Robben Ford is regarded as one of the most versatile guitarists on the American music scene. Throughout a career that has spanned over three decades, Ford has established himself as a "musician's musician" who is respected as a blues, jazz, R&B, and rock artist. Although Ford has never achieved widespread recognition and his records receive little radio airplay, he has a strong following of listeners, mainly musicians themselves, who respect his blues and jazz credentials and his musical virtuosity in both genres. Ford embarked on his musical journey in the late 1960s, and his sights have remained focused on the music and where it can take him.
Ford was born on December 16, 1951, in the Northern California town of Ukiah. His father, Charles Ford, was a professional guitar player, and members of his family all had musical leanings, including his mother, who played piano, and his two brothers, Patrick and Mark. Ford began playing the saxophone at the age of ten, but by age 13 he had switched to guitar. Ford's early influences included Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Michael Bloomfield. Later Ford credited guitarist Mike Bloomfield and his playing on the 1965 album The Paul Butterfield Blues Band as a major inspiration for him to play electric blues guitar. He recalled to Tom Cardy in New Zealand's Dominion Post, "[It] was probably 1966 when I started hearing Chicago blues which was [then] mainly played by white artists. [The Paul Butterfield Band] was actually an integrated band out of Chicago and they were definitely playing the music in an authentic way. Mike Bloomfield's guitar playing just knocked me out. That's really what made me want to get serious about playing the guitar."
When Ford was a teenager he formed a band with his older brother Pat, who played drums, and his younger brother Mark, who played harmonica. They named their band the Charles Ford Band after their father. After graduating from high school, Ford followed Pat to the San Francisco Bay area, and they played clubs as the Charles Ford Band, on one occasion opening for Muddy Waters. When Ford was 18, he and Pat were hired by blues harp great Charlie Musselwhite, and they performed with him for a year. In 1970 Mark Ford joined his brothers in the Bay Area and they re-formed their own band as a quartet with bassist Stan Poplin. As the Real Charles Ford Band, they tore up the club scene with their "through the roof" electric blues and improvisational jazz shows. Although the band split up on New Year's Eve in 1971, they released The Charles Ford Band in 1972 on the Arhoolie label.
In 1972 legendary blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon asked Ford to join his band. After two years with Witherspoon, Ford had gained more notoriety, and was noticed by saxophonist Tom Scott, who asked Ford to join him and his jazz fusion band L.A. Express with Joni Mitchell for her Court and Spark tour in 1974. In Digital Interviews Ford described his experiences during this time period as critical to his development as a musician: "I was working with people who were all great, and I was learning so much. I learned more from those two situations about how music doesn't have to be one kind of thing, because I was, sort of, a blues and jazz purist. I learned to be a versatile musician." Immediately after touring with Mitchell, Ford and Tom Scott joined George Harrison for his Dark Horse tour in late 1974.
Ford balanced his interests between blues and jazz, often commingling the two, but in the late 1970s his focus shifted primarily to jazz. In 1977 Ford assembled a band that included Russell Ferrante on keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Ricky Lawson on drums. With this stellar lineup, Ford released his first solo album, The Inside Story, in 1979 on Elektra Records. The band that evolved from this initial group became known as the Yellowjackets, a fusion band with strong R&B influences. Ford recorded with the Yellowjackets on their debut album of the same name, and played with them as a featured artist, but he also pursued other interests during the early 1980s, including touring with former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. In 1986 Miles Davis contacted Ford and asked him to join his band; he worked with Davis for about six months. Ford related in Digital Interviews, "The thing with Miles, that was sort of like a coronation. That was like knighthood." At the time he was touring with Davis, Ford signed with Warner Brothers, and in 1988 he released Talk to Your Daughter. This album, which was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Recording, not only represented a shift back to blues for Ford but, after nearly two decades in the music business, it finally established his status as a solo artist. All Music Guide critic Vincent Jeffries declared Ford "a master of sophisticated blues-rock guitar playing," and declared that "the musician's colorful yet controlled improvising and harmonic mastery is a rare and beautiful sonic treat."
