Born in 1949 in Burrillville, RI. Addresses: Record company--Stony Plain Records, Box 861 Edmonton, Alberta T5J 2L8, Canada, phone: (780) 468-6423, fax: (780) 465-8941, website: Agent--The Rosebud Agency, P.O. Box 170429, San Francisco, CA 94117, phone: (415) 386-3456, website: Website--Duke Robillard Official Website:

In a special "Who's Who of the Blues" section in Guitar World, writer Dave Rubin described Duke Robillard as "the most awesome of younger blues guitarists.... His solos sting and soar, his rhythm always swings, and when he jumps on a slow blues he has creativity and chops in abundance. Whether he's playing a chunky shuffle or a swinging jazz standard, every note rings with authority, conviction and true blues feel." By the early 2000s, Robillard had rounded out his blues mastery with liberal doses of classic jazz and encounters with a variety of other musicians, and he was firmly ensconsed in the pantheon of greats in the genre.

Like most of his contemporaries, Robillard was first influenced by the early rock and rollers like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Duane Eddy, whom he heard through the record collection of his older brother, also a guitarist. Wanting a guitar of his own, Robillard told his father he needed to build one for a school project. The two fashioned a crude instrument modeled after the Telecaster of James Burton, Ricky Nelson's guitarist on the "Ozzie and Harriet" television show. When the British Invasion hit the States he began to check out artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James, who had influenced the popular English groups. The 17-year-old decided it was time to form a band of his own. "I was playing blues, y'know, learning it and playing it. I got real serious about it right after I got out of high school and started the first Roomful Of Blues with bass, drums, guitar, piano, and harp," he told Bog Angell of Down Beat.

With Fran Christina (later of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) on drums and 16-year-old Al Copley on piano, the group styled themselves after the Chicago sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They broke up briefly in 1969 and Robillard formed Black Cat, another blues band, which survived for only a short period. After reforming Roomful, Robillard's musical tastes took a sharp turn. "I really came upon rhythm and blues by mistake," he told Mark von Lehmden of Rolling Stone. "Somebody gave me a few 78s [records] by Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, people like that. And then I heard Buddy Johnson." The Johnson album that so affected Robillard is called Rock and Roll Stage Party, of which he says, "there's not one bad note on it."

Saxophonist Scott Hamilton turned Robillard on to some of the early horn players in jazz and also the stylish outfits of the 1930s bands. Soon Roomful began dressing in vintage clothing and playing songs that emulated the jump bands that had long since faded away. Another reason Robillard felt more comfortable with the older swing style was the vocals. "My trying to sing like Muddy Waters was impossible. Amos Milburn or Louis Jordan was more feasible. So in 1970, Roomful added horns," he told Dan Forte in Guitar World. Robillard's vocals, according to von Lehmden, "modulate effortlessly from a Satchmo growl to a Joe Turner shout to a B.B. King plea."

Searched Out Electric Guitar Roots

Robillard's guitar voice also changed with the band's new sound. He began to absorb the sounds of the very first of the electric guitarists: Charlie Christian, Tiny Grimes, Oscar Moore, and perhaps the most influential blues guitarist, T-Bone Walker. "Got me [a Gibson] ES-5, just like he had, and started playing the guitar flat [held horizontally] like he did," Robillard told Dan Forte. "I mean, I became T-Bone. I got too into him." Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan confirms Robillard's dedication in Guitar Player. "When I walked into the club where he was playing with Roomful, it was like hearing T-Bone Walker." That was no small feat, considering that artists like B.B. King have spent much of their career trying to duplicate T-Bone's sound exactly.

It would take another six or seven years before producer/songwriter Doc Pomus caught Roomful's act at a New York nightclub. He was able to convince Island Records to sign the band, and in 1978 they released their first LP, Roomful of Blues. Their music, which almost immediately caused live audiences to start jitterbugging, was now captured on vinyl. They decided to stretch out from the East Coast and began to tour the South, where the nine-piece unit got a taste of New Orleans-flavored rhythm and blues. Their second LP, Let's Have a Party, reflects that influence as well as Robillard's switch from the hollow-body Gibson to a Fender Stratocaster, via a recommendation from Jimmie Vaughan. "Before I met him, my playing was smoother.... Then I heard Jimmie play those Buddy [Guy] and Otis [Rush] things, and I thought 'Jeez, a white guy can do it,'" he told Dan Forte in Guitar Player. "Jimmie was instrumental in me coming out of my shell as far as going from a smoother player to doing some rough stuff also."

