Q&A with legendary Duke Robillard, has been at the forefront of Blues, Swing and classic R&B/Jump blues for over 50 years

"I would hope that more and more people would learn to love music that is made with simple, real instruments. Whatever kind of music it is, blues jazz, folk music, singer/songwriter music. I’m not a fan of things that are made that are too electronic. I prefer things to be more natural in sound."

Duke Robillard: Blues Bash with Friends

Since starting his musical career in 1967 by founding and fronting Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard has been at the forefront of Blues, Swing and classic R&B/Jump blues for over 50 years, earning him his legendary status while influencing and inspiring countless legions of musicians and fans worldwide. Leading his own group, Duke has toured non-stop for the past 40-some years, recording more than 30 critically acclaimed CDs under his own name. He has toured as a guitarist with Tom Waits and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and recorded with the likes of Bob Dylan, Ruth Brown, Jay McShann, Pinetop Perkins, Kim Wilson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Rosco Gordon, Maria Muldaur and many more. On November 20 will be released “Blues Bash” (Stony Plain) with Duke Robillard & Friends, the new album from two-time Grammy nominee and multiple Blues Music Award-winning guitarist Duke Robillard.

(Duke Robillard / Photo by David Lee Black)

And while Duke has admitted that his concept for Blues Bash was to make a straight vintage-style blues album with rhythmic grooves and no hook-laden songs, as always, the music is impeccable, classy and powerful. Two stellar horn sections (including one that reunites him with many members of the original Roomful of Blues horns), searing guitar and organ solos, boogie woogie piano and guest vocalists Chris Cote and Michelle Willson help to propel the groove. Duke is in his element here, displaying his authority, versatility, passion and virtuosity. Not only is Blues Bash the kind of album that made so many blues fans fall in love with Duke’s music, it’s a career highlight from one of the world’s best. Duke Robillard has been defined as not merely a great artist, but also a true historian, scholar and curator who is adept at electric and acoustic blues, jazz, jump, swing, ballads and standards. Grammy-nominated and a five-time winner of the Blues Music Award as best guitarist, over his 50 plus year career Duke has been a prolific songwriter and is considered a blues guitar master. Duke continues to be a sought after side-man and featured guest.

Interview by Michael Limnios             Transcription: Katerina Lefkidou

Special Thanks: Mark Pucci Media, Katerina Lefcidou, David Lee Black

What you miss the most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?

Well, I’ve always preferred older music, I’d say that the ‘20s through the 1970s was where all my favorite music was made, of course good older style music is still being made, although, but right now I’d have to say the thing I miss most is being able to play because of the pandemic.

What are your hopes and your fears for the future of the music?

The fears are obvious, that things will never be the way that they were in general, especially in this country, everything to do with the government, everything worldwide, just everything is threatened right now, not only by the pandemic, but our government so, it’s a very important time.

Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in your music past?

To believe in what you do, I am very lucky that I had the great experience to play with many of my idols, from Muddy Waters to BB King, Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, so many, many artists that all gave me the encouragement when I was young and trying to be a good blues musician so, I guess I’ve learned that you have to really somehow learn to believe in yourself. I was not encouraged, my mother didn’t like that I played the guitar, she didn’t want me to play guitar, she just didn’t think that that was the route for me. Many kids have these issue, that parents decide what their interest should be and what’s interesting is it’s not good for them. Although I was completely sure by the time, I was 6 years old, that I was going to me a musician, so my advice is to follow your heart and work really hard at it. The music industry, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even make a medium living, never mind a good living. It’s just that if you decide that that’s what your life is, what it’s going to be you have to accept what happens.                                                     (Duke Robillard / Photo by David Lee Black)

"The fears are obvious, that things will never be the way that they were in general, especially in this country, everything to do with the government, everything worldwide, just everything is threatened right now, not only by the pandemic, but our government so, it’s a very important time."

New album titled “Blues Bash” (and Dance). What are the lines that connect the legacy of blues, jazz, jive, jump, and swing music with the dance?

