Robben Ford Talks About Bringing It Back Home—to the Blues

The guitar great discusses playing with Miles Davis and Charlie Musselwhite, his wild & incredible career, and his blues influences

Robben Ford_by George_B_WellsAmerican Blues Scene wishes Robben a speedy recovery from the wrist injury he suffered in October. His October tour dates have been moved to May 2014.

Robben Ford is a five-time Grammy nominee and one of Musician’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century.” In the ’70s, he joined jazz fusion group L.A. Express, which supported George Harrison on his American tour and played on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Hissing of Summer Lawns and Miles of Aisles. Next, he founded the Yellowjackets. Then Miles Davis came calling. Ford also played with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, John Mayall, Gregg Allman, Phil Lesh, John Scofield and even KISS (that’s Ford on “Rock And Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You”), while releasing a series of acclaimed solo albums. His playing is soaring, soulful and technically dazzling, yet from his teenage gig with Charlie Musselwhite to his latest solo album, Bringing It Back Home, Ford’s touchstone is still and always the blues.

In the late ‘60s, Robben Ford and his older brother Patrick moved from Ukiah, CA to the Bay Area and formed the Charles Ford Blues Band, named for their dad. Charlie Musselwhite scooped up drummer Patrick when the boys opened for him—but after three months Patrick told Charlie he had to quit and return to the Charles Ford Band for his brother’s sake. Not wanting to lose a solid drummer, Musselwhite hired 18-year-old Robben, inadvertently launching a brilliant career.

“Charlie hated my guitar playing,” Robben Ford says with a grin, “but he liked my sax playing, so I managed to stay in the band.”

Ford released his first solo album, The Inside Story in 1976. Between stints at Montreux with Miles and other plum gigs, he made blues-rock discs like Talk to Your Daughter, with Roscoe Beck on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Handful of Blues, Discovering the Blues, Blue Moon and Robben Ford and the Blue Line, which features eight searing live tracks recorded at The Independent in San Francisco. He and Patrick Ford reunited for Tribute to Paul Butterfield in 2001.)

For Robben’s latest solo album, Bringing It Back Home, he chose his mentor Miles Davis’s majestic Kind of Blue album as his guidepost. He told Guitar Player, “What I love best about blues and jazz is how great players — like Miles Davis or Jim Hall or Paul Desmond — allow a lot of space in their music. That’s where the beauty happens.”

Bringing It Back Home, is spare, pure, soulful and sweet, with a Stax vibe emanating from Steve Baxter’s trombone and Larry Goldings’s Hammond B3 and a hint of second line in the grooves laid down by drummer Harvey Mason and bassist David Piltch. It’s also an album of interesting and obscure covers.

Ford selected Charley Patton’s “Bird s Nest Bound” and Earl King’s “Trick Bag” from the blues canon, Allen Toussaint chestnut “Fair Child,” and personal favorites such as Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).” The album includes just two originals: Ford’s gentle love song “Oh Virginia,” and the dreamy “Travelers Waltz,” written by his wife, Anne Kerry Ford, and Michael McDonald.

In person, the lanky long-haired guitarist—who practices Chinese Qi Gong to relieve tendonitis–has a serene, easygoing vibe. We connected in early September at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival & Workshop hosted by luxury dude ranch Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana.

Ford was there as Artist-In-Residence, along with jazz genius Pat Metheny, session legend Lee Ritenour, classical maestro Scott Tennant, prog-rocker Darryl Stuermer (Genesis, Phil Collins), and singer/songwriters Livingston Taylor and Mac McAnally. The Artists-in-Residence took their meals family style with the rest of us in the log cabin Main Lodge and mingled daily with sixty-eight students, aged fourteen to sixty-plus–giving clinics and popping into classes to answer questions and demonstrate signature licks. There’s nothing quite like having Robben Ford show you his favorite blues turnaround! (Blues guitarists reading this might want to check out Robben’s TrueFire courses, like “Blues Revolution,” or his books Blues Rhythms and The Blues and Beyond.)

The night before our interview, Ford played for over three hours to a sold-out 1,000-person crowd under the big white tent set up in the horses’ paddock. As the sun set behind towering pines, Ford burned up the stage, backed by an incredibly energetic, legendary rhythm section: bassist Abraham Laboriel, drummer Sonny Emory and keyboardist John Beasley. Ford brought the jubilant audience to its feet repeatedly with great tunes, soaring singing, and one gorgeous guitar solo after another. Lee Ritenour joined him onstage for a couple songs, and the two guitar masters clearly delighted in edging each other higher and higher.

