all pretty much went off smooth when he made the transition from the Hoosier State to the Windy City back in the early part of the 1980s.
Smooth, maybe, but there were still lessons to be learned, says Robinson.
“Well, the only real hassle was, the Armitage Avenue (where Rosa’s is located) bus stopped running at midnight and I didn’t have a car,” he laughed. “So I would always rely on whoever was still hanging out at the bar at the end of the night – we played until 2 a.m. – for a ride back to the north side. I would always re-invent the wheel every week to find a way home, until I finally did get a car. That helped.”
Some visiting friends of Robinson’s from Indiana found out that even having a car still might not be the golden ticket for a way home from Rosa’s at the end of the evening.
“It wasn’t that great of a neighborhood back then and I invited some of my Indiana friends to hear me play there, and they got their car stolen when they were in the club,” he reminisced. “That was bad, but they did find it a few blocks away a couple of weeks later.”
Transportation issues aside, once Robinson hit the streets of Chicago, he quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with and seldom ever lacked for a place to play the blues.
“I was working seven gigs steadily within three months of moving there. At that time, it was wide open. As soon as I moved there, I was playing at the Wise Fool’s Pub, Rosa’s Lounge, Legends, Fitzgerald’s, the Hunt Club … it was really just an open scene at that time,” he said. “It was great. Rosa’s had just opened when I moved there. I went in and met Tony Mangiullo (owner) and one night I would come to work and Lurie Bell and his brothers would be my band and another night I would get there and Marvin Jackson – who was playing with Albert Collins at the time – would play with me … or Dave Specter or Steve Freund or Ken Saydak. So it was easy to get a band together back then. There were just so many wonderful musicians around and it was a great education.”
Robinson has been putting that ‘great education’ to work ever since, with his wonderfully-expressive harmonica playing and deep, emotionally-charged vocals harkening back to a day and time when substance really did count more than flash. Watching the way that he coaxes a series of tasty runs out of his blues harp on stage, one might be caught a bit off-guard that Robinson doesn’t put ‘harp player’ at the head of his resume.
“No, I‘ve always looked at myself as a singer who blows a little harp on the side; because I know great harp playing. My heroes are people like Big Walter and William Clarke and Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin … Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, people like that,” he said. “Those are the great instrumentalists, but they’re also great singers, too. I’ve always been an admirer of that type of harp. I’ve worked hard at the harp, but my heart is really with singing. I look at the harp as more of an accent to my singing. Singing has always been my first love.”
Robinson hooked up as lead vocalist with Dave Specter & The Bluebirds before eventually embarking out under his own name and cutting a pair of albums for Delmark Records (1994’s One to Infinity and Last Go Round from 1998). Since 2004, Robinson has called Severn Records home. He’s currently finishing up work on a follow-up to 2010’s Back in Style.
“It’s a real honor to work with Severn. I love the way they do things and the opportunity they have given me. The production team they have there with Kevin Anker on keys, Steve Gomes on bass, Rob Stupka on drums, and this time, we’re working with Johnny Moeller on guitar, has just been a real blessing for me,” he said. “The way I look at it is, I just couldn’t be in better hands. It’s really nice to make records for them, because they’ve given me so much freedom and so much encouragement. You really want to do good for a person that has given you such an opportunity. You want them to feel like their gamble has paid off.”
Since it sprang to life in the Annapolis, Maryland area in 1998, Severn Records has become known for its distinctive sound, mixing plenty of blues with plenty of soul. That satisfying blend can be heard not only in Robinson’s tunes, but also of those from label-mates Lou Pride and Sugar Ray & The Bluetones.
“I think the ‘Severn sound’ is a little cut above what you might hear in the blues market, because they pay a lot of attention to arranging and production, but always in the service of the song,” Robinson said. “If the tune needs something, they’re willing to go the extra yard and bring in players who can really make the song come to life. Every label wants to have a signature, just like every musician wants to have a sound that people can identify with. And whether it’s conscious or not, I think they’ve (Severn) carved out a niche where people maybe see them as the soul side of blues. But in the end, it’s all about the song. Song-craft is really important to them.”
Songwriting is one key element of the way Severn does things. However, it’s just the beginning. After sculpting a tune, the next step is to pair it up with the proper artist.
“David Earl (president of the label) at Severn Records is making records that are kind of old-school. He’s taking time and a lot of care in choosing songs that fit the singers … it’s kind of the way records used to be made back in the soul era, when a group was presented songs by an A&R guy that fit their singer,” he said. “They may hear a song and go, ‘Yeah, that’s good, but it’s really not for Tad. That may be a better song for one of our other artists.’ They take the material and they weigh it as far as which one of their singers will best project the emotion in that particular song.”
“You bring in tunes and they’re very honest in appraising them. They might say, ‘You know what? We can do better than that.’ And then we might sit down and re-write it, or we might reject it,” he said. “You’re working with people who are your peers and who you trust, but they’re also pushing you a little bit.”
