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The Duke Robillard Band: They Called It Rhythm & Blues
(Stony Plain Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/16/2022)
The term “rhythm and blues” as been used for some 75 years now, and the styles it represents have evolved greatly over the that time. These days, when the music business refers to R&B, it often means hip-hop or commercial pop by African American artists. But back in the 1940s, the term arose at the end of the big band era, when blues and swing were brought together outside of the mainstream jazz context by artists like Louis Jordan, Lloyd Price and Percy Mayfield, and later people like Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles. As it got more electric, the style became the beginnings of rock & roll, which arose through the fusion of black and white influences -- blues and country.
Early rhythm and blues still had one foot in the big band days, and most groups maintained a horn section, and many of the rhythms of the music were inspired by the swing of the big bands. The rise of the retro movement in recent years has inspired many performers to tap into parts of the early days of rock & toll, with rockabilly and soul. The revival of early rhythm and blues is rarer. But one performer who has been doing it for about 50 years now is guitarist Duke Robillard, who has just released an album titled They Called It Rhythm and Blues.
Rhode Island native son Duke Robillard formed Roomful of Blues in 1967 with pianist Al Copley, specializing in the early big-band influenced sound with a horn section, and performing a combination of songs from the 1940s and original material. Though Robillard left Roomful in 1979, the band remains together and he sometimes sits in with them. Robillard, in the meantime, played with the Legendary Blues Band, a group of veterans of Muddy Waters’ band, was a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds replacing Jimmy Vaughan in 1990. He has been active as a studio musician for artists including Bob Dylan, Maria Muldaur and Kansas City jazz great Jay McShann. And with early rhythm & blues styles emerging from the jazz swing scene, Robillard has also been active in the jazz world, forming a duo with jazz guitar great Herb Ellis, and recording several times with fellow Rhode Islander saxophonist Scott Hamilton. In fact Robillard’s last album, released in July of 2021 was a swing project with Hamilton. On his new album Robillard is joined by some of his former Roomful of Blues bandmates.
Robillard’s new project definitely lives up to its title, They Called It Rhythm and Blues, with a variety of classic styles from jump band swing to shuffles to boogie woogie to a slow blues or two. It’s a generous 18 track album running over an hour, and it features several guests who have worked with Robillard over the years, including Roomful of Blues veterans Sugar Ray Norcia on vocals and harmonica, and saxophonist Doug James, plus Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds also on vocals and harmonica, blues veteran John Hammond, and Michelle Willson who has had a long association with Robillard. They get the vocal spotlight for most of the album, with Robillard singing lead on only three of the 18 tracks. Each of the guests are suited to the variety of blues on which they are featured. His regular band include Chris Cote, who also sings several lead vocals, keyboard man Bruce Bears, bassist Marty Ballou, drummer Mark Teixeira, along with saxophonist Doug James.
The material is mostly from decades ago, though there are a couple of originals by the participants.
Opening is a great example of the classic early R&B style.. Here I’m Is is sung by Chris Cote, while the band does a great bluesy shuffle. <<>>
One of the tracks with Robillard doing lead vocal is No Good Lover, though he shares vocal duties with Sue Foley. It’s the facet of the music that points toward rise of rock & roll. <<>>
Fools Are Getting Scarcer, sung by Chris Cote is a great swinging tune written by R&B pioneer Roy Milton, with novelty lyrics. <<>>
Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds appears on a tune he wrote called Tell Me Why which is given a more of a Chicago blues style. <<>>
John Hammond appears on Homeless Blues by Lil Son Jackson. Robillard, Hammond and company also give it the full Chicago treatment. <<>>
The band shows its swing side on another set of novelty lyrics, Champagne Mind with Michelle Willson doing the lead. <<>>
Robillard and band goes for the early Memphis soul sound on Outta Here an original by Robillard, in which the guitarist does his own lead vocal, something that he should have done more on the album. <<>>
The record ends with its one instrumental, Swingin’ for Four Bills, with an easy swing groove and some especially tasteful guitar work by Robillard. <<>>
Duke Robillard’s fifty-year recording career has been a rather prolific one, with at least 36 albums as leader or co-leader, in blues, jazz and rock & roll, plus many appearances as a supporting musician. But his home territory is clearly early rhythm and blues that arose in the 1940s from jazz, swing and rural blues – a sound that he helped to keep alive with his founding of Roomful of Blues back in the day. They Called It Rhythm and Blues is a certainly well-named album highlighting the style with the easy-going, often danceable spirit of the music born just after World War II. He has gathered a band of long-time friends and colleagues whose enthusiasm is also tangible.
Our grade for audio quality is about a “B.” The sound is not as clean as if should be. It’s over compressed and sometimes a bit murky. Recreating the music of decades past does not mean you have to include the recording deficiencies from an earlier era. Great music sounds even better when it’s captured with clarity and dynamics.
Rhythm and Blues means different things to different people. Duke Robillard reminds us of how it started and how great it still can sound three-quarters of a century on.
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