Roomful was doing quite well reproducing the songs of yesteryear, but Robillard wanted to introduce originals into their repetoire. "Roomful was a fake jazz band," he told Down Beat's Bob Angell. "We improvised, but only in 12-bar, 16-bar [rhythm and blues] phrases." Unable to work out a compromise, he left the band in 1980 and joined with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon. His replacement in Roomful, Ronnie Earl, cites the pressure of having to fill Robillard's spot. "I was literally having nightmares of crowds chanting in unison, 'Where's Duke?'," Earl told Guitar Player. "He was really the only guy around here [the New England area] who you could go see."

After three months, Gordon's band took a break and Robillard recorded two albums with the Legendary Blues Band while putting together a trio of his own, the Pleasure Kings (with Thomas Enright on bass and Tommy DeQuattro on drums). Gordon called Robillard back into service with the Pleasure Kings as his opening act, but the trio decided to go out on their own. "For the first time, I placed my guitar in a trio setting and began focusing on my original influences--the classic rock and roll guitarists--trying to synthesize everything I learned into something new," Robillard told Frank Joseph in Guitar Player.

Despite a show-stopping performance at the 1983 San Francisco Blues Festival, their first album received a poor review by Down Beat's Jim Roberts. "Duke's singing and playing is routine--everything is worked out just right, but most of it is pretty ho-hum and unispired. Maybe he tried too hard to be perfect and recorded too many takes." After having worked with a nine-piece band for nearly twelve years, Robillard was obviously very meticulous about recording procedures and the record was polished a little too much for some critics.

Reverted to Jazz

The trio loosened up on their next effort, Too Hot to Handle, with Robillard turning in stunning solos on "Duke's Mood" and "T-Bone Boogie." Once again though, Robillard changed directions in 1987 by reverting back to an almost pure jazz approach on Swing. With songs still based on blues progressions, upright bassist Scott Appelruth and drummer Doug Hinman were able to bring the mood down and help Robillard play a la Django Reinhardt. Scott Hamilton pitched in on tenor sax. Of the record, Robillard told Guitar World, "I think it lets people know that I'm into, and capable of, a lot of stuff, and I do it with conviction."

Robillard's 1988 release, You Got Me, included the Pleasure Kings once again as well as Dr. John and Vaughan helping out on second guitar. Although it leans more toward rock, the album show how Robillard has managed to draw upon his mastery of so many guitar styles and form them into his own unique voice. "It took me a long time to be able to play the different techniques," he told Forte in Guitar World, "but now I feel really comfortable in all the different veins--like I'm three different people."

Joined Fabulous Thunderbirds

Robillard's schedule in the 1990s was a varied one. He joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds, an Austin, Texas-based purveyor of blues-oriented roots rock in 1990, replacing legendary Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan. At the same time, he continued to work at his own solo career, and prior to signing with the Point Blank imprint of the Virgin label in 1994 he left the Thunderbirds. In the mid-1990s, Robillard toured with virtuoso blues guitarist John Hammond, whom Robillard had met while with Roomful of Blues back in the 1970s. Robillard produced Hammond's Found True Love album and in 1996 released his own Duke's Blues CD, a jump blues-flavored album the Austin American-Statesman called "real as life itself and as hot as a Texas heatwave."

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Robillard recorded for the Shanachie and Stony Plain labels. His eclectic treatment of the blues became even more diverse, with his aptly named Explorer album (2000) including such novelties as a Celtic waltz. Down Beat complained that "this time around Robillard works too hard at singing his lyrics on love's shenanigans, forcing the drama rather than invoking it," but the album won Robillard a W.C. Handy Blues Artist of the Year award. Robillard still found time to serve as a studio musician, now mostly on high-profile projects such as Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind.

Well into his 50s, Robillard was hardly cutting back on his activities in the early 2000s. He continued to hone his jazz chops, releasing a pair of albums (1999's Conversations in Swing Guitar and 2002's More Conversations in Swing Guitar) with top-notch jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, and his 2003 album Exalted Lover returned to the classic horn-enhanced sound of Robillard's Roomful of Blues days. In 2003 he toured with Jay Geils (formerly J. Geils) and Gerry Beaudoin as the New Guitar Summit. Always exploring new music ranging from jazz to Turkish improvisations, Robillard told Guitar Player that "if I reach the point where I don't have anything new to say, if I'm not improving, I'll just put the guitar down."

by Calen D. Stone and James M. Manheim

Duke Robillard's Career

Formed original Roomful of Blues, 1967; formed Black Cat, 1969; re-formed Roomful of Blues, c. 1969; group released its first LP, 1978; left Roomful of Blues, 1980, worked with Robert Gordon and with the Legendary Blues Band; formed band the Pleasure Kings during early 1980s; member, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, 1990-92; worked with jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, 1999; released Exalted Lover, 2003.

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