Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 4 October 1948, Woonsocket RI) Blues guitarist, bandleader, singer, songwriter, producer. He led his first band in high school, and from the beginning was fascinated by the way jazz and swing were linked with the blues. He formed Roomful Of Blues '67 and from the beginning the band was tight and tough enough to back Big Joe Turner and Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson on record and on the road. Always ahead of his time, Robillard's Roomful pre-dated the renewed interest in jump blues by some years, and almost 20 years later, in 1986, when he recorded with tenor saxist Scott Hamilton, he arranged a collection of classic big band tunes from the ’30s and ’40s, thus skillfully pre-dating the neo-swing craze of the mid-’90s.

He left Roomful after 12 years (the band is still going strong) and played briefly with rockabilly king Robert Gordon, then cut two Rounder albums with the Legendary Blues Band (a collection of former members of Muddy Waters’ band). Robillard led his own band until 1990, and then replaced Jimmy Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In 1993, as he was about to sign a world-wide recording deal with Virgin/Pointblank, he met Holger Petersen, head of the Canadian independent label Stony Plain, at a folk festival in Winnipeg. He mentioned he wanted to record a complete album of blues, without the r&b and jazz influences of his work to date; Petersen was interested, Virgin gave the go-ahead, and the resulting album, Duke’s Blues, was so successful that Virgin licensed it from Stony Plain for the rest of the world outside Canada, and the relationship with Stoney Plain has lasted to this day.

Apart from his own albums, listed below, and his recordings with Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the projects he has produced and played on for Stony Plain include two albums with the late Jimmy Witherspoon, two with Kansas City Swing Era pianist/bandleader Jay McShann, comeback CDs for Billy Boy Arnold and Rosco Gordon, a set with the Canadian band The Rockin’ Highliners, and an album of jazz guitar duets with Herb Ellis. All this is in addition to albums on other labels with Bob Dylan (Time Out Of Mind, produced by Daniel Lanois), Ruth Brown, Johnny Adams, John Hammond, Pinetop Perkins, Roomful's Ronnie Earl and the Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson, Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, and others. 

Robillard won the W.C. Handy award for Best Blues Guitarist in 2000 and 2001. He now has a 24-track studio in his home, and he's involved in graphic design and photography as well as record production. His own albums include Duke Robillard & The Pleasure Kings '84, Too Hot Too Handle (with the Pleasure Kings) '85, Swing '87, You Got Me '88, Rockin' Blues (with the the Pleasure Kings) '88, Turn It Around '91 and After Hours Swing '92, all on Rounder; Duke's Blues '94 on Stony Plain/Pointblank; Temptation '94 and Dangerous Place '97 on Pointblank; New Blues For Modern Man '99 and Conversations In Swing (with Herb Ellis), both '99 on Stony Plain; plus Explorer 2000 on Shanachie, Stretchin' Out '98 and Living With The Blues 2002 on Stony Plain, all by the Duke Robillard Band. And there’s more on Stony Plain: concept albums Exalted Lover 2003 and Blue Mood: The Songs Of T-Bone Walker 2004.

In addition there was a compilation called Duke Robillard Plays Blues: The Rounder Years '97 on Rounder, and a DVD from Stony Plain, Live At The Blackstone River Theatre 2005. New projects in 2006 included another DVD, Duke Robillard: Blue, Jazz & Swing from Hot Licks. A new trio album on Stony Plain was Guitar Groove-o-Rama, for his guitar fans, a salute to or a summary of his most important influences, with Mark Tiexeira on drums and Jesse Williams and Marty Ballou on bass, with guests on some tracks: Doug James on baritone sax and harp, Bruce Bears on Hammond, and Al Basile on cornet. And he was planning a special CD of outtakes, demos, remixes etc to be available only online or at shows.