My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (September 1988)
September 1988 was the most consequential month of my life: I moved away from home to attend Hampshire College, where I met my future wife and (importantly for this blog) tons of guitar players who expanded my musical horizons and opportunities.
I can’t remember if I was already aware of Jeff Healey before reading this issue, but I’m sure that Jas Obrecht’s short feature “Jeff Healey-Canada’s Guitar Wizard” definitely made me a huge fan of the blind, lap-playing blues rock titan. Obrecht described his playing in vivid terms:
Watching Jeff Healey climax a concert with his searing “See The Light” is an experience few will ever forget. After sitting through most of the set with his guitar held flat on his lap, the 22-year-old leaps to his feat, cranks up the volume knob on his Marshall amp, and launches into a blistering blues-rock solo. Prowling the stage, he frets with his left hand over the fingerboard, using his thumb and index finger to create the fastest licks and most wicked vibrato this side of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He’s unerringly accurate, even as he picks with his teeth or plays with his Squier Strat swung upside-down or held behind his head. The song concludes with a resplendent display of feedback as he lays his axe upon the ground and pumps the whammy with his foot. The frenzied roar of the crowd threatens to collapse the hall as Jeff reaches for his white cane and taps his way backstage.
Even though the article is only 2/3 of a page, Obrecht discusses Healey’s band, his sudden rise to fame (thanks to the movie Roadhouse, the script for which called especially for Healey), his amazing collection of early jazz records (“I have about 10,000 78 RPM records”) and, of course, his blindness (“I was blind at age one, and I got a guitar when I was three”) It also goes into the details of his unique style:
“I tuned the guitar to a chord and just used a slide to alter chords. This was the only logical way I could think of at that point. Someone taught me a standard tuning a few years later. I had been comfortable with holding the guitar on my lap, so I decided to work out all my chords that way. I can use all five fingers on my left hand for different types of vibrato; usually the index is best for a wide vibrato. I do a lot of bending with my thumb, and it also comes in handy when you’re in a sitting position and want to hit notes above and beyond where you could normally reach. I’ve tried playing guitar the normal way, but I just wasn’t very comfortable.
Cruelly, cancer didn’t just take Healey’s eyes, it killed him ten years ago. But he left a rich legacy of recordings that I never get tired of listening to.
I remember seeing Hiram Bullock play on the original David Letterman show (after Johnny Carson on NBC). The article about the then 33-year old Bullock, by Tad Lathrop, is another of the kind that regularly used to appear in GP, but so rarely does now: a profile of a working jazz/studio musician with a relatively low national profile. The article is an interview that touches on Bullock’s time as a student of Pat Metheny’s at the University of Miami, his views on “fusion” music and his studio work. Here are some excerpts:
“I started out as a rock and roll, straight ahead, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, Steve Miller, blues-rock guitar player…When I was just a school band sax player, I listened to jazz–to John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly and Gerry Mulligan. And then I saw–as did a lot of young guitarists around this period in the early ’70s–the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That’s what I now consider to be true fusion….”
” So I eventually went to the University of Miami and went into a bebop submersion period where I put the Fender Stratocaster away and only played a big, fat, Gibson L-5 with a wound G string, no effects, no bent notes–the whole bit. I studied with Pat Metheny….He had a very different sound in those days. He was a guy who had a real clear idea of what he wanted to do at an early age. To me, it was almost intimidating how mature he was. At the age of 18 he was just like he is now. He played that way, he thought that way. He was just real self-assured, knew the style, and kew that he would do well, at least as far as I could tell. He was supposed to be a student, but no one could teach him, so they just gave him tuition credit and made him a teacher.”
“I’m not a big one for fusion, you know, so I may not be the most qualified to talk about it. To me, fusion always implied more power rock elements, like Chick Corea’s electric bands. That’s the closest thing I’ve heard to what I think of as fusion: odd time signatures and real powerful, loud, virtuosic playing. In my semantics, what I do is ‘crossover’ rather than fusion. It’s sort of funky pop music without vocals. It’s not necessarily designed to show off any virtuosity on the part of the players. Fusion was designed to show how well the people could play. Crossover music, and that includes Bob James, George Benson and Dave Sanborn, is much easier. It’s just music without vocals.”
