Los Angeles, Fenton Robinson, by Jerry Rosen

Posted on 11/05/2009 by Monica Yasher

Blues has always been a rough musical genre for artists, especially the black ones.  The white kids who were able to “rock it” did much better.  Of all the black blues artists, BB King is at the top as far as commercial success is concerned.  Buddy Guy has also made a decent living with the blues.  There are a number of touring black blues musicians who are able to make money on the road, but they have to work extremely hard.  Muddy Waters and Albert King also sustained relatively successful careers.  Willie Dixon died with a lot of money in the bank (successfully suing Led Zeppelin, for ripping off Killing Floor), but he was more of a songwriter than a performer.  I think it is fairly safe to say that, the people who created this amazing music, and are directly responsible for motivating the start and proliferation of the multi billion dollar rock and roll industry, did not see anywhere near the success they deserved. 

Case in point: Fenton Robinson.  Like most of the great blues artists of his era, Fenton Robinson hailed from the South (Mississippi).  Fenton played blues in Little Rock Arkansas in the 50’s and moved to Chicago in the early 60’s.  Fenton started out by playing with Larry Davis who penned “Texas Flood,” which much later became a hit for Stevie Ray Vaughn.  During the first part of the 60’s Fenton did some session work and had a few releases on small labels.  Fenton covered “As the years go passing by,” long before the tune became a hit for Albert King.  He got a big break in 1966-67 when he recorded his biggest hit “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” using BB King’s band for his backing band.  This song sold 150,000 copies, which, even today, would be astronomical numbers for a hard-core blues release. 

But Fenton was not a lucky fellow.  In 1969 Boz Scaggs (who previously played with Steve Miller) recorded “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” using Duanne Allman on lead guitar. It was a big song for Scaggs (who still plays this tune live), but Scaggs’ name appeared on the writing credit instead of Fenton’s.  Fenton did not receive writer’s royalties for the song.  He later sued and was compensated. 

Finally, in 1974 Fenton recorded his “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” CD for Alligator Records (it was only Alligator’s fifth release).  “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” was the first tune on the CD and it was a powerful recording.  He kicks off the tune with a quick key change and it gave the song a dramatic flair.  All covers pale in comparison.  The entire CD is brilliant and is considered to be a classic recording.  If you don’t own this CD I strongly urge you to buy it ASAP, you won’t be disappointed. My favorite tune on the disc is the second song called “The Getaway.”  This tune is a riveting, funky minor key number, which finds Robinson daydreaming about getting away from cold Chicago and meeting his woman in the warm Florida sun.  This tune perfectly captures the essence of blues.  On one level, Robinson is singing about a woman, but there is so much more here.  It also speaks to the hard cold economic realities of being a poor black man or woman. Chicago was once the dream destination for Southern Blacks but it wasn’t Nirvana. It is ironic that Fenton now fantasizes about going back to the South (albeit, Florida isn’t Mississippi).  The one thing that “the man” could never take away from a blues man, like Robinson, was his dreams for a better life.  Every time I hear this song it gives me chills and I come to a slightly better understanding of blues music.

Most Chicago bluesmen (and woman) had a difficult time acquiring booking agents and roadwork in the 70’s and 80’s.  Fenton was no exception.  Fortunately, his musical prowess landed him jobs with better-known blues artists.  For instance, he played and toured with Charlie Musselwhite in the 70’s.  Fenton played on Musselwhite’s Rough News CD (for the Point Blank) label in the 70’s.  Musselwhite recorded Robinson’s “Tennessee Woman” composition on a CD he did for Vanguard.  In all, Robinson released only five CDs and the above-mentioned Alligator release represented his best-recorded work.  There are a number of live You Tubes of Robinson which capture his unique singing and playing styles.  He had an introspective style - he thought about what he was playing and was a master of space.  He used jazzy runs and diminished chords, which gave him a unique sound. But make no mistake, this was most definitely blues and not jazz.  It is such a relief to listen to a skilled blues guitarist who isn’t “rattling off” 1000 notes per second and isn’t playing at hard rock volumes.

One You Tube highlight was his performance at Buddy Guy’s Legend’s club in Chicago, which, I believe, was shot in 1991. This was one of his last performances in Chicago.  Fenton’s last years, in the 90’s, were spent living in various cities in Illinois and Indiana.  In Springfield Illinois he started a “Blues in the Schools” program and he enjoyed teaching young kids about blues.  He died of a brain tumor on November 25, 1997.

Aside from writing effective songs, Robinson was an accomplished vocalist and played classic blues guitar.  His overall vocal style was somewhere in between BB King and Albert King, but very much original.  His guitar playing didn’t fall into any of the usual blues box patterns. T. Bone and BB and later Albert heavily influenced most of the great guitarists. But Robinson was coming from a somewhat different place, stylistically.  Even Robinson’s axe of choice was different than the rest.  He used a Gibson ES225 guitar. This is a single cut, thin hollow body “jazz box.”  He got a very sweet tone from this instrument.   He had a second release on Alligator, but it didn’t do as well as the first one.  He continued to record sporadically in the 70’s and 80’s and he continued performing live up to the time of his death in 1997.  Again, I urge you to buy “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” on Alligator and check out the You Tubes of Robinson.  There is a lot to enjoy if you are a blues fan, and to learn, if you are a blues musician.


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