By Mike Greenblatt
There’s a reason it’s called Ear Worms. The latest platter from Rhode Island’s Duke Robillard (on Stony Plain Records) is one catchy ear worm of an album. This guy can do no wrong. Robillard has to now be considered legendary. He started Roomful of Blues in 1967, spent time with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, replaced Jimmie Vaughan in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, produced a ton of artists, wrote a ton of songs and positively shreds on a concert stage with his electric guitar.
Goldmine: You do “Every Day I Have To Cry Some” by Arthur Alexander. What is it about Alexander (1940-1993) that prompts legends like The Beatles, Stones, Pearl Jam, Dylan, Otis, Tina Turner and Jerry Lee to record his songs?
Duke Robillard: He was a unique artist whose tunes reflect a combination of rock and roll, pop, soul and country elements, unique for a black artist from his time. They’re special songs.
GM: Why did you leave Roomful of Blues?
DR: Haven’t gotten asked this one in a while but all I care to say is that it was purely business. Oddly enough, five of the original members are playing shows with my rhythm section of late and have made a recording—not yet available—that sounds exactly like we did in the mid-1970s.
GM: How was it touring with Tom Waits as his guitarist?
DR: I love touring with Tom. He’s a fabulous artist and character, and it was never boring. In fact, I had to really keep on my toes with new tunes to learn coming under my door daily! Couldn’t be more fun, although I feel I wasn’t quite “out” enough for him as a guitarist.
GM: How was it recording with Dylan in 1997 for his Time Out of Mind album?
DR: It was a very interesting thing because he really wanted me but the producer, Daniel Lanois, didn’t! Maybe because I was taking his place as a guitarist. That was a day-to-day battle but Bob insisted on my being there. Playing those tunes was really special because he had saved them up for a while and were some of his best in years.
GM: Your original “Don’t Bother Trying to Steal Her Love” is so damn gloriously rock and roll! I consider it your “Brown Sugar.”
DR: To me, it’s just another of the tunes from the ’80s back when I was churning out a lot of tunes, but I did realize it was a good roots-rock song.
GM: “On This Side of Goodbye,” a 1966 Righteous Brothers song, has such an old-school soul-man vibe like Percy Sledge or Solomon Burke.
DR: It was a Goffin/King minor tune but Eric Burdon did such a great job with it that since I was a teenager, I told myself I would record it someday.
GM: I love the violin on “Living With the Animals,” first recorded by Tracy Nelson’s band Mother Earth in 1968.
DR: There have been a lot of bluesy violinists, but it just so happens that I so loved the original’s hippie-jam vibe, so we added Marnie Hall on violin. Her son, Baxter Hall, plays the great guitar part at the end of “On This Side of Goodbye.” Keep an eye out for him. I’m producing his album and he’s only 19 and very special.
GM: What prompted you to make an instrumental shuffle out of “Careless Love,” a tune associated with Buddy Bolden around the turn of the century in New Orleans?
DR: I had wanted to do a nod to Duane Eddy and I thought it was the kind of song he would do. Like his version of “I Almost Lost My Mind,” it really is perfect for big-toned tremolo guitar drenched in reverb.
GM: The Dylan song, “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” sticks out like an oddly matched pair of socks but works masterfully in this context. Why this one?
DR: Well, when John Wesley Harding came out, I was moved by this track and it stuck with me. So I knew it was the right Dylan song to pick and vocalist Mark Cutler certainly proved me right.
GM: Loved that you revitalized “Sweet Nothin’s,” a 1959 sexual come-on, originally recorded by 15-year old Brenda Lee. Nowadays, that would be frowned upon, no?
DR: Yes, very much so, but those were simpler, less uptight times. I miss those days. It’s cool that Sunny Crownover can sing so many girl singer/girl group songs from that time so naturally it made her the perfect choice for so many of my projects. You may have noticed I only sing one song on the whole album.
GM: The piano on Chuck Berry’s “Dead Dad” reminds me of Johnny Johnson.
DR: Chuck Berry’s sound and Johnny Johnson’s piano are like beans and cornbread, right? One needs the other.
GM: I think my favorite song is “Yes We Can.”
DR: It was inspired by Lee Dorsey. I love all his recordings. What a voice and soul sound and those Allen Toussaint songs are the best. I did try to add a slightly jam-band-meets-Albert Collins vibe to it. It’s such a monster groove!
GM: Your guitar on the 1952 Pee Wee King song “You Belong To Me” is one of the most gorgeous parts you’ve ever recorded—genius in how it’s akin to the human voice. It’s been recorded by so many vocalists throughout the decades that had you had someone sing it, it wouldn’t have been half as good.
DR: I used a special guitar that has a very pure tone (an Eastwood Tuxedo) and also I always try to make the melody very expressive and melodious, like a voice. I got this song from the Patti Page and Jo Stafford versions.
GM: How is your voice these days?
DR: One of the reasons I have so many guest vocalists on this recording is that my voice is not what it once was. I can still sing the blues and a few swing songs, but it doesn’t want to learn new things. It is hard for me because I have sung my whole career, but having my friends sing and guest on this album has been nothing but fun, and I had such a good time recording and producing it that it’s as me as anything else I have recorded.