An Interview with Duke Robillard

By Ross Boissoneau

When one thinks about the best blues guitarists, many names likely come to mind: B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, etc. Recent years have seen everyone from Eric Johnson to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kenny Wayne Shepherd to Eric Gales, while stalwarts like Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Cray continue to thrive.


Duke Robillard

One name that should be on the tip of the tongue when it comes to great and influential players is Duke Robillard. Not only is Robillard one of the best fretmeisters out there, he’s been doing it for over 50 years, and his sound and approach are as fresh as ever. Witness his last few recordings: Duke Robillard and His Dames of Rhythm, Swingin’ (with Scott Hamilton), Blues Bash, and his latest, They Called It Rhythm & Blues.

His definition of the lattermost isn’t the soulful r&b of the 70s and later; it’s the music created in response to what he sees as the sweet, smooth sounds that were popularized during and immediately after World War II by many of the big bands. “Young people needed something more raucous,” he said. They found it in the stylings of the jump swing sounds of Louis Jordan and Illinois Jacquet, where the tenor sax was out front of a strident rhythm section. “When I heard rhythm and blues, it had elements of jazz, blues vocals. It was danceable and featured guitar.”

Which fit into where he was coming from and where he could hear himself heading. “If I was going to sing, I couldn’t convincingly pull off country blues. Now it didn’t have to sound like Mississippi,” he said.

Ultimately it led him to create a band that helped usher in a new sound. Roomful of Blues featured Duke in a honky-tonk kind of rhythm section, with three saxophones. After leaving the band he’d founded, he played with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, eventually enlisting the aid of members of Muddy Waters’s band in the Legendary Blues Band, then teaming up with his pal Kim Wilson in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. All along he pursued songwriting, playing and singing as a solo artist as well as bandleader.

Last year, Robillard teamed up with his old pal Scott Hamilton on sax for Swingin’Again. The two have a longstanding friendship and have recorded and performed together previously. Robillard said he was pleased with the opportunity and the results. “I’m glad we got to do it,” said Robillard, noting that the music is similar to what they both listened to when they were young lions.

“We do it for the love. We sure aren’t getting rich,” he said with a laugh.

While his career is full of twists and turns, it’s always been about playing the most soulful kinds of blues, with a smattering of other rootsy sounds. With They Called It Rhythm & Blues, he’s circled back to the scene of the crime. Its 18 songs include originals from guest Kim Wilson and a couple of Duke’s as well, alongside blues classics and obscurities. In addition to his working band, it features ten other guest performers, including Wilson and Sugar Ray Norcia. Bandmember Chris Cote sings half a dozen tunes, while Robillard himself sings lead on three cuts.

“I’m not singing a lot these days,” he said. The years of singing in smoky clubs, pushing to be heard over the instruments, took a toll on his voice. That’s why he’s enlisted Cote as his featured vocalist. “I have a great singer in the band, so it makes it really fun for me.”

But his guitar is always front and center. “I’ve owned over a thousand guitars in my life. When I was younger, I only owned one at a time, that was all I could afford.”

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

Ross Boissoneau

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please fill in the number below: *