Pedal steel guitarist
Robert Randolph is the youthful master of the pedal steel guitar, an instrument he learned as a member of the House of God Church. He has gained attention performing for the church as well as for secular audiences in nightclubs and popular concert venues. Randolph is considered the first artist in his church's "Sacred Steel" tradition to achieve critical and commercial success outside of his religious tradition.
Randolph was raised in the House of God Church in Philadelphia, where his mother was a minister and his father was a deacon. Randolph was a self-described "bad kid, on my eighth life with only one left to go." On the Robert Randolph and the Family Band's website he added that his high school years in Irvington, New Jersey, were a challenge. His parents had divorced, leaving his father to raise him. Randolph often skipped school to party or "just hang in the streets, being a knucklehead." He also related that he gambled and sold drugs. But Randolph maintained ties to the church through this difficult period, and began playing music as a drummer in his Orange, New Jersey, church's youth choir.
Randolph was first given a guitar by Chuck Campbell, one of the foremost players in the genre, but did not
start playing in earnest until he was 17 years old. After the shooting death of a close friend, Randolph dropped his former habits and began to spend his time practicing, first on lap and then on pedal steel guitar. He spent a summer under the tutelage of Ted Beard, a respected Sacred Steel player. After returning to New Jersey he began playing in church services. At about this time he also began to play with those musicians who would form The Family Band. The group included his cousins Marcus Randolph, who played drums, and Danyel Morgan, bass and vocals; as well as Jason Crosby, who played organ, piano, and violin.
Had it not been for a friend who loaned him a mix tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Randolph's playing style might not have taken flight. It was through the Texas guitar master's playing that Randolph heard for himself that the sacred and secular could coexist. "I started trying to apply the same natural, positive thing I found in gospel music to secular music, so I could still have that purity and energy that people can grab onto," he said on his website. He also began listening to secular music for the first time, including everything from rock to rap. "I listened to all kinds of new stuff I'd never heard before, not letting it confuse where I come from, but piecing it all together in new ways."
A better understanding of the tradition of "Sacred Steel" is key to an understanding of the levity of Randolph's accomplishment. Originally used in Hawaiian and country music during the 1930s, lap steel guitars were also first used in the House of God Church during that time. Brothers Troman and Willie Eason are credited with starting this trend in their Philadelphia church in the 1930s. According to the Robert Randolph and the Family Band website, the steel guitar was "used initially to substitute for organs which were too costly for many congregations to afford." Use of the instrument "developed within an African-American tradition that had nothing to do with Hawaiian or country roots," and paved the way for a host of other players within the church, including Henry Nelson, Aubrey Ghent, Sonny Treadway, Ted Beard, and the Campbell Brothers.
As Bruce Britt, writing on the Grammy Awards website, described it, Sacred Steel "languished in obscurity for some 60 years before it was 'discovered' in 1992 by an enterprising Florida folklorist who took the music out of the nation's black churches and into the CD players of music lovers worldwide." The main reason the music stayed within the confines of the church was due to the dictates of church elders, who frowned upon listening to popular music or performing in secular settings. "The most conservative believe the music should only be performed within their church," wrote Robert L. Stone in Sing Out!, but he added, "The most liberal in the House of God view the presentation of the music in other churches and at secular venues as a means of evangelizing. Each musician negotiates these issues with fellow band members, family and local clergy."
Florida musicologist Stone has been credited with the "discovery" of Sacred Steel. He made field recordings which were released in 1995 on an album called Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida. They were reissued in 1997 on Arhoolie Records, which has become the defacto label for the genre. It was on their album Sacred Steel—Live! that Randolph made his recording debut. The disc captures his playing at the first Sacred Steel Convention in 2000. According to CMJ's New Music First website, what Randolph and The Family Band did was "[mow] down the divisions between race, genre and attitude." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service described his "rise from church accompanist to jam-band/blues cult hero [as] … one of the unlikeliest music stories" of 2001.
For the Record …
Born c. 1978 in New Jersey; son of a minister and a deacon.
Began playing, c. 1995; recording debut on Sacred Steel compilation, 2000; began playing club circuit in New York City, 2001; recorded The Word with John Medeski and North Mississippi Allstars, 2001; made special appearances on other recordings, 2001; released first solo album, Live At The Wetlands, 2002; began opening for secular international touring acts, 2001; appeared on 2003 Grammy Awards telecast; released Unclassified, his first studio album, 2004.