For the Record …
Born on December 16, 1951, in Ukiah, CA; son of Charles Ford (a guitarist); married Anne Kerry Ford (a singer and actress).
Formed the Charles Ford Blues Band with his two brothers, Patrick and Mark, late 1960s; with Patrick, played for Charlie Musselwhite, early 1970s; recruited Mark to play in the Real Charles Ford Band; band split, late 1971; formed new band and opened for Jimmy Witherspoon, then played backup for Witherspoon, 1972-73; joined Tom Scott and L.A. Express and toured with Joni Mitchell for her album Court and Spark, 1974; toured with George Harrison on Dark Horse tour, 1974; formed band the Yellowjackets, 1977; released first solo album, The Inside Story, with Yellowjackets, 1979; toured with Michael McDonald, mid-1980s; performed as sideman with jazz legend Miles Davis, 1986; signed with Warner Brothers, released solo blues album Talk to Your Daughter, 1988; formed band Blue Line Lounge, released Robben Ford & the Blue Line, 1992, and toured with band, 1992-96, and released Mystic Mile, 1993; Handful of Blues, 1995; and The Authorized Bootleg, 1998; returned to solo recordings, released Tiger Walk, 1997; and Supernatural, 2001; signed with Concord Jazz and released Blue Moon, 2002; released Keep on Running, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Concord Records, Inc., 270 N. Canon Dr., … 1212, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Website—Robben Ford Officical Website: http://www.robbenford.com.
The Blues Were All Right
Bolstered by the success of Talk to Your Daughter, Ford had more freedom to explore his own musical inclinations as well as assemble his own band. He had hoped to form a quintet but it was not economically feasible to tour with five people, so he settled with the trio band the Blue Line Lounge. The group included blues bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tom Brechtlein, whose background was rooted more in jazz. In 1992 they released Robben Ford & the Blue Line on Chick Corea's Stretch label. A collection of nine songs, seven of which were Ford's compositions, the album was positively received and many were pleased to hear Ford return to his blues roots. The band's second release, Mystic Mile, was released the following year and included seven original songs by Ford on the ten-song disc. On his website Ford discussed his artistic development at the time Mystic Mile was produced: "I've always been coming much more from the instrument. … It's pretty new to me to be concentrating on songwriting, but I've really been doing it a lot over the last three years, and I think finally something original is starting to come about." In 1995 the Blue Line Lounge released the all-out blues CD Handful of Blues, which was produced by guitarist Danny Kortchmar for the Blue Thumb label. The album, which received respectable airplay, included blues standards as well as songs by Ford and one by bassist Beck. Ford noted on his website, "I have a tendency towards simple music, but it has to be a real, authentic, artistic statement, and it's never done without complete sincerity.… Rather than needing to make the music simpler so I could feel freer, I sort of rediscovered that kind of openness that exists in the blues. That is the beauty of the blues, from a technical point of view." The Blue Line Lounge added keyboardist Bill Boubitz in 1995, and in 1998 they released The Authorized Bootleg, an album recorded live in 1995 at Club Yoshi's in Oakland, California. Ann Wickstrom praised Ford's contributions to the recording in All Music Guide, asserting that "the brilliance of his playing and the reason behind why so many guitar players put him at the top of their list can be found in Ford's performance on this release."
Sought New Inspiration
Reviewing a live show by Ford in 1991, Cleveland Plain Dealer critic David Sowd commented on Ford's cult following: "They know what the rest of the world has yet to find out: that Ford is the undisputed hero to the white-boy blues-picker throne left vacant with the tragic death of Stevie Ray Vaughn last summer." Whether Ford would fill that vacancy or not, his solo career in the 1990s and into the 2000s indicated that he had achieved the credentials to step up to that hallowed position. After the release of the Blue Line Lounge's third CD, Handful of Blues, Ford once again shifted his focus. He noted on his website, "I felt like I was holding back on the guitar side in order to present a band. I played out my commitment with the Blue Line and then decided to take some time off and find some new inspiration."
