Roadhouse Album Review: Duke Robillard comes out swinging with excellent “They Called It Rhythm & Blues”

Duke Robillard — “They Called It Rhythm & Blues” — Stony Plain Records

The great music of rhythm & blues — music that blew in on the strains of jump blues and big band music through the 1940s and ’50s, and then became its own fine self, doesn’t always get the credit it deserves as a vital slice of American music history.

It was, after all, laying the groundwork for soul music, rock ‘n’ roll, and a huge amount of American popular music.

R&B is supposed to have gotten its name in 1948 from Jerry Wexler, a Billboard magazine writer who in 1953 became a partner in Atlantic Records, although the phrase rhythm and blues was actually used in Billboard as early as 1943. It replaced the term “race music.” In June 1949, at Wexlers’s suggestion, Billboard changed the name of its Race Records chart to Rhythm & Blues Records.

But I digress. I just wanted to note that by 1948, rhythm and blues had earned its name.

Robillard reaches back into that era for much of the music here, including “Fools Are Getting Scarcer,” a Roy Milton swinger from 1955, and Hammond’s deep, dark takes on Lil Son Jackson’s 1949 “Homeless Blues” and Howlin’ Wolf’s 1954 “No Place To Go” (both done in more of a classic blues style).

But the album actually kicks off in traditional R&B fashion with the easy rocking “Here I’m Is” by Chuck Higgins, one of six tracks featuring the band’s big-voiced singer, Chris Cote. This is the stylish music that Robillard has been creating since 1967, when he and pianist Al Copley started what would become the great jump blues band, Roomful of Blues.

By the way, this is an unusually long album, with 18 songs — an hour and seven minutes of swinging musical pleasure.

Mickey and Slyvia in 1956.

Following on the rhythmic heels of the opener is a rollicking version of “No Good Lover,” with Duke and Sue Foley reprising the work of Mickey (Baker) and Sylvia (Vanterpool) from 1956. Ahhh, 1956, with great musical memories of LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, The Clovers, Shirley & Lee — many more R&B stars, and some great cars, too.

Robillard himself steps up with an original song, “Outta Here,” cut with a touch of horn and organ-laced soul that swung in after R&B. It also shows that the Duke can still make excellent use of his guitar skills, as he does all through the album.

One of my favorite tracks is Cote’s scorching version of Freddie King’s “Someday After Awhile,” but everything here is very worth your while. There are tasty turns by all the vocal guests: John Hammond, Kim Wilson, Sue Foley, Sugar Ray Norcia, Michelle Willson and Chris Cote.

The album ends with, “Swingin’ for Four Bills,” an original instrumental by Robillard as a tribute to Bill Jennings, Billy Butler, Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis. And it is a swinging affair.

This is a truly enjoyable album, enthusiastically executed — for its music, its singers and its musicians. It all makes for a delicious trip down memory lane, making great old music new again.

A video of “No Good Lover”

Cast and credits:

John Hammond, Kim Wilson, Sue Foley, Sugar Ray Norcia, Michelle Willson, Chris Cote, Bruce Bears, Marty Ballou, Mark Teixeira, Doug James, Mike Flanigin, Mark Earley, Doug Woolverton and Matt McCabe.

Duke Robillard – guitars, vocals
Chris Cote – vocals
Bruce Bears – piano, organ
Marty Ballou – acoustic and electric bass
Mark Teixeira – drums
Doug James – baritone and tenor sax

Track list:

Here I’m Is – Chris Cote – vocal 

No Good Lover – Duke Robillard – vocal; Sue Foley – vocal and guitar; Mike Flanigin – organ

Fools Are Getting Scarcer – Chris Cote – vocal 

Tell Me Why – Kim Wilson – vocal and harmonica; Matt McCabe – piano

Rambler Blues – Sugar Ray Norcia – vocal and harmonica

The Way You Do – Chris Cote – vocal 

Champagne Mind – Michelle Willson – vocal

Homeless Blues – John Hammond – vocal and guitar

Outta Here – Duke Robillard – vocal, Anita Suhanin – vocals

In The Wee Wee Hours – Chris Cote – vocal

Someday After Awhile – Chris Cote – vocal 

She’s My Baby – Sugar Ray Norcia – vocals and harmonica

Trouble In Mind – Michelle Willson – vocal

No Place To Go – John Hammond – vocal and guitar

The Things I Forgot To Do – Kim Wilson – vocal 

I Can’t Understand It – Chris Cote – vocal 

Eat Where You Slept Last Night – Duke Robillard – vocal

Swingin’ For Four Bills – Duke Robillard, Sue Foley – guitar; Mike Flanigin – organ

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