I think in the 1980s is when the influence of blues started to be less noticeable in popular music, but before that, very, many styles of popular music were offshoots of the blues, whether it be rockabilly country music, rhythm and blues, funk, soul even many kinds of rock, southern rock and many Texas things were really offshoots of the blues sound and the blues style and even the blues musical formation. But I think the thing that linked them all is feeling. Just a certain feeling that makes these people happy, I don’t know what it is but it’s just to say I was drawn to it very early, since I’ve been a young kid, I was drawn to it.  And I didn’t understand it for a long time, but then I learned that all this music swing, jump, blues, country rockabilly and I’m talking about old country not modern country but the country that was the honky talk of the 50s and things like that. It’s all related musically, and that sound has so much feeling, so many ways that it can be interpreted. It’s just really a beautiful thing.

How do you want your music and your songs, to affect people?

There’s two things that I look for in a performance and of course one is pleasing the audience. Giving them what they would like to hear. But honestly there’s times you can’t always say that the audience definitely knows what they want to hear. They want to hear something that’s going to move them and that’s what I try to give them based on what I feel that I will give my best every time I perform, in other words a certain spiral of songs. I like to start off with a really strong, powerful song, to grab them or I might also start off and kind of take it easy and play something that’s kind of slower, a blues, group feeling and build up as. It’s really got to do with the audience and with the way physically, what I think I’ll play best. You know I’m not young anymore, so for me I do have to consider what I think will help me build up my show song by song. And I might need to start slower, or you know it just depends on my mood and my condition and how my fans are that night. There are many, many factors.

You talk greatly about all these great musicians and acts, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, Muddy, etc. What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

You know more than advised me, all the great masters of the idiom encouraged me with their words. Joe Turner told me that he was gonna go back to California with a tape of me and play it for T-Bone Walker’s wife and tell her that T-Bone's not dead. Now that was the biggest compliment, I think I ever had. Because T-Bone Walker was my idol for many years. And people like that just encouraged me that I was on the right path.

"Well, when I was younger, when I was in my teens, I had ling curly hair that was kind of like an afro-style hairdo and at one point I just said I’m gonna cut my hair shorter, it’s holding me back and my friends all said, you look so different, you don’t look like you, so we’re gonna have to call you a new name and they came up with Duke. And it stuck." (Photo: John Rossi, Duke Robillard, Ed Parnagoni, Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo, Doug James; and Al Copley, Roomful of Blues, Rhode Island 1973 at the Knick)

What were the reasons that make Rhode Island to be the center of jive/swing, blues in the early 70s?

Well, “Roomful of Blues” (laughing). After being together about five years we started playing in New York City and getting attention of many people like Bruce Springsteen came out to hear us, Doc Pomus came out to hear us, the Blues Brothers came out to hear us before they were the Blues Brothers and you know, Helen Humes, many great jazz singers, blues singers and even Ella Johnson from the Buddy Johnson orchestra came out to hear us. So, it was a buzz about what we were and what we were doing because we did it authentically.

What is the impact of your generation, what is the impact of your generation’s music and especially the blues on civil rights, human rights and the sociocultural implications?

You know blues doesn’t have a large scope of things that it is about. It is more today maybe a little more wide open, but not really, in the blues you’re singing about love, or some kind of hard times has you down. Whether it be, just depression or your job or something you can’t achieve, that you want, that really bothers you, the love of a woman or the opposite of that love, someone that you want that doesn’t love you. These are the issues that are mostly sung about, and I think that blues is best left to be of the simple direct thing than expanding it about other aspects of life.

What is happiness for Duke?

Well, I’ve achieved quite a bit of happiness to me. I’m happy that I’ve been able to have a career, I’m 72 years old now, I’ve been able to make a living all along as a musician, since I was about 17 years old, I’ve made many, many recordings and played with many of my idols and produced records for some of my idols, recorded with them. Plus, I have a very happy home life, I’m married to a woman who loves the music that I play and my home life with my wife and my dog and my garden, just very happy.

If you would change one thing in the musical world and it could become a reality, what would that be?

I would hope that more and more people would learn to love music that is made with simple, real instruments. Whatever kind of music it is, blues jazz, folk music, singer/songwriter music. I’m not a fan of things that are made that are too electronic. I prefer things to be more natural in sound. There’s more of a tendency now towards that music, but there was a time where electronics were in drum machines, things like that. Kind of focused in musical production. I think it’s going back to more natural playing of instruments and I think that’s a really good thing. There’s all kinds of music and I think a lot of ethnic music that is really great and gotten really popular all over the world, reggae, you know all kinds of music from different countries and I think there’s room for it all.

