Robinson, Fenton 1935–1997
Fenton Robinson 1935–1997
Fenton Robinson has been called a “mellow blues genius” by his appreciative fans. Like B.B. King, he created a smoother sound filled with fluid guitar solos by augmenting the blues with horn sections. Terry Currier of the Cascade Blues Association noted that “he had a wonderful baritone voice, he could generate some stellar guitar playing, and he had the ability to write good songs.” Robinson’s distinct approach to the blues also served to separate him from peers like Freddie King, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush. In 1967 he released his signature song, “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” a piece that guaranteed him a place in blues history. “Beneath the obvious subtlety resides a spark of constant regeneration,” wrote Bill Dahl in All Music Guide, adding, “Robinson tirelessly strives to invent something fresh and vital whenever he’s near a bandstand.”
Robinson was born in 1935 and grew up on a corn and cotton plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi. At the age of 11, he built his first guitar out of an empty cigar box and wire. He taught himself to play guitar by copying what he heard on the jukebox and by listening to the King Biscuit Show on the radio. He was influenced by T-Bone Walker, a guitarist who borrowed liberally from jazz. “T-bone was my idol of blues playing during that time,” Robinson told Jim O’Neal in the liner notes to Somebody Loan Me a Dime. “It was always a thing in my mind that someday I would be good enough to play his licks, and from that I built a style of my own.”
In 1951 Robinson paid $13 for a Stella acoustic guitar and visited Memphis, Tennessee, where he took lessons from Charles McGowan. Two years later he moved to Memphis and began playing professionally with McGowan and Bobby “Blues” Bland. In 1954 he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. In Little Rock he formed Fenton Robinson and the Castle Rockers, and the band toured the Southern juke joint circuit. The young guitarist attended his first recording session to back up Roscoe Gordon on “Keep on Doggin‘” in 1956, and returned to the studio the following year to record “Tennessee Woman” under his own name for Meteor Records.
Robinson joined forces with Larry Davis in 1957, and Bobby Bland brought the duo to the attention of Don Robey, the owner of Duke Records. Robey signed the
Born on September 23, 1935, in Minter City, MS; died on November 25, 1997.
Career: Performed with Charles McGowan and Bobby “Blues” Bland, mid-1950s; formed a band with Larry Davis, 1957; moved to Chicago, 1961, and played with Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Otis Rush; recorded for USA and Giant record labels, 1966; recorded “Somebody Loan Me a Dime/” 1967; signed to to Alligator Records and released Somebody Loan Me a Dime, 1974; released I Hear Some Blues Downstairs, 1977, and Blues in Progress, 1984; performed at Buddy Guy’s Legends, 1991.
dynamic blues duo and they recorded a number of sides for the label in 1958, including versions of “Freeze,” “As Years Go Passing By,” and “Texas Flood” (which would later be revived by Stevie Ray Vaughan). In 1961 Robinson relocated to Chicago, where he worked with Junior Wells, Otis Rush, and Sonny Boy Williamson. He also signed up for lessons with Reggie Boyd, a guitar teacher and studio player, hoping to tap into his own unrealized potential.
In 1966 Robinson recorded several moderately successful songs for the USA and Giant labels. He then cut “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” for the Palos label in 1967 with the help of B.B. King’s backing band. The single sold 150,000 copies in the Chicago area, prompting the record label to press more copies in order to promote the record nationally. A snowstorm, however, prevented the records from shipping on time, and by the time they were shipped out, interest in “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” had waned. Despite this setback, the song solidified Robinson’s reputation on the Chicago blues scene and led to a regular show at the Peppers Lounge.
Robinson reached an even greater audience in 1969 when Boz Scaggs recorded “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” with Duane Allman on lead guitar. The song became a hit, but elicited controversy because Scaggs had credited himself as the song’s author. Robinson pursued litigation to regain the rights and royalties for his song, and eventually won. In the late 1960s he began recording for the Seventy-Seven label and continued to tour with his own band. He worked with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite in the early 1970s and recorded his first full-length album in 1971. The Seventy-Seven label, however, seemed to have trouble understanding Robinson’s music, and the sessions went badly. Robinson “had hooked up with a rock backup band,” wrote Currier, “and most of the lead parts were played by other people.”
In 1974 Robinson signed on to Bruce Iglauer’s fledgling Alligator Records and recorded Somebody Loan Me a Dime. Dahl noted that “Somebody Loan Me a Dime remains the absolute benchmark of [Robinson’s] career, spotlighting his rich, satisfying vocals and free-spirited, understated guitar work in front of a rock-solid horn-driven band.” The album boosted Robinson’s career to a new level, but his success was short lived. In the mid-1970s he was convicted of manslaughter in a case originating from an automobile accident in 1969, and he served a nine-month jail term in the penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois.
After a lukewarm greeting for J Hear Some Blues Downstairs in 1977, Robinson ceased recording for seven years, though he continued to perform in the Chicago area. In 1984 he recorded Blues in Progress for the Dutch label Black Magic. Alligator released the album in the United States under the title Night flight, but disappointing sales ended Robinson’s relationship with the label. In 1989 Black Magic released Special Road, but sales were once again disappointing. Although Robinson performed at Buddy Guy’s Legends in 1991, he appeared infrequently during the 1990s and released no new albums.
Robinson’s jazz-flavored style differed greatly from the Delta-influenced blues artists like Muddy Waters who came to prominence in Chicago after World War II. “His friends and critics alike have speculated that Robinson’s sweet voice, and jazzy, Texas-styled guitar phrasings and chordal progressions may have been too slick for the Windy City crowd,” noted Steve Sharp in Blues Music Now. These qualities, however, heavily influenced the next generation, including players like Robert Cray. Robinson has been “consistently in the forefront of the modern blues movement as composer, recording artist, live performer, bandleader and side-man,” wrote O’Neal. Robinson died on November 25, 1997, at the age of 62, due to complications from brain cancer.
Monday Morning Boogie and Blues, Seventy-Seven, 1972.
Somebody Loan Me a Dime, Alligator, 1974. J
Hear Some Blues Down Stairs, Alligator, 1977.
Nightflight, Alligator, 1984.
Blues in Progress, Black Magic, 1984.
Special Road, Evidence, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1997.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Alligator Records, http://www.alligator.com
Blues Music Now!, http://www.bluesmusicnow.com
Cascade Blues Association, http://www.cascadeblues.org
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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