The next afternoon, Robben and I met for a lengthy chat upstairs at the Main Lodge, just past the stuffed grizzly bear guarding the lemonade and ice tea dispensers. I asked him about his mentors, his music and what he’s learned from the blues.

How has your Artist-in-Residence experience been here at Crown Guitar Fest?

Oh it’s been great, the whole vibe is so chill and all the people are so nice. You can talk to anybody and anybody can talk to you. I’m kind of a private person so I appreciate when certain opportunities are genuinely easy to step into like this – because here you just don’t say “no.” It’s a little bit of a practice–you want to be approachable, so it’s a very soft place to land, you know? If it’s a challenge, well it’s a pretty easy challenge.

Who were your earliest musical influences?

What you grow up on is really big—it’s in your DNA. I grew up on Otis Redding, thank God. I connected strongly with Chicago blues, a lot of B.B. King, and soul. I also loved the Beach Boys, the British invasion, surf music, and even radio songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Terrible stuff! [laughs] But I love that song, so there’s that humor, too, in what I do sometimes. You want to be wide open.

How did you discover the blues?

The blues was the first music that really lit me up – it was like finding my musical home. I grew up loving music. I played alto sax, a little piano. Everyone in my family was musical – even mom and dad. But when I heard Mike Bloomfield play lead guitar, in particular with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – it was an integrated band, you know, with both black and white performers in it – the high energy of it blew me away.

When I compared it to what I was listening to at the time–the Rolling Stones and British invasion bands–it just kicked their asses completely! The level of musicianship plus that energy–it just creamed the entire British invasion for me. I still loved that stuff, but there was just no comparison. That combination of real passion, energy and abandon and yet–you could play your instrument! Those are the two things I’ve spent my whole life putting together.

Who was the next guitarist who influenced you?

I saw B.B. King live. I had no idea who he was or what to expect. I went to see Bloomfield’s band, The Electric Flag, in San Francisco. Mike came out and introduced B.B., saying “We’ve been trying to get him here for a long time now and, finally, we’ve got B.B. King!” B.B. started playing and it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard in my life!

I was still in high school. B.B. King instantly became a major favorite. My older brother had a job and some money – I had no money – so he was buying records. He bought a live B.B. King record and it was the same band and same music I’d heard at the show. I listened to the hell out of that record.

Albert King – same thing – saw him open for John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix. That was a hell of a night. We came walking in and Albert King was already on. He was playing a slow blues and it was quiet as a church mouse. Band playing really soft. He was playing “Blues Power” –“Everybody understands the blues” — playing those little notes real quiet. It was a magical moment, walking into an atmosphere. Later, I got real into bringing the band way down like that, playing with dynamics.

I loved Albert, but I always gravitated toward B.B., although Albert’s style is so powerful that you can’t play the blues without having a little Albert King in there. It’s just gonna happen.

But Albert King was always a little more badass than suited my temperament. And the humanity of B.B. King – With B.B. there is joy, beauty….

How did you wind up playing with Charlie Musselwhite?

My older brother Patrick and I were at one of these San Francisco shows and Charlie was on the bill. We were checking out his band and my brother and I said – “I’m a better drummer than that guy, and I’m a better guitar player than that guy. We should be in Charlie Musselwhite’s band!” [laughs]

After I got out of high school, my brother and I put our blues band together and started playing around the Bay Area – well, almost never!

It was very hard for us to get a gig. Patrick finally got us on opening for Charlie’s stand at the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo. John Hammond was on the bill, too. After the first night, Charlie fired his drummer and asked Patrick to join his band. The rest of us struggled to find a new drummer. Finally, Patrick said to Charlie, “I’ve got to go back and play with my brother.” And Charlie said, “Well, we’ll just have him in the band.” So I got my first gig because my brother was gonna leave!

The set would always start with two songs from the band before Charlie came up. The piano player was Skip Rose, who was very good. I’d play those two songs on sax and then Charlie’d come up and I’d go to the guitar.

How did playing sax influence you as a guitarist?

I still love sax players like Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Coltrane. I try to play guitar like a sax player or a singer—because, unlike guitarists, sax players and singers have to breathe, you know? They have to pause.

Above all, I like to feel that I’m talking when I play. Speed, complexity–these things are for effect, for an impression. I don’t want to create that effect all night long.

Did you learn a lot in Charlie Musselwhite’s band?

There wasn’t a lot of learning in that situation. Charlie didn’t like my guitar playing so much as he tolerated it. [laughs] And I wasn’t ready to learn, quite honestly, because Charlie had me so uptight. That was unfortunate, you know?

You also had a youthful apprenticeship with Jimmy Witherspoon.