When you take into account the kind of music that caught Robinson’s attention as a youngster, it’s no wonder that he considers the way things are done at Severn as a little slice of Heaven.
“I came up in an era when we had Sam Cooke and Ray Charles and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and those guys always got the cream of the material. You know, Bobby Bland was like the blues version of Frank Sinatra … or Elvis,” he said. “The songwriters would just line up because they wanted to write for singers of that caliber. So I think Severn is trying to look back to the time when the song was king and find the perfect match between the song and the singer, which is essential.”
Robinson is such a truly talented and versatile musician that it doesn’t matter if you put the ‘soul’ in front of ‘blues,’ or whether you put the ‘blues’ in front of ‘soul’ – the result will be the same. Listen closely enough to Robinson’s music and you’re also likely to hear plenty of R&B and even a bit of funk working its way to the top of the mix.
“Well, I recorded for Delmark back in the day and did some straight-ahead blues harp stuff, but I always incorporated some soul/blues and other stuff into those records, too. So I am comfortable in all those areas,” he said. “That can make finding a group of guys to go out on the road and play those songs kind of challenging sometimes. A lot of musicians are in either one camp or the other. You know, some musicians find out what they do really well and that’s what they concentrate on. But you can find musicians that want to stretch out with you … the kind that love the blues but also dig all the stuff that came out of Stax Records and Hi Records. My show is at the risk of being a little schizophrenic, because I might come out of a harp shuffle and all of a sudden, I’m in a Memphis soul tune. Blurring those edges is kind of the next challenge. Artists like Little Milton and Syl Johnson can play a bar room blues and then turn around and do a soul number. I’ve always admired those types of artists.”
Unlike a number of other artists who started playing the blues as a vocation around the time Robinson began his journey down that path, guitar-based blues/rock was not so much of an influence or inspiration to him as it was to others.
“That might be because back when I moved to Chicago in the 80s, when I heard the blues that was being played by Junior Wells with Sammy Lawhorn, or Louis Myers or Robert Lockwood, they were approaching blues in a totally different way. It was closer to acoustic/chamber music … or closer to jazz,” he said. “It was really of an ensemble nature. When you listen to the seminal post-war recordings of guys like Jimmy Rogers, where you have Otis Spann on piano and Willie Dixon on bass and you have Jimmy and Muddy Waters on guitar, along with Little Walter or Big Walter (Horton), you’re hearing this playing that raised the ensemble-level of playing the blues to such high levels … the weaving of all the instruments. Rock/blues is usually a band that’s backing someone that’s wailing on the guitar.
He may not have been overly smitten with the pyrotechnical world of shredding blues/rock guitarists enough to play the blues in that vein up on the bandstand, but Robinson still appreciates a good ‘ole fiery six-string solo as much as the next guy.
“I do. I love a great guitar solo as much as the next guy. But I didn’t feel like that was the function of my music – to be just a foil for the guitarist,” he said. “I gravitated towards musicians who were good accompanists, whose mission was to play behind singers and who wanted to play songs, rather than to just get to their solo. But I don’t like to pigeon-hole myself; some of my stuff kind of leans towards rock/blues at times. I don’t find rock to be a dirty four-letter word. It’s certainly welcome in the world of the blues, too. It’s where all this different music comes together that I find interesting.”
When scanning down the annual list of nominees for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs) – just like clockwork – it’s a safe bet that Robinson’s name will be among those vying for honors in the Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year category. Robinson has garnered seven BMA nominations in the past nine years and that’s something that he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s really been a huge surprise and an incredible honor to be grouped in there. When I came into the business, just to be recognized by your peers that you’re even a known quantity in the business was all I could have asked for,” he said. “And David Earl and Severn really kind of put me on the map when they put out my record, Did You Ever Wonder. That was really the first time that I got recognized for that nomination. That was awesome. Those things (nominations for awards) never stop meaning something. It just keeps telling you that you’re on the right track and are somehow making records that are moving people. The biggest fear for a musician is putting out a record that no one ever hears.”
At the end of the day, whether one calls it soul/blues, blues/rock, new blues, old-school blues or anything else, the blues is an art form that has been around seemingly since the Stone Age. And it will probably exist long after the next Stone Age comes and goes.
“Blues music is just a survivor. I think the musicians that play the music are survivors … you see them out there and in the hard times you wonder what makes them keep on doing it,” Robinson said. “So I think the musicians I know that play that form of music love the music, they love the message of the music, they love the tradition of the music and they want to preserve it. But they also want to extend it and put their own brand out there. To say that blues music has legs would be such a joke. I mean, it’s been an influence on all the music that has formed America’s roots traditions. All these rich traditions and forms of music that we have all came out of the blues, so it keeps being a well that musicians of all stripes keep coming back to. It’s here to stay.”