In 1997 Ford released the R&B, funk-influenced CD Tiger Walk, an all-instrumental outing that featured former Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. Ford's next solo release, Supernatural, came out in 1999. A more soul-influenced CD than his previous electric blues albums, Supernatural received mixed reviews. Some critics found the work uneven and felt that Ford's vocals were inferior to his achievements on the guitar. Washington Post critic Mike Joyce contended, "While [Ford is] hardly a commanding vocalist, he infuses most of the songs here with sufficient emotion to sustain interest until his guitar asserts itself." Ford, however, told Seattle Times critic Paul de Barros that Supernatural was his worst-received album but that it represented his "best work to date. It's a kind of a fruition of ten years of work. It was the first time that I really opened up and was completely personal in a verbal way. The songs that I wrote on previous records, it was easy to cloak them in the idiom of blues and R&B."
In late 2001 Ford, then in his late forties, recorded Blue Moon, which was released on the Concord label in 2002. Once again Ford confounded any who hoped to categorize his work, as Blue Moon presented an eclectic mix of blues, rock, soul, and jazz. Two years later Ford released his second Concord CD, Keep on Running, which stayed within a blues and R&B framework. Ford recorded with a variety of well-known artists, including Edgar Winter, Ivan Neville, and blues harp player John Mayall, who had been an early influence on Ford. The album also included a duet with Mavis Staples of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding." The album was well-received, and seemed poised to ensure Ford's status as a longstanding fixture of American blues and R&B. All Music Guide's Thom Jurek summarized, noting that Ford has "been on the scene a long time, made a lot of great music, and has confused his fans and detractors alike. But this role, that of the amiable, street-savvy urban bluesman seems to suit him best, judging by Blue Moon first and Keep on Running, but Keep on Running is even more convincing, being so consistently presented and wonderfully, soulfully wrought."
(With the Charles Ford Band) The Charles Ford Band, Arhoolie, 1972.
Discovering the Blues, Rhino, 1972; reissued, Avenue Jazz, 1978; reissued, Avenue Jazz, 1997.
Schizophonic, MCA, 1976; reissued, Avenue (Rhino), 1994.
The Inside Story, Elektra, 1979; reissued, WEA International, 1998.
(With The Yellowjackets) Yellowjackets, Warner Brothers, 1981.
Robben Ford, Warner Brothers, 1988.
Talk to Your Daughter, Warner Brothers, 1988.
(With Blue Line Lounge) Robben Ford and the Blue Line, Stretch, 1992; reissued, GRP, 1993.
(With Blue Line Lounge) Mystic Mile, Stretch, 1993.
(With Blue Line Lounge) Handful of Blues, Blue Thumb, 1995.
Blues Connotation, ITM, 1996; reissued, West Wind Jazz, 1997.
Tiger Walk, Blue Thumb Records, 1997.
(With Blue Line Lounge) The Authorized Bootleg, Blue Thumb Records, 1998.
Sunrise, Avenue (Rhino), 1999.
Supernatural, Blue Thumb Records, 1999.
Anthology: The Early Years, Avenue Jazz, 2001.
A Tribute to Paul Butterfield, Blue Rock'It, 2001; reissued, Blue Pig, 2001.
Blue Moon, Concord Jazz, 2002.
Keep on Running, Concord Jazz, 2003.
Billboard, August 5, 1995.
Dominion Post (Wellington, New Zealand), August 29, 2002.
Guitar Player, January 1993; March 2002.
International Herald Tribune (Paris, France), November 27, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2001.
Oregonian, June 20, 1991; April 23, 1993; April 30, 1993.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 9, 1991.
Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), July 18, 2003.
The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand), September 7, 2002.
Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), January 23, 2004.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 2001.
Santa Fe New Mexican, October 10, 2003.
Seattle Times, June 2, 2000.
Washington Post, November 12, 1999.
"Robben Ford," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 10, 2005).
"Robben Ford," Digital Interviews,http://www.digitalinterviews.com (March 10, 2005).
Robben Ford Official Website, http://www.robbenford.com (March 10, 2005).
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