There are few artists in the world of music who wear more hats than Duke Robillard. The exceptionally gifted guitarist has been a force of nature since a teenager, when he founded Roomful of Blues. But he’s far more than that.
As a guitarist, Duke stands out from the crowd, playing blues, jazz, swing, old-school rock-‘n’-roll and more with such as precise touch on the strings that his approach seems effortless despite the complexity of his attack. He consistently receives high praise from magazines including Guitar Player and Downbeat as well as the New York Times, which has described him as “a soloist of stunning force and originality.”
A warm, personable individual despite his fame, he’s a modern-day Renaissance man whose musical talent is akin to the tip of an iceberg because there’s a whole lot more to discover beneath the surface of the deep blue sea of blue notes he plays.
Based out of Pawtucket, R.I., a stone’s throw north of Providence, Duke needs a spare closet for all of the hats he wears. In addition to his work as a performer and songwriter who fronts one of the most highly polished bands in the business, he operates separate jazz and blues labels, devotedly produces albums for others and hosts a weekly radio show, too, using it as a vehicle to educate a new generation about his heroes from the past. And…oh yeah…he’s a talented black-and-white photographer and abstract artist with multiple gallery showings, too.
Deeply influenced by the guitar stylings of T-Bone Walker, which still contribute to his approach today, Robillard was just 18 years old in 1967 when he and keyboard player Al Copley founded Roomful in Westerly, R.I. Conceived as a straight-ahead Chicago-style blues band, they gradually incorporated horns to pursue their love for jump, swing and early soul.
By the time he split about 12 years later, yielding the guitar chair to Ronnie Earl, he was recognized as a world-class guitar talent and the group were a New England institution who’d signed with Island Records, served as opening act for Count Basie and served as the backing unit for everyone from Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy McCracklin and Roy Brown to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Big Joe Turner and Earl King.
Duke subsequently served as the guitarist for Robert Gordon, the punk rocker turned rockabilly revivalist, before hooking up with Bob Margolin, Jerry Portnoy, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones after they split from Muddy Waters and rebranded themselves as Legendary Blues Band.
He toured and recorded two LPs with them before returning home to launch a self-named band that quickly evolved into the The Pleasure Kings, a three-piece unit that played blues rock and released two albums in the ‘80s. Even then, though, Robillard was making a name in jazz, too, with Swing, an album he recorded with saxophonist Scott Hamilton that received international acclaim.
Duke also replaced Jimmie Vaughan in The Fabulous Thunderbirds for a few years in the early ‘90s, but still maintained his solo career leading his own groups and taking time out to collaborate with guitarists Herb Ellis, Gerry Beaudoin and J. Geils in jazz ventures, too.
A two-time Grammy nominee in the traditional blues category for the CDs Guitar Groove-a-Rama in 2006 and Stomp! The Blues Tonight in 2009, Duke’s a four-time recipient of guitarist of the year in the W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards – a feat he accomplished in a five-year period. And behind the scenes, he’s supervised recordings by Witherspoon, McShann, Rosco Gordon, Billy Boy Arnold, Joe Louis Walker, Billy Price and Otis Clay, Bryan Lee, Eddy Clearwater and a host of others.
He’s worked with dozens of top names, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Adams, Tom Waits, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Thackery, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Pinetop Perkins, Ruth Brown and more. And his partnership with Jesse Finkelstein in the blues imprint Shining Stone and jazz label Blue Duchess has a catalog that includes albums for award-winning keyboard players David Maxwell and Anthony Geraci as well as guitarists Paul Gabriel and Brazilian Nuno Mindelis and Hamilton, too.
But as Blues Blast learned it a recent interview, none of that rich history might have happened if Robillard hadn’t circumvented his mother and tricked his father into helping him build a guitar as a child.
“I didn’t grow up in a musical family,” Duke says today. “My mother and father, neither of them played any music, and it didn’t really mean anything to her at all.
“But my father enjoyed music. And my uncle, my mother’s brother, played bass and guitar in a country-and-western band, The Westones, around Burrillville, where I grew up. They actually had a Saturday morning radio show. I was just totally blown away by live music, and they’d play at my aunt’s beach parties at Spring Lake.”
Another early influence came from Jerry Leveille, a guitarist in The Bel-Aires, who have been playing rock to enthusiastic audiences locally for most of Duke’s life, something they continue to do today. Leveille lived across the street and was a friend of one of Robillard’s older brothers. Two brothers had guitars laying around the house, although one of them had purchased a vintage Martin solely as an investment.
“Being ten years younger, as soon as I was old enough, I heard them play at the dances they held in a hall above the fire station in Pascoag,” Duke remembers. “That was the first place I ever sat in with a band.
“Back then, my mother was totally against me playing guitar. She said: ‘You have a clarinet.’ I love clarinet now. But at the time, it was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to play guitar, and I wanted to play electric guitar!