Yes, he was a really sweet guy. Jimmy Witherspoon was very proud to be a blues singer. He was the epitome of cool. He always had this sly smile going on, like he had a secret that you wish you knew. You could feel some kind of vibration in the room, and you would go with his energy and his mood and pretty soon, man, the atmosphere would get thick. That’s a mutually created thing with the audience. Those guys understood what it meant to relate to an audience.

From Jimmy I learned about being cool. When soloing I always start cool – I give myself time before ramping up. I love simmering. Simmering is righteous!

How did you begin working with Miles Davis?

Mike Stern was Miles’s guitarist before I came in. Mike quit so Miles was looking for another guitar player. He was making Tutu with Tommy LiPuma producing. I’d known Tommy for years, so he said “I think you should get this guy Robben Ford.” Tommy played some recordings of me with the Yellowjackets and Miles liked it.

Tommy called Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip to get my number and Jimmy said, “You gotta let me call him,” because we’re old friends. So he calls me and says “Robben, Miles Davis is looking for you,” with a big grin in his voice. And I’m like, “You gotta be kidding me.” I had just finished reading his biography!

Three days went by and every time the phone rang I’m thinking it’s Miles Davis–and it wouldn’t be. And then one day it was. He growled, “You wanna play with me?” and I said, “Yeah!” and he said, “OK here’s Jim,” and gives me his tour manager. Ten days later I was on a redeye flight to DC to play a co-bill with Miles and B.B. King. Kinda wild, huh?

Miles was my icon, and the fact that he loved my playing gave me confidence.

Why did you make Bringing It Back Home a cover album?

I had an intimate, quiet feeling in mind for this record, but I didn’t have the songs that generate that feeling. I knew it had to be cover songs, soul songs, with longing in them. And I think we found the right songs. I was shocked that it turned out so right and so good. It’s an intimate record–feels like you could reach out and touch the musicians.

I think the two originals, “Oh Virginia” and “Travelers Waltz,” have that sweet, yearning quality, as well. How did you find the covers?

Thank you. I went looking in places I never looked before. I asked Andy Hess [bassist for Steve Kimock, Gov’t Mule] to send me some music and he sent me like a hundred songs! [laughs] “Fair Child” came out of that, so did “Trick Bag.”

“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”– that’s from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. I’ve always liked that song and often thought of recording it. And once we brought trombone onto the album I thought, OK now I can do that Dylan song cause there’s a bone on it. There’s that hook!

How did you wind up with a trombone player, anyway?

My original idea for instrumentation was drums, upright bass, electric guitar and two tenor saxes. It would’ve been an entirely different record! But then I decided to work with Larry Goldings on Hammond B3. I knew I could count on Larry – the keys he played on this record are beautiful. He’s my favorite musician, for real.

Once I settled on Larry, I didn’t want sax because we had the reedy thing in the organ already– and it’s also a cliché – soI thought “trombone!” ‘Cause with the two Allen Toussaint songs—“Everything I Do Gonna be Funky” and “Fair Child”–plus “Trick Bag,” we had this New Orleans vibe going.

I’ve always wanted to work with the trombone –I’m a fan!

This record gave you a lot of space as a singer.

It was important to me to create that space, and I’m also not a strong singer so I have to really choose my material wisely. I’ve worked very hard at singing – the singers I like the most are Aretha Franklin, Billy Holiday. I like female singers! Of male singers, the ones I like the most are so the opposite of me – like Joe Cocker, that ‘s the male singer I want to hear! And I’m just not that guy. [laughs] I sound closer, in a way, to female singers, because I listened way more to them.

I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone. One of the most uninhibited performers I grew up listening to is Paul McCartney. He’s just very free! His songwriting? Seems to me he just turned on the tap. He didn’t edit, he just let it flow. He’d say anything, write anything! That guy just didn’t care what anybody thought.

Every now and then I think of him and use him as an inspiration right there in that moment while I’m singing. I’m thinking about Paul McCartney! [laughs] Very uninhibited cat.

You’ve played many different genres of music with many legendary artists. Did the blues continue to be important to you throughout?

Big time. The blues is a big house, you know? I could boil down my playing at this point in my life to a combination of B.B. King and Miles Davis. Those are probably my strongest influences, and it has everything to do with economy, tone and a singing, vocal quality. Rather than lots of notes I’d rather play something beautiful and spontaneous. In my heart, it all comes down to the blues.

“He Don’t Play Nothing But the Blues” – Robben Ford

Bringing It Back Home Trailer – Robben Ford

“Miles Davis with Robben Ford”


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