He was an intelligent young man and went to college to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree and as a student he became interested in, then fascinated by, the traditional roots of black music. In order to help fund his studies he took a part time job at a local educational radio station WDET-FM Detroit. Although he eventually hosted a show entitled ‘Blues From The Lowlands’ for 19 years before leaving to take up his calling to the church, his initial role was merely to change the tapes of pre-recorded programs broadcast at off-peak times. While doing this he found that he had plenty of downtime on his hands between duties which enabled him to explore the station’s record library and practise his guitar skills. He started to listen to all the early country blues masters much in the way young aspirates have done around the world.
In Detroit he was surrounded by a vibrant urban music scene, and national gospel stars like the Rev Franklin and his daughter Aretha were idolised in their home city and as he says, ‘In those days everyone seemed to have a crush on Mavis Staples’. However, the acoustic guitar blues held a special appeal and like so many before him his first love was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. He started to frequent clubs in the city where he could see and hear artists perform. The premier Detroit club at that time was The Soup Kitchen which became his training ground. There he could catch artists like The Butler Twins, Bobo Jenkins, Washboard Willie, Willie D. Warren, and Boogie Woogie Red who could still play some fine piano even when he had too much to drink. Robert particularly admired a one man band named Buddy Folks and was impressed how a solo artist could still hold the crowd. He also saw the city’s main female performers such as Juanita McCray and Alberta Adams.
On Sunday nights The Soup Kitchen held open jam sessions and Robert eventually became proficient enough to get up and perform himself ‘Until I could get my playing up to speed I learnt to tell stories and people told me that they liked that so it is something I have kept on doing’. Soon he became adept enough to open proceedings with a few numbers before the main acts took over. In time he would learn to play a wide variety of instruments including banjo, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica. He would also get to meet Willie Dixon and become part of the blues education program.
During this time he would also visit a bar in Dearborn called Sully’s where national acts would appear. He was clearly very fond of the place, for after it was demolished he kept one of the bricks. As he says almost everyone played there except for B.B. King! He resisted the temptation to try and form a band and decided to stick to being a solo acoustic artist and eventually he was asked to perform at festivals outside the state. He played the Pocono Blues Festival and around 1998 even got to play the Chicago Blues Festival where he got a chance to see one of his idols Brownie McGhee perform for what must have been one of the last times.
He came to the attention of Fred Reif and German promoter Volker Alboldt and in the 1990s he made several trips to Germany to perform. For one of these trips he was also asked to visit Poland to appear at what turned out to be a ‘Blues Brothers’ homage festival. He feels that the only reason he was asked to come was because he was from Detroit, the home of John Lee Hooker who appeared fleetingly in the movie. He still laughs when he tells of the local Aretha Franklin imitator who sang ‘Voo mak me feel like a knatral woman’.
Back in the days before CD’s he recorded a commercial cassette. Being a solo act it was not an expensive process and could be more or less self-produced in the studio. It proved to be a successful venture and subsequently he went on to record four CDs. ‘Blues From The Lowlands’ (1997). ‘A Portrait In Blues’ (2000). ‘In The Tradition (2002) and ‘Time Of The Preacher’ (2006), all on his own RoJo Label. He particularly enjoyed not being beholden to a particular record label that might want him to go on the road for promotional tours. He has been married to his wife Bernice for some 20 years and they have two children. He found that he did not particularly enjoy life on the road and chose to concentrate on being a family man at home, which probably explains why he has remained relatively unknown. He discovered that he could stay within Michigan and teach music and never really be far from base.
He occasionally plays electric guitar, an old 1947 Gibson L-12 or an Epiphone Deluxe, but he like to use fairly heavy strings to give the feel of an acoustic and often he turns up the tremolo on his amplifier to sound a bit like Pops Staples. His children now sing in the community choir at their local Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, which is clearly a big part of family life. He says the choir sings so loud he has to play electric guitar in order to be heard.
His wife Bernice is also a devout Christian and seemingly has been a big influence on Robert. She is also a vocalist with a very strong voice who started singing on the local circuit with a female version of The Golden Nightingales. The group disbanded after two or three years and she then performed for 14 years with all female group named The Gospelettes. Coincidently she says that they were very much influenced by The Canton Spirituals who were featured in Juke Blues 60. She told me that their local church had a resident group called The Sweet Kingdomaires who eventually moved to Mississippi and renamed themselves The Christianaires. The church recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and the group returned for a homecoming concert as part of the festivities. Bernice also has a sister named Alice Dunbar who sang with The David Whitfield Group.
Robert and his wife’s brief visit to Britain has been engineered by Gerard Homan and I asked if his phrase to describe Robert as ‘Rev Gary Davis 30 years on’ was a fair one? Robert’s reply was typically modest. ‘Well you would be in the right box but it’s a huge box, for I consider Davis to be one of the all time greats and 30 years ago he wasn’t even at the height of his powers. There is no way that I am in that league but it would seem to be the right category’
I also asked him to comment a little on his attitude towards the blues. He said ‘I am not like those earlier musicians like Gary Davis and some of those guys who had an aversion to the blues which perhaps reminded them of raucous things that they once did. I don’t have that aversion, for that sort of lifestyle has passed. I try and do the music bearing in mind a respect for my congregation who might think it inappropriate for a Pastor to be a blues player. I like to do the blues songs, particularly Son House numbers that ask questions, that wrestle with life and not just frivolous songs.
‘The most important thing to be is being an ordained Baptist Minister and a Preacher and if performing the blues can help me do that in places where gospel music alone would not be heard, well that’s fine by me. I feel without blues there would be no gospel music either. Most black people listen to the likes of Bobby Bland and Z.Z. Hill and party to that music down in the basement but don’t want to admit it. Personally I listen to a whole lot of artist’s from Yank Rachell and Henry Townsend to Taj Mahal, even Willie Nelson.’
Seeing Robert perform at The Stamford Arts Centre on his recent visit (see JB #61) it is certain that those of you who enjoy the current crop of acoustic exponents such as Eric Bibb, Keb’ Mo and the like, have a new name for which you should definitely look out.
By Dave Williams (Juke Blues # 62)