“By the time I was six, rock ‘n’ roll was coming in, and I showed a lot of interest in that music. But she saw Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis on TV and said: ‘Oh, no! You’re not doin’ that!’
“But I was determined! Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ had just come out. I heard that great piano intro that went into that riff with the horns and the bass and guitar all playing together, and said: ‘This is for me!’ In the eighth grade, I had to write a piece about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Mine was about being a professional guitarist. I was totally captivated. That was it!
“I was a really shy and quiet kid, and I was asthmatic, too – so much so that I missed a lot of school because of it. But you would have had to tie me up and gag me to stop me from being a musician. My mother came close, but she didn’t.”
Robillard’s love for the music grew quickly in his youth because one of his brothers was bringing home 45s. “When I heard Chuck Berry doin’ ‘Wee Wee Hours’ (the flipside to his 1955 Chess 45 of ‘Maybelline’), that changed my life,” he remembers. “’Maybelline’ was so powerful and fast with incredible guitar. But when I heard ‘Wee Wee Hours,’ for some reason, that slo-o-ow moaning, lamenting in that song just drove me crazy! I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what blues was, but it just…I started looking for more music like that.”
He subsequently found the same sounds in the recordings of the Rolling Stones and Animals in the ‘60s. Ardently studying the liner notes, he realized that many of the songs he loved best were written by names he didn’t recognize, but quickly discovered were the top names in the blues. His path to jump, swing and horn bands came through the music of B.B. King, another early influence.
“He really got my attention,” Robillard says. “I loved that sound. Then I heard T-Bone Walker with horns and then Basie and realized that a lot of the material was just blues – blues form, blues songs, boogie-woogie. Just blues.”
It’s the thread, he knows now, that connects all American music from jazz and swing to country and rock, often in 12-bar format.
The incident that turned the tide in Duke’s battle with his mom came the day that an uncle gifted the Robillard boys with an old Kay acoustic, he says. “The neck actually attached with a wingnut – a really cool invention, which made it for easy adjustments. They should be using that now, but don’t.”
Now a quick-thinking 13-year-old, Duke separated the neck from the body shortly thereafter and approached his dad with it.
“I told him I needed to build an electric guitar for a science project,” he says, “and he bought it! He had some three-quarter-inch marine plywood in the basement and glued two pieces together because it wasn’t thick enough. I drew a Fender Telecaster shape on the board. He cut it out on the jigsaw, and we built it together. I was in my first band with that guitar.”
By the time Robillard was 19, he was a seasoned veteran who was holding down a regular Thursday night solo gig at Bovi’s Tavern in East Providence, a club with a long, cherished local history as a showroom for top jazz and blues acts and big bands, too.
A veteran road dog, Duke’s basically been in self-imposed isolation since the corona-virus shutdown, venturing out solely for trips to the grocery or the doctor for scheduled appointments while keeping busy in his Mood Room, his basement recording and art studio, and tending to his garden.
“Technically, I’m doin’ fine. But it is taking quite a toll on my psyche,” he admits.
Fortunately, he’s been able to deal with the shutdown better than most because of a medical issue that almost ended his playing career for good about five years ago. Sixty years of touring with a guitar strapped to his shoulder had taken a toll. He’d been in discomfort for years, gritting his teeth and playing through the pain until he could endure it no more.
Even after surgery, docs feared, he might never recover well enough to play again.
Fortunately for music fans everywhere, however, the operation to repair the affected tendons and muscles proved reasonably successful. Like almost all other patients, recovery for Duke seemed to take forever. He’s now pain-free. But one side effect from the surgery, he says, is that he’s lost a great deal of the movement he’d previously enjoyed – something, he admits, that has slowed down his attack somewhat.
“The fact that I’m able to play at all is simply amazing,” he says. “But in some ways, it might have improved my playing. There’s not as much flash, and I concentrate more on what the notes mean, which is a good thing — and that’s what older musicians do anyway.
“One thing it did was introduce me to painting, which was something I dabbled with in the past. I spent a year and a half where I couldn’t touch a guitar. I got heavily into abstract painting. I’d come down here to my basement at eight o’clock in the morning and stay down here for eight hours painting.”
That’s one talent that does run in his family. His brother Gerald, ten years his senior, is a world-class, college-trained landscape and seascape artist who also collaborates with luthier/grandson-in-law Mike Falco to produce their own line of artistically enhanced instruments.
“Painting just completely gave me a release that I needed,” Duke says, “because, you know, music is my life. It was a very good substitute – not that it was a replacement, but it did help me.”
Another thing that’s helped in his “down time” is Duke Robillard’s Mood Room, the radio show he hosts every Saturday afternoon over WICN-FM, a public broadcasting station based in Worcester, Mass.
“Besides the blues, I’ve very interested in jazz and early American popular music in general,” he says. “I’ve studied many styles, and where they originated…how they came up and how they became popular. I play music primarily from the ‘20s and ‘30s – all types, but based on jazz and blues because blues has been a very big part of popular music for a long time.”
