Asked what guitarist influenced him most, Duke Robillard doesn't hesitate: "T-Bone Walker."
Some of the first licks Robillard learned were from 78s of T-Bone classics like "Stormy Monday." Robillard said in a recent Guitar World interview that by the mid-Seventies he was "too into T-Bone" and was in danger of "becoming T-Bone." With a fanatical zeal, he began learning Walker tunes and playing his guitar flat and horizontal, T-Bone's most recognizable performance quirk. During his years with Roomful of Blues, the Rhode Island-based band he founded in 1967, Robillard habitually slipped T-Bone tunes like "Viola Lee Blues" into his sets.
Finally, Duke decided it was time to take the plunge and go out and get a vintage, hollow-body, Gibson ES-5, the same guitar that T-Bone used. Soon, that guitar also became one of Robillard's more recognizable accouterments. Like most guitar masters, Robillard has bought and sold a lot of guitars. One of his most famous guitars was a cheapo Belltone he bought at swap meet for $7. But he never parted with his ES-5. Over time, it became a valuable part of his two blues-rock projects, the Duke Robillard Band and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
But don't expect to see Robillard using his venerable old arch top at the Rhythm Room next week. A recent incident in Albuquerque convinced him to leave the ES-5 at home where it will be safe.
"We were playing at a theatre and somebody stuck their hand in the back door and grabbed it," Robillard says from a hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Evidently, they got scared and threw it under a truck just down the street. The funny part is that there's a band in Albuquerque called The Force which is made up of cops. The singer is a friend of mine. When they brought in my guitar, he recognized it. He caught up with us in Denver and delivered it to me three days later."
Since the theft, Robillard has pared the number of guitars he travels with to three: a vintage Fender Stratocaster, a Telecaster and his mainstay, an Epiphone Deluxe Zephyr Regent.
Three is also the number of bands Robillard plays in these days. Closest to his heart is the roots-and-blues-oriented trio he fronts, the Duke Robillard Band. This is the group that will be in the Valley next week. The band's latest recording project is the 1991 release Turn It Around.
Robillard's most recent recording is a jazz-guitar outing titled After Hours Swing Session. On that album, the normally blues-drenched guitarist steps out and eloquently pays his respects to great jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian, Tiny Grimes and Django Reinhardt. Although both Turn It Around and After Hours Swing Session are good indie records, neither received much notice or broke any sales records. Outside a core of dedicated followers made up of blues fans and other guitarists, Robillard remained an unknown.
All that changed last year when he decided to join the archetypal Texas blues-rock band the Fabulous Thunderbirds. This T-Bone devotee became a T-Bird last year when co-founder Jimmie Vaughan decided to quit to pursue solo projects and produce posthumous Stevie Ray albums. Robillard's migration to the band caps a bizarre and long-running Roomful of Blues/T-Birds connection. Along with Robillard, the current rhythm section of the band--bassist Preston Hubbard and drummer Fran Christina--are both Roomful alums. It's such a well-known phenomenon that in the T-Birds' hometown of Austin, Texas, Roomful is jokingly referred to as the T-Birds' "farm team."
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Robillard's presence has in many ways saved the T-Birds. His blazing leads have brought new life to a band that desperately needed fresh energy. Although their styles are different, Robillard is a more aggressive and showy soloist than Vaughan. There is also the overlooked fact that Robillard has a better-than-average singing voice. Most of all, though, the clash of talent and ego, guitar and harmonica that occurs onstage between Robillard and the sole remaining T-Bird founder, Kim Wilson, has given the band's live act new fire. But not everyone has been overjoyed at Robillard's presence. Vaughan fans still pine for their departed hero.
"When people compare Jimmie and I, I don't let it get to me. Usually, it's coming out of the mouths of people who don't know any better," Robillard says. "As players, we have something different to say. And Jimmie has more notoriety in a commercial sense. Jimmie and I are close friends. We both admire each other's playing. In fact, what I've heard is that when he announced he was leaving and the T-Birds began searching for a replacement, Jimmie's the one who said, 'Call Duke.'"
Raised in the booming blues metropolis of Burrillville, Rhode Island, the 42-year-old Robillard got hooked on the idea of playing guitar after seeing Elvis' guitarist James Burton strumming his Telecaster on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Playing a homemade guitar that he assured his father was a science project, the young guitarist came under the spell of a litany of great players from Duane Eddy to Freddie King. After founding Roomful of Blues, he listened to jazz guitarists like Grimes, Christian and Kenny Burrell. In 1980, Duke left Roomful of Blues, and following stints with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon and a group of Muddy Waters ex-sidemen known as the Legendary Blues Band, he formed a blues-rock band, the Pleasure Kings. Two rock-oriented albums later, the Pleasure Kings broke up and the Duke Robillard Band was born. The current edition of that band includes Marty Ballou on bass and Jeff McAllister on drums.
Robillard admits that one of big reasons he joined the T-Birds is because they had a major-label record deal. Unfortunately, that deal with Sony-owned Epic Records was terminated this spring when Sony swept 30 acts off its talent roster. According to Robillard, the T-Birds are still alive and well. He says the band has had nibbles from other major labels and full-scale bites from a couple of indies, but is taking its time deciding which way to go. The tentative plan is to be signed in time to begin making the next record in February. Despite Robillard's easygoing, "everything's fine" rap, it's obvious that the T-Birds are iffy.
"I've been the leader and singer in every band I've ever been in except the T-Birds, so it's a new experience for me. And yes, it has its moments," he says, chuckling, without revealing details. "The T-Birds have changed. But that's what's keeping us interested.