While guitarist Duke Robillard has been hailed as a world-class blues player, the guy is equally adept in jazz, swing and rockabilly. The Roomful of Blues founder's diverse playing style has attracted the attention of Tom Waits, who took him on the road for a short tour of the Midwest and the South last year, as well as Dr. John, Ruth Brown and Bob Dylan, who have each recruited the guitarist to perform on their albums. We asked Duke about his many talents and about playing with blues legends like Jay McShann and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Westword: One of the great things about you is how diverse you are, whether it be blues, swing, jazz or rockabilly. Do you have one particular style that's your favorite, or do you dig them all equally?
Duke Robillard: It's all blues, as far as I'm concerned. All those musics are offshoots of blues, so I really love them all. And to me, it's all the same. The way I look at it, it's just a different way to play the same kind of music.
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What was it about jazz and blues that drew you in early on?
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The first blues I heard were the flip sides of Chuck Berry singles when I was young: "Wee Wee Hours," which was the flip side of "Maybelline," and an instrumental that Chuck played on steel guitar called "Deep Feeling" that was a flip side of "School Days." Those two tunes — I didn't know what blues was, I didn't know what I was listening to, but they had a real effect on me. I just loved the feeling of them. That was when I was ten years old. I kind of searched out more stuff like it and found all the Chicago blues guys who were on Chess. And from there, I got into the original R&B people like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. I heard the horns through that style, and that got me into the jazz people that had blues in their playing, like Count Basie and all the people who played with him. And Duke Ellington's orchestra. I just kind of went back and did my research in each genre and found out where it all came from.
How was it working with blues legends like Jay McShann and Jimmy Witherspoon?
What really happened for me was that it just validated my idea of playing. Like playing with McShann, my idea of chording, you know? Jay and I would just play stuff together, and I would naturally play chords the way he would, just from listening to so much of that Kansas City jazz way of playing blues. It was just a great experience. But what it really made me do was realize that I was doing things the right way. To have somebody like Jimmy Witherspoon praise you, and Jay McShann, it's just validation that you're on the right track.