” Robben Ford is one of the premier electric guitarists today, particularly known for his blues playing as well as his ability to be comfortable in a variety of musical contexts. A five-time Grammy nominee, he has played with artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Witherspoon, Miles Davis, George Harrison, Phil Lesh, Bonnie Raitt, Claus Ogerman, Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan, John Mayall, Greg Allman, John Scofield and many others. (See Discography)
Born in 1951 in Woodlake, California, and raised in Ukiah, Robben was the third of four sons in a musical family. His father Charles was a country and western singer and guitarist before entering the army and marrying Kathryn, who played piano and had a lovely singing voice. Robben?s first chosen instrument was the saxophone, which he began to play at age ten and continued to play into his early twenties. He began to teach himself guitar at age thirteen upon hearing the two guitarists from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. In the late 1960?s, Ford frequented the Fillmore and Winterland Auditoriums in San Francisco to see Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Albert King, B.B. King and all of the progenitors of blues. “It was an incredible time for electric guitar,” Robben recalls.
On his interest in jazz, Robben says,” I fell in love with the sax-playing of Paul Desmond and The Dave Brubeck Quartet, and before long found Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and of course, Miles Davis.” These influences have stayed with Robben, playing a large part in his particular blend of jazz and blues that define him as a guitarist and allow him to play in a wide variety of settings.”
” There’s never been a shortage of young guitar hotshots, but in recent years, particularly among blues players, these phenoms seem to be promoted more for their age than their playing. The early work of Robben Ford helps put all this hubbub in perspective.
In 1970, when the 18-year-old guitarist/saxophonist came out of Ukiah, in Northern California, he was quickly hired by harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, along with older brother, Patrick, on drums.
The pair stayed with Musselwhite nine months and (with Robben now 19) then reformed their previous outfit, the Charles Ford Band, named for their father. There was never any hype surrounding Robben’s age, possibly because the group also featured the staggering harp playing of his younger brother, Mark, who was all of 17. Also, in spite of their popularity, there was no label or publicity machinery behind them.
The quartet’s ability to shift from lowdown Chicago blues to Coltrane-inspired jazz was as impressive and convincing as it was virtually unprecedented, and though it broke up in less than a year, the impact of the group, and of that chapter of Robben’s guitar playing, is still being felt.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Ford and later young guns was that, even though he was inspired by Mike Bloomfield’s work on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, he had a distinct, original voice on guitar, even at such as early stage – a voice that has become a major influence in blues, jazz, and rock guitar.
The fact that he was that good at 18 and 19 begs the question – what was he like at 17 or 16? According to Patrick, “By the time Robben was 16 years old, he was a serious contender, and I knew few guitar players who impressed as much as him. Though Robben always took from other guitar players, he was also always original. I think the saxophone kept channels open for him that others might not have experienced.”
Lest one views that as family pride more than objective analysis, consider ex-leader Musselwhite’s comments. “The chords and also the rhythms that Robben would feed me, providing a pad for me, would spark responses in me that I wouldn’t usually think of,” he said. “It would be as if he gave me the insight or the energy to soar, the freedom to fly. I would feel propelled and able to play my truest feelings. There are a lot of technically great musicians, but Robben is one of the rare ones who, with all that technique, still play straight from the heart. And that’s where I’m always coming from, so Robben somehow instinctively knows just what to provide to allow a guy like me to be set free and play what I feel with no distractions.”
Inevitably, Robben’s guitar took him around the world – literally, beginning shortly after the Ford Band’s breakup, with singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who was featured on the first blues album Robben ever owned (a Verve collection called Blues Box).
David Grissom, who later played guitar on Ford’s Mystic Mile CD, first heard Robben on a PBS special with “Spoon.” “I’ve been a huge fan ever since,” he says. “The way he was playing blues with an aggressive attitude and jazz phrasing knocked me out. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with him live and in the studio, and he is the epitome of taste and tone. He is such a strong player with a deep knowledge of music, and he loves to burn. With Robben, every note means something.”
The association with Spoon was a fruitful one for both parties, with the increased exposure bringing Ford to the attention of the L.A. Express, who were looking for a guitarist for an upcoming tour backing Joni Mitchell – someone to fill the shoes of Larry Carlton, who played on her then-current Court And Spark album.
Neither a fusion fan nor Mitchell devotee, Ford accepted the challenge, which yielded Mitchell’s live Miles Of Aisles album and more studio and touring work – with George Harrison. (At the time of the ex-Beatle’s 1974 tour, Ford was 22.)