"You know more than advised me, all the great masters of the idiom encouraged me with their words. Joe Turner told me that he was gonna go back to California with a tape of me and play it for T-Bone Walker’s wife and tell her that T-bone's not dead. Now that was the biggest compliment, I think I ever had. Because T-Bone Walker was my idol for many years. And people like that just encouraged me that I was on the right path." (Duke Robillard / Photo by David Lee Black)

More than 50 years on the road. You’re a veteran musician. East, west, south, north, you have travelled around the states. Do you find any difference between the local US scenes?

Yeah, but I find that the kind of music that I play like blues, roots rock ‘n’ roll and swing, I found that there’s an audience for it everywhere. And luckily, I’ve made it to a level where there’s people everywhere that wanna hear what I do. Not everywhere there may be a very big crowd, some places very big, some places small, the fact that where you go people appreciate what you do and want to hear it, I’m very thankful for that and I have to say that every part of the country was a world that I’ve travelled, that is true, you know? I’m very blessed to have that.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go with a time machine?

I would like to be 20 years old in 1920. That’s where I would like to be because I would an experience anything from Louis Armstrong and all the great players, the early jazz era, New Orleans up through the mid-west and everywhere that it happens, I wish I was born in the 1900’s, I would have seen everybody that I would want to see, everybody that I love, would have been playing up through the ‘70s if I lived that long, which I have lived that long, that would be my time machine experience.

You are also a great song-writer. Where does your creative drive come from?

My inspiration form song writing has always come directly from my life experiences, very directly and there’s been times where I had an inspiration to write a song about something with not definitely a thing in my life, but there’s very few of them. Most of them are directly out of my life experience. And that’s what blues is, it’s songs from life experience. I’m not really a story-teller, I don’t make up stories I haven’t lived, I’m enough talented to do that. And I’ve had people say that, I’ve had song writers say that that’s not legitimate, you’re not a real song-writer if you can’t make up stories out of the blue, but I think blues song-writers definitely write about life and their experience in life.

What is the story behind the nickname “Duke”?

Well, when I was younger, when I was in my teens, I had ling curly hair that was kind of like an afro-style hairdo and at one point I just said I’m gonna cut my hair shorter, it’s holding me back and my friends all said, you look so different, you don’t look like you, so we’re gonna have to call you a new name and they came up with Duke. And it stuck.

"To believe in what you do, I am very lucky that I had the great experience to play with many of my idols, from Muddy Waters to BB King, Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, so many, many artists that all gave me the encouragement when I was young and trying to be a good blues musician so, I guess I’ve learned that you have to really somehow learn to believe in yourself." (Photo: Duke Robillard on stage with Muddy Waters Band)

Seventy-two years old. What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as an artist and has it helped you become a better blues musician?

There was a period in the 1980’s-1990’s, where I would always play blues and I would always go back and make swing albums, but I was also trying to, because blues had kind of crossed over in the sense that my friends, the Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray had crossed over into the popular world market of pop music with blues, in blues-based music. So, I worked hard to make something, maybe that I wasn’t meant to be, I tried to become more of a blues-rock artist. And I’m not saying that I regret that because I made really good records, I had a lot of fans, probably my most fans were at that time, for that part of the music that I played. I was trying very hard to become more famous and more popular and I think for me the kind of person I am and what my talent is, I could have not got into that direction and stay more traditional, but I actually love all of those things. I’m very open-minded, so every aspect of blues from, you know, that is more kind of rock influence, blues-rock of the 70s and 80s, I like that, but I was always more partial to the real original music and the traditional stuff. So, I loved it all, but I think my biggest obstacle was trying to become more famous in world market that way. There’s some of my albums where I still record music that kind of crossed over to blues and soul and rock and roll, but it’s probably because I come up with songs, or I love songs and those styles and not because I’m trying to get something out of it. I mean I’ve done everything I wanted to do and more really, I have to say that I’m very happy with the success I’ve had in my life.

Your new album band is “Duke Robillard and Friends”. What does "friends" mean to you?

That means people that for the most part have been my band, at one time or another, some for a very long period that time, and just people that are friends. We share the same musical interest and have known each other for a really long, long time, you know. That’s really what that’s about. Somebody that’s there for you when you need them, you need to talk, personal advice and help, someone who shares similar interests to you, that you can have a good time with. That’s basically it, someone that’s been there a long time...

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Duke Robillard / Photo by David Lee Black

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