BluesWax Sittin’ In with
By Bob Gersztyn
Terry Robb has been into the blues since he was first exposed to the music of icons like Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, and Howlin’ Wolf in the late 1960s via radio and live concerts in Portland, Oregon. He came from a musical background with his father and grandfather playing musical instruments at home and an uncle who played in Lawrence Welk’s band. After studying music theory at Portland State University, with Czechoslovakian composer Tomas Svoboda, Robb moved to Corvallis, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, in the late 1970s where a vibrant blues scene was thriving at the time. He played with Ramblin’ Rex Jacobosky, a Los Angeles blues musician who was friends with Frank Zappa and lived just outside of Corvallis, at the time. After a few years of touring with Ramblin’ Rex, Robb returned to Portland in the early 1980s to an exploding music scene that had risen during his absence.
One of the turning points in Robb’s musical career came when a friend gave legendary primitive guitarist and blues scholar John Fahey a copy of his demo tape. A friendship blossomed through their mutual love of Charlie Patton and soon Fahey had Robb producing his music and even performing on several of his recordings. Over the ensuing decades Robb continued to record and produce albums, while winning all the music accolades that the Northwest has to offer. He’s a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the Cascade Blues Association’s Muddy Award for Acoustic Guitar is named after Robb. He’s toured and performed with artists like Steve Miller, Curtis Salgado, Buddy Guy, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. At the same time he started his own record label, PsycheDelia Records, to record himself and others, along with teaching blues workshops. On April 17, 2012, Robb’s new album, Muddyvishnu, will be released on his Psychedelta record label. After listening to an advance copy, BluesWax contributing editor Bob Gersztyn sat down and talked to Robb about everything from his relationship with John Fahey to his passion for the blues.
Bob Gersztyn For BluesWax: What was your first recollection of music?
Terry Robb: My uncle was a musician, who played with Lawrence Welk’s band and was a professional entertainer playing guitar, so I probably heard him and my father played the piano, and my grandfather dabbled in classical piano. I remember the first record that really rocked me on guitar was Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser.” It knocked me out.
BW: When and how did you first become interested in the guitar?
TR: Since my uncle played it, it was an instrument that was around, and then everyone saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and all of a sudden there were guitars everywhere. There was a whole blues revival thing that was going on, and that’s what got me interested in blues guitar. It was the acoustic blues, where you’d see people like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and then you’d see people like John Fahey and others that were playing blues-oriented guitar. A lot of these old guys were being rediscovered. This was probably about 1966 or 1967, when I was a kid in grade school. Back then you’d hear Howlin’ Wolf and you’d hear Jimi Hendrix, all at the same time. I didn’t see much difference, except the older guys were very cool. I might hear a song originally done by Howlin’ Wolf, like I might hear “Spoonful” by Howlin’ Wolf before I’d hear Charlie Patton’s version. I heard killing floor by Howlin’ Wolf before I heard Led Zeppelin’s verson, but I heard “Outside Woman Blues” by Cream before I heard the original version of that by Blind Joe Reynolds. Then it was all kind of mixed up. Plus you’d go see these bands and there was a blues guy, like Albert King or something. It was kind of cool, and even radio back then was kind of cool too, because you would hear Jimi Hendrix and then you would hear Frank Sinatra. Then you’d hear something from Motown and then the Cowsills or something. It was all AM radio and then FM came along and that had a great variety too. The big underground FM station in Portland was KINK, 101.9 FM. It was an underground station equivalent to the one in San Francisco and it played all the album cuts and didn’t play any top 40 stuff, and they had a blues show. I owe a lot to Jeff Douglas who was the manager and part owner of that station, because he played a lot of cool stuff that I never would have heard anywhere else.
BW: Who were some of your early primary influences that you looked to for inspiration?
TR: There were a couple of jazz guys that I listened to, like Mel Brown, a jazz/blues guy who was a big influence on me, Buddy Fite, who was a guy who was Les Paul’s favorite guitar player. and Wes Montgomery. The band that struck me the most was Canned Heat. I was really into Canned Heat because I like the old blues stuff a lot, and it’s very cool, and like they were…like Al Wilson was a genius at the Delta blues stuff and he was adapting that on the electric guitar doing all these like Walter Hawkins, Tommy Johnson guitar parts, as a rhythm guitar part to Henry Vestine’s soaring wild B.B. King-ish, Albert Collins kind of guitar playing, and then this great R&B bass player and rock-blues drummer. It was really a great band I thought, really innovative then, in that one little window of time from about 1966 to when Wilson died. Through them I got turned on to a lot of the older stuff, and I’d hear Muddy Waters at the same time and B.B. King of course, and my favorite guitar player was Hubert Sumlin and you just hear this stuff, but in terms of the commercial pop band at the time it was Canned Heat. Most people were probably listening to probably [Paul] Butterfield, but I liked Cream too, and Hendrix, but I didn’t care for Zeppelin and a lot of those later bands like that, but the first wave of those blues bands were pretty cool.