Running from 4 to 6 p.m., the show takes a great deal of prep work.
“I pre-tape it, and I have incredible amounts of records to go through,” Robillard says. “I do it all from 78s and vinyl. It’s a real chore because, besides picking music, sometimes I’ve got to ask myself: ‘Is this record in good enough shape to put over the radio?’
“Sometimes, they’re not, but I play ‘em anyway because of the importance of the music. And I don’t go with mp3s that have been homogenized — put through the washing machine of digital equipment so they don’t represent what the music actually sounded like when it was recorded. There’s a warmth that comes from vinyl that’s lacking in digital.
“Contemporary music can be made on digital equipment and be made to sound beautiful. It can sound great and be made to sound warm. But it will never capture what was there in older music that was recorded in analog. If it’s later, from the ‘50s or ‘60s, it can be improved to someone’s ear – that means no noises. But listening around the hiss or hum or rattle to hear the original sound, to me, it’s worth it.”
Robillard comes as close to it as humanly possible with latest project, Blues Bash!, his brand-new CD on Stony Plain Records, which feels like a blast from the past, but has a contemporary feel.
“All of my albums have a lot of blues in ‘em,” he notes, “but jump around and have some swing, jump and rock in ‘em or songs that are just roots-based. This time, though, I thought: ‘I just want to do an album of real blues without any bullshit” – meaning the over-the-top instrumental hooks or contrived, catchy lyrics that usually produce hits.
“I decided: ’I’m not going to try and write anything funny. I’m just gonna make a blues album like the kind I used to buy as a kid. Just blues. Period.’
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s really good to write great songs. But the blues is just…expression. There’s a lot of songs in the blues that are just totally ‘common,’ but give you a lot of feeling and passion. That’s what I was going for – simple, ordinary blues that sounded like it did when I started out in the ‘70s — because that’s still what I’m all about.”
Keeping it simple is something that younger blues musicians tend to lose sight of today, Robillard says, noting: “There’s a lot of people who’ve been brought up in this day and age who think you need monster chops to play the blues. But that isn’t what the blues is all about.
“Even if you have monster chops, you have to ignore them in order to play the music the way it’s meant to be…relaxed. There’s a time to be aggressive, of course. But all the older blues people I used to sit in with…Muddy, Joe Turner, Cleanhead…the big line they gave you when you were takin’ a solo was always: ‘Take your time, son. Take your time!’
“In other words: Play the notes that count, but think about them. You don’t have to impress us with flash.”
Released with billing as Duke Robillard & Friends, it’s an ensemble project that’s not intended to be a throwback release despite the theme, he insists. “I didn’t try to make it a low-fi recording, just with a live feel that emulated great records of the past.”
The lineup includes Duke’s skintight core band – Bruce Bears on keys, Mark Teixeira on drums and Marty Ballou on bass – with guest appearances by Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson and Chris Cote, a pair of Boston favorites, who join Robillard on vocals. The roster also includes Greg Piccolo, Rich Lataille and Doug James – the original Roomful horns – as outstanding Boston-based bassist Jesse Williams and two players from the West Coast: harp player Mark Hummel and Bob Welch, the longtime Elvin Bishop band member, who sits in on piano.
They swing from the hip in a set that includes classic material culled from Big Joe Turner, Roy Milton and Dave Bartholomew, a few dusty, rediscovered treasures and a trio of Duke originals, including “Give Me All the Love You Got,” a tune originally released in 1985 as a blues-rocker when he was fronting The Pleasure Kings.
“I wrote it when I was with Roomful as something like Lowell Fulson would have recorded early in his career,” he says. “I finally got to do it in the way it was meant to be played.”
Despite all of the balls Duke has in the air at home, he’s itching to get back on the stage again to play for the multitude of fans he’s built up across North America and elsewhere for the past 50 years. “I’m especially looking forward to getting to Europe again,” he says. “That’s been one of the greatest thrills of my life – to be able to tour foreign countries. It’s so stimulating.
“And it’s so great how people all over the world love the blues and amazing how much they’re studied it. When I first went to Finland, Sweden and Norway in the early ‘80s, I couldn’t believe it.” To his shock, he played to sold-out shows and found that his debut Pleasure Kings album was a hit across Scandinavia prior to his arrival.
One thing’s for certain, he says: “I have no intention of stopping as far as recording and touring – if it ever opens up again. But I think this (corona-virus) is a message to the world to be aware of what’s important in life in general.”
Meanwhile, he’s hard at work, trying his hand at something new. He’s been hard at work and in the final stages of writing an autobiography, which promises to be chockful of intimate memories of a life well-lived and packed with intimate details of behind-the-scenes experiences with many of the greatest names in music history.
Check out Duke’s music, find out where he’ll be playing next, check out his fine-art photos of blues superstars, look for an announcement about the release of his book and more by visiting his website: www.dukerobillard.com.