“The burgeoning yuppie population has embraced what they call jazz, which includes a lot of so-called ‘new age’ music, as well as people like Metheny and Sanborn. It’s sort of become a status symbol, that you are somehow hipper than your average radio listener. The audience is all 20-to 35-year olds, relatively successful young people who, at their worst, have a little bit of elitism and feel sort of superior to the average listener. As for the hard core fusion people who used to watch Mahavishnu, I see a bit of that audience at my shows. They turn out to be mostly young men who are into energy, and they just want to see you power out.”
“I did some stuff on the Gaucho album. I’m a fan of Steely Dan, so I was thrilled and flattered that they called me. They are as meticulous as everyone says. I think we worked a week on one song. At one point we worked nine hours on one four-bar insert. You know, you just do it. They wanted perfection, and I could understand what they were doing….With Steely Dan and Donald Fagen’s solo stuff, they have these sort of crystalline compositions, like little jewels. They don’t want you to imprint your personality over their music, they want you to get inside their music and use your talent to bring their stuff to life.”
Good stuff! And I really like Bullock’s description of playing with Steely Dan; I think it’s true that the best musicians inhabited the Dan’s music, rather than using it as a vehicle for individualistic expression. Know-it-all musos like me love to know who played what guitar solo, but there’s a reason it’s hard to tell sometimes, and I think Bullock hit the nail on the head. Sadly Hiram Bullock also succumbed to cancer ten years ago.
I remember very clearly not appreciating the Robben Ford article, to the point where one of my new college friends, Devin, who was a year older and a hot blues guitarist kept urging me to listen to “Talk To Your Daughter” and I refused. That was obviously a mistake on my part. Looking back 30 years, that album was a launching point for the Robben Ford guitar fans now revere, but the article by Dan Forte “The Guitar Odyssey of Robben Ford” was understandably looking back at his surprisingly long and varied career up to that point, and so it was a little confusing to me.
Forte introduces the piece and the player by writing “Robben Ford may be the only musician to tour with ex-Beatle George Harrison and jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis. He is also probably the only guitarist to record with Barry Manilow and Kiss. He is without a doubt the only person to play with all four. Still, his appearance on the cover of Guitar Player is likely to be met with equal parts “Robben who?” and “It’s about time.”
Forte begins by summarizing the then 36-year old’s career, beginning in a band with his father and brothers, then with Charlie Musselwhite, on to backing Jimmy Witherspoon, which led to work with L.A. Express as Joni Mitchell’s touring band, which resulted in a chance to work in the studio and on the road with Harrison and then to membership in the Yellowjackets. Shortly before this article went to print, Ford had spent five months playing in Miles’ band (where he had replaced Mike Stern). Wow.
If you’ve watched any of his interviews or lesson videos, you know that Ford is an intelligent, expressive speaker with a lot to say. Rereading the article now shows that he has always had these capabilities. What really comes through (and is no surprise to anyone who has followed him since 1988) is that he seems to have realized that the blues is his base. I feel that way myself (though I am galaxies away from as talented as Robben Ford) so it’s neat to read this and see how Ford has come to recognize where his musical heart is. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
To get to the point of doing this type of album, were you encouraged or influenced by the blues resurgence of the past few years? People such as Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds?
Not at all. I never listened to them; I never related to them. Making the record was just a matter of ‘why try to please a record company at the expense of doing what you do best?’
Would you say that what you do best is play blues?
Yes. That’s taken a while to come around to, because I am such a lover of great jazz music–jazz in the traditional sense. I’ve never really loved or been very influenced by the modern electric jazz-fusion thing. I’ve never really liked it that much. The Yellowjackets, I enjoyed playing with that group, and I always enjoyed working with Russell Ferrante. I’ve listened to Weather Report and I have a lot of respect for those guys, but I always go back to traditional music.