BW: Yeah, Canned Heat was a good band. I saw them in 1969 after Harvey Mandel replaced Henry Vestine on lead guitar, but I enjoyed their early albums because of Vestine’s guitar playing. He was one of my favorite guitar players in the late 1960s.
TR: He and I got to be good friends. He came out to Oregon and I hooked him up with some stuff and it was great, because he was my favorite guitar player back then. There were people who followed Hendrix and Clapton and B.B. King, and I liked B.B. a lot, but Henry was my favorite. He had a very unique style and really intense. We got to be good friends it was really nice. There’s the Fahey connection, too, since he and John went to school together and they discovered Skip James together.
BW: I remember one time hearing John tell a story about how he helped put Canned Heat together in 1965, and how Jimi Hendrix was sitting in the audience at the night club that they were playing at, studying Vestine’s guitar technique a couple of years before Hendrix became famous.
TR: Yeah, Canned Heat got started as a jug band with Fahey, Bob Hite, and Al Wilson, because Wilson and Fahey were really good friends from back east. Wilson’s from Boston and he showed up at one of Fahey’s gigs and had all the songs transcribed off his first record and they got to be friends because of the blues connection. John brought Wilson out to California with him when he moved, and they were having a rehearsal of the jug band, and John really didn’t want to be in a band, so then it evolved into an electric blues band.
BW: Yeah, there were so many new groups that were emerging during that time period who were all inspired by the blues. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were inspired by blues and R&B.
TR: I think that you have to give credit to the Beatles, not only for how great the Beatles were, because I was a big Beatles fan, but also, none of these English blues bands would have had a chance in America if it wasn’t for the Beatles, because everyone was disinterested in anything British at the time. The records sounded different from over there, because the recording studios were different. They’re actually like way dated, but it added a unique sound, because it made them work harder.
BW: A good example of the way that Americans felt about British music before the Beatles can be found in the way that Sir Cliff Richard is disregarded here, even though he has more #1 hits and has sold more records worldwide than either Elvis Presley or the Beatles. Most American’s don’t even know that he exists.
TR: I think that the problem, why he didn’t catch on here was because he was a pre-Beatles guy, and nobody was really interested in what happened in England before the Beatles. It’s kind of like the Beatles and onward. But the point is that they opened the door for all things English, so all those blues guys like John Mayall, Cream, and any of them would have a chance here. I can’t imagine any of those bands coming along before the Beatles, and anyone in the United States paying any attention to them, in terms of radio play and things like that. There would always be cult followings and stuff like that.
BW: How did you get involved in music professionally and how did that first begin?
TR: Probably at 12, when I started playing at dances and high schools and things like that. Then I went to college and studied music and had bands in college when I attended PSU [Portland State University]. I had a band called Dry Spell, named after a Sun House song, which to this day I think is a great name for a band. Nobody was interested in what we were doing. There was no blues scene then. So then I moved away and stumbled into this guy named Ramblin’ Rex [Jacobosky] and ended up down in the Willamette Valley, in Corvallis. Rex lived outside of Corvallis and I decided to move down there, because we were traveling so much and playing so much together that it made sense to live down there, near him. It was great, I learned a lot from him. Rex was this guy from L. A. who had a really huge following and had a blues act. He was 40 then, which seemed like an old guy, and I was 21 or 22. He was a great blues guitar player and he was really good friends with Frank Zappa. He was good friends with Zappa and went to high school with him, and had all these blues trios down in L.A. and stuff, before Cream and Hendrix and all that stuff. Zappa had a trio, Vestine had a trio, and Rex had a trio, and they all played around down there. I eventually got to know Zappa through Rex, but as I started playing with him, that was kind of like the beginning of when I really started getting out there and playing and getting my name known. I would have been around 21 or 22, somewhere like that, and then I moved back to Portland to start my own band.
BW: How did you first get involved in the Portland music scene?
TR: When I came back to Portland this huge music scene was happening. It wasn’t like that when I left. It was just gigantic, with all these great clubs, that would have been ’81, and there’s all these great clubs everywhere and there’s a big variety of music. The ’80s was a really great time in Portland for music. Like the first half of the decade, because there’s all these new jazz bands, blues bands, reggae, new wave, punk. We all played at the same clubs. I mean I would play Satyricon, which was a punk club, and there were jazz clubs, and everybody hung out. I mean it was a really healthy environment. I think that it was because for so long that Portland was denied to have live music.
To be continued…
Bob Gersztyn is a Oregon-based writer and photograph. He is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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