Co-founder of Roomful of Blues to play the Updike Room Saturday
By Chris Parker
“The excesses of the rock-and-roll life, the ridiculousness of brown m&ms and smashing TVs and that stuff, I could never, I could never appreciate that lifestyle,” says musician Duke Robillard. “Some people go, ‘That’s all that’s so cool, you know?’ To me it’s like that [John Hiatt] song ‘Perfectly Good Guitar,’” where the singer laments the destruction of a beautiful instrument.
“I mean, it’s really true. I watched Pete Townsend smash a Stratocaster at Rhode Island Auditorium in 1966. And, and I was just shocked,” Robillard recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘If I could only have that guitar, if I could only have a guitar of that quality!’”
You have to understand where he was coming from. The legendary Rhode Island guitar-slinger was so desperate for a guitar, and so very broke, that he convinced his dad to help him build one by telling him it was for a science fair project, which it sort of was. “He believed me, and he was behind me,” says Robillard. “So we did it, and I won second prize. I was in a band a week later.”
For those following along at home, this is the kind of initiative required to make it as a musician. Robillard was done for early – his first memory is hearing music as an infant laying on the kitchen floor. He remembers listening to big band music with his mom, then rock and roll came along when he was seven and his brother starting playing guitar. There was also an uncle with a country band that played on WJAR on Saturday mornings.
Robillard soaked up all those influences and spit them back out like some form of musical eidetic memory.
“I came up learning to emulate all my favorite guitarists and having some kind of uncanny ability to just figure out what to do to get the sound that they had,” he says. “To me, it was like going to school, it was like, This is how he gets his sound.
“I didn’t develop my own style until I had, you know, a couple of dozen people’s styles under my belt,” Robillard chuckles. “I started mixing and matching them and taking elements. Then once I learned enough, I just stopped thinking about it and just played whatever came out of me.”
No sooner had Robillard graduated high school when he co-founded Westerly’s Roomful of Blues, still a Rhode Island institution 46 years later. Robillard and pianist Al Copley began playing hard Chicago blues but soon branched out. (Now the band largely specializes in jump blues and big band swing.)
They were a sensation almost from the start. “We were playing early R&B which was really odd in a sense because it was not a music that a lot of people knew about because there were no real records at that time,” Robillard explains. “The music was on 78s and I collected it on 78s. I still do. It was odd because the white audience didn’t really know of this music; it was kind of urban black dance music, and so we were building stuff that it was odd music to see a young white band play.”
They’d only been playing for a few years when Muddy Waters asked him to come on stage during a week-long residency in the area.
“Someone had told Muddy to have me sit in and that he wouldn’t regret it if he got me on stage,” says Robillard. “So he did call me up. And he went crazy. After we get off stage, he had Hollywood Fats in his band at the time, and he told me that if he had me and Hollywood fat together, he could rule the world. He got me up on stage every night that week.
“It really kind of blew my mind and I’m sure that I could have worked with them starting the next week, because he was looking for a rhythm guitarist or a second guitarist,” Robillard says. “At the end of the week, Bob Margolin came in and auditioned for the gig and he he got it because I was leading Roomful of Blues and I wasn’t leaving it.”
Roomful of Blues grew quickly to a regional sensation, touring regularly along the Eastern Seaboard, but back then the road from a regional act to a national was difficult. They got their chance with a couple albums for Rounder in the late seventies, their self-titled debut and 1979’s Let’s Have a Party. Desiring to stretch and explore further Robillard left in 1980 and wound up playing in rockabilly legend Robert Gordon’s band for several years.
Robillard left to become a solo artist, signed with Rounder and has been releasing music under his own name ever since, including a period where he replaced Jimmie Vaughn as lead guitarist of the Fabulous Thunderbirds for four years.
Over the years he’s won numerous awards including four consecutive W.C. Handy awards as the best blues guitarist of the year, filled in for Charlie Sexton as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist for a spell, and recorded or played with many of the greats he grew up admiring.
It’s been a terrific career, but not without its challenges. A few years ago he had to undergo rotator cuff surgery and afterwards he worried that he might not be able to play fast enough or proficient enough to continue performing. However a European tour after rehabbing convinced him whatever difference there was in his physical capabilities could be compensated for with foresight and practice. Indeed, he’s since undergone the same on the other shoulder.
“You have to learn to play around it.” he says. “It takes some thinking, and it takes some work to kind if there’s things that you just can’t do anymore. You’ve got to find a way to be able to express yourself.”
That’s nothing Robillard necessarily struggles with. While he was recovering from surgery he learned to paint and has found it to be a welcome creative avenue.
“I paint abstract. It reminds me of being a little kid… when I was a little real little kid. I used to like rearranging things on a Christmas tree, deep inside kind of, I would have like little soldiers,” he says. “So when I paint sometimes I just start moving colors around to kind of get an an idea of some kind of thing that doesn’t really exist but it’s related to something that you see physically. It’s hard to explain exactly but it’s a way of talking without words.”
But Robillard’s even trying his hand at that. He’s done preliminary work on his autobiography. “There’s a lot to talk about and I feel that what I’ve got now – I’ve got about 100 pages – I feel that it’s really come out quite well. I just got busy and I just have to make time now.”
With the recovery on the second shoulder nearly complete, Robillard is ready to hit the gas and feel the warm heat off the engine as it hums. It’s what he was born to do, since almost his first breath. He’s supporting a brand new album, Six Strings of Steel, which came out three weeks ago, highlighted by the gut bucket swing take on Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow,” a jumping version of Eddy Ware’s 1954 classic “Lima Beans,” and an almost 2-Tone take on Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” alongside crack originals like soulful “In Perfect Harmony” and funky “Groovin’ in the Swamp.”
“I can’t imagine myself really doing much else other than some form of music, playing, recording, teaching, gigging, just music or songwriting whatever it is,” he says. “I keep going back to music, you know, I’ve never really stopped.”
Duke Robillard Band, Saturday, July 15, at the Updike Room. 9 p.m. 162 Main St., East Greenwich;401-884-4200; www.updikeroom.com.
Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.