Suddenly the “blues player” was in demand for sessions ranging from Barry Manilow to Kiss – in a resume that eventually encompassed Bob Dylan, Kenny Loggins, Little Feat, David Sanborn, Michael McDonald, Herbie Mann, Jennifer Warnes, Georgie Fame, Burt Bacharach, Dave Koz, Rickie Lee Jones, John Mayall, Tommy Emmanuel, Sadao Watanabe, Bob Malach, Boz Scaggs, Charlie Haden, Kenny Garret, Bonnie Raitt, and numerous others.
Sandwiched between solo albums was a six-month stint with jazz legend Miles Davis and several years with the Yellowjackets’ original incarnation, which began life as the rhythm section on Ford’s 1979 debut, Inside Story.
He formed the blues-rock trio the Blue Line with bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlein – yielding three fine albums – and reunited with former Yellowjackets bandmate, bassist Jimmy Haslip, for the fusiony Jing Chi, with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums.
His career path has had its share of left turns and even 180-degree about-faces. Split between New York and Los Angeles core groups (keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Will Lee, and drummer Charlie Drayton on the former; keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Chris Cheney, and drummer Gary Novak on the latter), his brand-new CD (his third for Concord Records) is more song-oriented than most of the Blue Line’s output, but has a healthier guitar quotient than 1999’s Supernatural.
Robben penned most of the material, with “River Of Soul” and “How Deep In The Blues Do You Want To Go” co-written with Nashville tunesmiths Danny Flowers and Gary Nicholson, respectively, and Ke’b Mo’ assisting on Ford’s tribute to the king of the blues, “Riley B. King.”
“Too Much” was written by Robben’s nephew (Patrick’s son), Gabriel Ford, and “You’re Gonna Need A Friend” was co-written by Robben’s wife, Anne Kerry Ford, whose collection of Kurt Weill songs, Weill, Robben produced and played on (for the couple’s Illyria label).
Much like his peripatetic career, an interview with Robben Ford can be self-deprecating one moment, outspoken the next; humorous, then provocative. But the 55-year-old is always interesting and, as the title of his CD implies, speaks the Truth.
(LEFT) 1963 Gibson ES-355. (RIGHT) 1963 Epiphone Riviera.
Was there a specific concept or aim with the new CD?
I wanted it to be what I would call a blues record, but really of the times in its content. Contemporary themes, not a throwback. Obviously, my whole life I’ve worked to try to make blues music that I felt was relevant. But material is everything. How do you write a new blues? That’s a tough one [laughs], because the whole vernacular is of a time. So the language you use is important. And I always try to be honest in my delivery and who I am; I don’t want to pretend to be something that I’m not. But the political situation the way it is today, and the war in Iraq, the way money is, gas prices – that is the blues today. So I deliberately wanted to reflect that in this material. And I actually feel like I kind of pulled it off.
People like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and Charlie Musselwhite have at times deviated from the 12-bar form but maintained a bluesy feel. To find a new version of the blues, do you need to go outside the structure?
I do. To me, a song like “Lateral Climb” succeeds in talking about things that people go through every day, and it’s a shuffle with blues guitar all over it, but it’s not a straight 12-bar format. It has the quality of being traditional, but the subject matter is so relevant, I think it succeeds in that way. You can’t do a whole bunch of those, or the whole thing starts to lose its power. As opposed to writing the blues, we’re writing songs now. But there is that central element of very basic, human, honest experience. That’s the thread, and that’s the blues part.”
” In the 1960s, long before pop artists were backed by the generic, computer-based accompaniment that is commonplace today, singers often recorded with formidable house bands, including Booker T. & the MG’s and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The former band came together at Stax records in Memphis, laying down timeless grooves on hits by artists like Otis Redding, Albert King, and Carla Thomas. The latter group based in Muscle Shoals, as well as New York and Nashville, enhanced such classic tracks as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” and Paul Simon’s “
Growing up in the ’60s, a teenaged Robben Ford spent countless hours listening to artists like Aretha and Otis, at the same time soaking in guitar blues from Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King. In his early 20s, Ford went on to join blues luminary Jimmy Witherspoon’s band. But soon, Ford experienced a diversion from the genre. In 1974, the guitarist was discovered by saxophonist Tom Scott, whose progressive fusion group, L.A. Express, then teamed up with Joni Mitchell to support her Court and Spark tour and play on two of her albums (1974’s Miles of Isles and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawn).
Today, possessing a résumé that includes stints with an impressively broad range of other musical personalities Miles Davis, George Harrison, Little Feat, and the Yellowjackets, among many others Ford has demonstrated an uncanny adaptability similar to that of the MG’s and the Muscle Shoals group. The guitarist has effortlessly traversed genres without compromising his exquisite, blues-based playing and singing. So it’s only natural that on his latest album, Keep On Running (CCD- 2187), Ford tips his hat to Muscle Shoals and the MG’s, offering fresh takes on soul classics, in addition to serving up several glowing originals.”
Happy Birthday Robben