Awards: Jammy Award, New Groove of the Year (best new band), 2002; W.C. Handy Award, Best New Artist Debut, for Live At The Wetlands, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505, website: http://www.warnerbrosrecords.com. Website—Robert Randolph and the Family Band Official Website: http://www.robertrandolph.net/.
Randolph gradually began playing the club circuit in New York City, opening for groups including Victor Wooten, Soulive, North Mississippi All-Stars, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. "We're basically like missionaries and the message that we can bring forth should be a good one," Randolph told Steve Ciabattoni on the New Music First website. "Especially in times today where we're put on magazine covers and on TV. We should at least have something good to say in a world where there's so much bad going on. Especially for kids, high school kids, college kids. There's not enough role models for people to look at and say, 'Man, I should do this, this is more towards the positive way of life.'"
Randolph's decision to play in secular venues engendered controversy within the church. He told Esquire that several church elders took him aside to express their disapproval. "They try and make you feel like it's wrong," Randolph said. "They say you're going against God. For years, you had some of the most talented people … scared to go outside the church. But I'm not." Randolph's music has been embraced widely, in particular by the so-called jam band contingent, who enjoy his effusive improvisational sprees. Upon discovering Randolph, this group began trading his live performance tapes "like Garcia had come back from the grave," according to New Music First.
"What excites me is that whole tradition of church music going secular," Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars explained in an interview with New Music First. "Robert, just like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, is taking church grooves and harmonies and making sexy R&B songs out of them. Plus, he's such a great showman, and the jam-band scene really doesn't have that. In many ways, Robert reminds me of Bob Marley, with the religion and the lifestyle and the fact that his music actually stands for something."
Randolph first came to popular secular attention in 2001 through his work with John Medeski and The North Mississippi Allstars in the album The Word, which combined funk, blues, jazz and gospel. Jelly's Glenn Brooks called it "a 70-minute shout of joy … Ecstatic, in every sense."
Comparisons have been made in the popular media between Randolph and a host of other spiritual musical performers, including Ray Charles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley, and he appears to be following a path similar to that of artists such as Sam Cooke and Al Green. Randolph achieved even more notice after he appeared on the 2003 Grammy Awards telecast with Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, and Out Kast. His performance at the award ceremonies came just prior to the release of Unclassified, his first studio album, in 2004. Esquire's Andy Langer called Unclassified "a stunning declaration of talent" that shows Randolph "not only as a blue-chip musician, but as someone who's worth the most precious commodity of all—your faith … Randolph is easy to believe in because he so clearly believes in himself."
"I come from the church—and while there may be things that I do on the road ain't exactly church-like—I'm here to give people good word," Randolph told Ciabattoni. "When I get the chance to go up in front of people, I just want to be remembered as a guy who always had something good to say about life and people."
(With various artists) Sacred Steel, Vol. 2: Live at the House of God Church, Arhoolie, 1999.
(With Demolition String Band) Pulling up Atlantis, Okra-tone, 2001.
(With John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars) The Word, Ropeadope/Atlantic, 2001.
(With various artists) Train Don't Leave Me: The First Annual Sacred Steel Convention, Arhoolie, 2001.
Live at the Wetlands, Dare/Warner Bros., 2002.
(With Dirty Dozen Brass Band) Medicated Magic, Rope-adope, 2002.
Unclassified, Dare/Warner Bros., 2003.
Billboard, July 28, 2001; August 23, 2003.
Down Beat, October 2001; October 2002; February 2002.
Esquire, September 2001; August 2003.
Guitar Player, May 2002.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 21, 2001.
Sing Out!, Spring 2004.
"The Good Word With Robert Randolph," Glide, http://www.glidemagazine.com/fresh_tracks48.html (March 17, 2004).
"John Medeski, the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph: The Word," Jelly, http://www.jellyroll.com/2002/theword.html (March 17, 2004).
"Meet Steel Sensation Robert Randolph," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (March 17, 2004).
"Righteous Randolph," eye weekly, http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_07.10.03/beat/sample.html (March 17, 2004).
"Robert Randolph," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 17, 2004).
"Robert Randolph & The Family Band back on the road," live Daily, http://www.livedaily.com/news/6105.html (March 17, 2004).
"Robert Randolph And The Family Band," CMJ New Music First, http://www.cmj.com/articles/display_article.php?id=41170 (March 17, 2004).
Robert Randolph and the Family Band Official Website, http://www.robertrandolph.net/ (March 17, 2004).
"Sacred Steel's Not-So-Heavy Metal," Grammy.com, http://www.grammy.com/features/2003/0806_sacred.aspx (March 17, 2004).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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