Born: February 24, 1939 | Died: October 8, 2009 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
In a career spanning 50 years, guitarist Freddy Robinson, played with Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and dozens of lesser-known artists in blues and R&B. Thanks to an early exposure to jazz, he graduated from the ranks of ear players to more sophisticated musical company, but he retained an affection for his past and a pride in his early work.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, but raised in Arkansas, Robinson had heard many locally famous bluesmen before he reached his teens, and was inspired by the guitar-playing of Joe Willie Wilkins to take up the instrument himself. In 1956, he moved to Chicago and began working with the harmonica players Birmingham Jones and Little Willie Anderson. In 1958, he was hired by Little Walter, a position that put him in the orbit of seasoned guitarists such as Luther Tucker and Robert Junior Lockwood. While on tour with Walter, he saw a jazz band playing from music charts, and was inspired to develop his own playing at the Chicago School of Music.
He was briefly employed by Howlin' Wolf, who distrusted what he thought were jazz leanings, but had the chance to leave a firm blues stamp on a few of Wolf's recordings, though it would be years before the guitar-playing on “Spoonful,” “Back Door Man” and “Wang Dang Doodle,” was acknowledged as his work.
Throughout the mid-60s, he played with the Chicago-based soul singer Jerry Butler, and later with Syl Johnson. While cutting some singles in his own right, he had met the keyboards player and arranger Monk Higgins, who recommended him to Ray Charles, whereupon Robinson relocated to Los Angeles. He remained with Charles for less than a year and had a minor hit with the instrumental “Black Fox,” which also became a favorite with guitarists at the time.
The early 1970s found him serving under the English blues bandleader John Mayall, a time he enjoyed. We had total freedom. No rehearsals, no discussions. He played on Mayall's album “Jazz Blues Fusion” and LPs by the jazz trumpeter Blue Mitchell.
He also recorded a couple of albums in his own name for Enterprise, a subsidiary of Stax. In the relaxed blues ambience of tracks such as “Bluesology,” a memoir of nights playing at Theresa's Lounge in Chicago, and “At the Drive-In,” Robinson revealed a gift for wry narrative, after the manner of Charles's songwriter Percy Mayfield. But the chief point of the albums was to frame his refined blues-funk playing in arrangements by Higgins that also featured Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Crusaders. “At the Drive-In” and “Off the Cuff” were attractive albums that might have drawn more attention had Stax not gone out of business, leaving a third album unreleased for 25 years.
In 1975 Robinson embraced the Nation of Islam. Islam saved my life, really, because I wasn't developing as a human being, he explained in an interview in 1999 for Living Blues. I didn't respect myself or anyone else. In 1978 he became Abu Talib, but he reverted to his old name when he worked with Higgins on Bobby Bland's early 80s albums “Sweet Vibrations” and “Here We Go Again.” Thereafter, little was heard of him in blues circles until he re-emerged in 1994 with an album of his own compositions, “The Real Thing at Last.” His final recording was a guest spot on the harmonica player Mitch Kashmar's 2005 album “Nickels & Dimes.”
Freddy Robinson passed on Oct.8, 2009.
Source: Tony Russell