ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 2, 1995
By Steve Newton
Some music-crazy kids will do anything to get their youthful paws on their first electric guitar. They’ll beg, borrow, or steal. Or, if they’re like Duke Robillard, they’ll pull a fast one. As a 14-year-old in Providence, Rhode Island, he came up with a highly original plan to get plugged in.
“I convinced my father I had to build one for a science project at school,” says the 46-year-old blues-rocker, chuckling on the line from Austin, Texas. “We actually built an electric guitar using the neck and the bridge from the old beat-up acoustic my uncle gave me. And I was in a band a week later.”
Like a lot of professional musicians, Robillard first caught the infectious music bug that would become his life’s work while listening to his older brother’s ’50s recordings. “He collected all the R&B and rock ’n’ roll records of the day: Little Richard and Fats Domino and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. That turned me on, and when I was six years old, I knew that I was gonna do this.”
Robillard has been taking his music to the people since 1967, when he founded the swinging seven-piece Roomful of Blues. He cut two albums with R.O.B. before forming Duke Robillard and the Pleasure Kings in ’79, recording a pair of albums and touring clubs and blues festivals throughout North America and Europe. After stepping out solo in ’86, Robillard made two blues and jazz albums, but it wasn’t until he took Jimmie Vaughan’s place as lead guitarist in the Fabulous Thunderbirds that his sound became widely known.
“I enjoyed doin’ that,” he says of his two-and-a-half-year T-Bird stint, “but I really missed doing my own thing. I prefer to be my own boss and play my own music, and there wasn’t time to do both, so I opted to go back to my own career.”
From the sound of Robillard’s latest release, Temptation, he made the right move. Its 11 tracks show the artist to be at home in a number of different styles, from Latin-edged jazz to blustery shuffles, from sweet-toned guitar ballads to Chuck Berry–inspired stomps.
“What I looked for in recording these songs was a sense of balance,” says Robillard. “My guitar-playing will fit in any genre I come up with, so I usually work with an idea for a lyric or groove first. The mood of the lyric will suggest a certain groove, and then the more diverse it gets, the more fun it is for me to play.”
As well as lead vocals, Robillard handled electric arch-top and solid-body guitars, acoustic flattop guitar, National steel-bodied guitar, and electric sitar on the self-produced effort, which also features his touring rhythm section of bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Jeffery McAllister.
“Marty and Jeffery are great on the album,” boasts Robillard. “Numbers like ‘What’s Wrong?’, this wacky New Orleans R&B thing by Sugarboy Crawford that I used to do in Roomful—that’s just the trio live. And on ‘Live to Give’ we worked at creating a different kind of sound, with the groove played on the rim of the drum and the guitar playing off it.
“That’s an example of the way I like to combine a lot of the sounds I like into something fresh,” he adds. “It’s got a very tough attitude, but the lyrics have the kind of images you’d find in the work of the classic songwriters of the ’30s, which I managed to twist into a rock ’n’ roll groove. A lot of the sounds on the record… I wouldn’t dare say they’re original, but I’ve definitely got my own thing going on.”
Robillard plays the Town Pump next Friday (March 10) on a bill with veteran blues singer-harpist-guitarist John Hammond, who will open with a solo acoustic set before returning to join Robillard in a finale of electric Chicago blues.
“He’s very earthy,” says Robillard of Hammond’s plugged-in approach, “and he still has that acoustic feel, like a lot of Chicago people do. He plays it in the vein of an acoustic guitar—but electrified, like Muddy Waters used to—and it’s powerful.”