You once stated that Weather Report was your favorite group, and in the Oct. ’76 Pro’s Reply you said that about the only group you’d consider touring with as a sideman was Steely Dan. That seems so odd in light of your return-to-roots album. [note: Typical Dan Forte. It was 12 years ago, and Ford was in his mid 20’s–people change Dan!]
I’m a nut case [laughs]. Well I must say that I really did love Steely Dan for awhile, The Royal Scam record–I loved that. Weather Report was my favorite fusion band. They had Heavy Weather out, which is still their pinnacle record, I’d say. They really hit their peak there. Great songs, great melodies, great playing. Jaco was incredible and fresh and new…..I grew up loving the pop music of my day: the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals. The radio was always on. That is a big part of my makeup…
Considering what a huge idol Miles Davis was, your stint with him was extremely brief.
…When I joined him they sent me tapes of two concerts and one rehearsal of the band, and Miles wasn’t on the rehearsal tape. Adam Holtzman, one of his keyboard players, lives in L.A. and he came over and gave me some music. Not clear charts, but this was all that was available. So basically I had five days to learn the material. I flew out to Washington, D.C. on the red-eye flight which arrived at 5:00 in the morning-to play that night with Miles, never having met him or rehearsed with his band. I met him a half-hour before I hit the stage. No rehearsal. The charts helped me a little bit, but I learned it much better just by keeping an open ear. When I met Miles, the only thing he asked me was [imitates Miles’ rasp], “Robben, what you gonna wear onstage?” I thought I was going to throw up. I met him at the gig you know! All the band piled into the van to drive over to the gig from the hotel, and I was sick to my stomach with nervousness. Then somebody came up and said “Robben, Miles wants to see you.” I was dying. And he was like in some other area of the hall, so it was like This Is Spinal Tap when the guys were looking for the stage, right? I was trying to find Miles Davis. I finally found him, and he was standing there with his shades covering half his face, blowing his little red trumpet, dressed so cool. I adore the man. He would call me up on the phone and go “Robben, you gotta listen to this tape.” And he’d put a little tape deck up to the phone and play a guitar solo I’d taken on some gig. “Playing your ass off”. He took to me, kind of. He’d drag me out to the front of the stage. He’d yell at everyone else in the band, and then say “Robben, get them chords”.
Who were your early blues guitar influences? And what had you been listening to before that?
The guys who I would say I played their shit–not too much straight-out, but whom I got a definite influence from–are Albert Collins, Albert King, and BB King. And beyond that, there’s a little bit of Clapton in there, but Mike Bloomfield is definitely the roots of my playing….Before that, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. You know, the Animals were always my favorite band. I thought they had great songs, and I dug the shit out of Eric Burdon’s singing. I thought he could damn sing the blues. Not the guitar at all. The guy [Hilton Valentine] could not play guitar, although I liked it….
Recently there was a cable TV special on Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend said “You can’t really play the blues unless you’re in internal agony and frustration and desperation.” Now, you grew up in a white, middle-class, suburban, almost rural environment, with a very supportive family, yet you obviously tapped into blues like very few people can. Do you see any truth at all in the old you’ve-got-to-suffer-to-play-the-blues attitude?
I really don’t know how to answer that. I don’t think that’s what turned me on to it. I wasn’t in pain, like I needed to play the blues. It’s an interesting question–because there is definitely pain in the blues. But I don’t know–maybe this will apply: I read a quote by Bob Dylan, which I think he got from Woody Guthrie, and he said, “Man, all these young kids, they think they’ve got to get into the blues to play the blues, you know, but it’s the opposite. People play the blues to get out of the blues, to get out of their pain.” So it’s to have a good time; that’s why you play the blues. Free yourself, express yourself.
Lots of good stuff here, but I really like the last question and answer I included above; I sometimes wondered how a sheltered suburbanite like myself could feel the blues so heavily. I did have more than my share of “internal agony and frustration”, but I also just loved everything about the blues. To this day, I can play lots of different styles, but the blues just feels like home to me.
That’s it for this month. I’ll be back to discuss the October issue, with cover artist Vernon Reid in a few weeks. Until then, keep on picking!