When Alligator Records signed Fenton Robinson in 1974, he was one of the unsung heroes of Chicago blues. With his subtle, probing guitar and soaring voice, he represented the smoother side of the city's blues sound. In fact, though he originally came from Mississippi, Fenton's style had more in common with the swinging Texas string-benders than his Delta contemporaries. His elaborate chordal progressions on guitar recall the jazz-flavored work of his hero, T-Bone Walker, as well as B.B. King. His soulful vocals and unique songwriting style led the way for such contemporary blues artists as Robert Cray.
Fenton was a singular songwriter. He composed a dozen blues classics, but none better known than "Somebody Loan Me A Dime,"originally recorded as a 45 in the late 1960s, and re-recorded as the title cut of his first Alligator release. His expressive and exquisitely crafted guitar style, compelling voice and songwriting skills put Fenton in a league of his own. Robinson went on to release two more albums on Alligator, 1978's I HEAR SOME BLUES DOWNSTAIRS and 1984's NIGHTFLIGHT, both acclaimed by blues critics and fans around the world.
Fenton was born on September 23, 1935 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Inspired by the blues he heard on the radio (especially T-Bone Walker), he moved to Memphis at age 16 and concentrated on playing music. He broke onto the Southern blues scene while still in his early twenties. His first single, "Tennessee Woman,"was recorded for the Memphis-based Meteor label. This young, upstart guitarist carved out a strong, devoted following from among the most demanding of blues audiences. He went on to record for Duke Records in Houston (and played lead guitar on Larry Davis' original version of "Texas Flood") before moved to Chicago in 1962. In Chicago he recorded for singles for U.S.A., Giant. and Palos Records (where he first recorded the famous "Somebody Loan Me A Dime"in 1967). Night after night, Fenton proved himself in club after club, eventually winning a regular gig at the legendary Peppers Lounge.
The man's reputation didn't just rest on one great song, though. His classic recordings have inspired countless cover versions. Albert King, Elvin Bishop, Eric Burdon, Maggie Bell and Charlie Musselwhite have recorded Fenton's early hits. But even greater recognition came in 1969, when Boz Scaggs, along with Duane Allman, recorded the classic blues/rock version of "Somebody Loan Me A Dime,"and introduced Fenton to a whole new legion of fans.
Before hooking up with Alligator, Fenton wrote for Lowell Fulson and Larry Davis, and performed with Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, and many other blues legends. He toured with Charlie Musselwhite and worked the blues circuit with his own bands. With the 1974 release of his Alligator debut, SOMEBODY LOAN ME A DIME, word of Fenton's expressive and beautifully crafted guitar playing, his persuasive singing voice and his extraordinary songwriting abilities reached another new audience. The album received glowing reviews, including a five-star rating in the "Rolling Stone Record Guide. "His subsequent Alligator recordings were also critically praised. He toured the national blues club circuit and performed at a number of major blues festivals.
But by the late 1980s, discouraged that his subtle, melodic style and low-key stage presence weren't appropriate for the raucous blues bar audiences, Fenton moved to Springfield, Illinois. There he immersed himself in blues education, working in the Springfield school systems, teaching youngsters the roots of the blues as well as instrumental techniques. He performed occasionally but found greater satisfaction in his role as a teacher. In the last years of his life, Fenton married and lived in Rockford, Illinois. He continued to play, including making a featured performance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival in front of over 100,000 people. When Fenton Robinson passed away on November 25, 1997, the blues world lost one of its truly exceptional artists.
Born: Sep 23, 1935 in Minter City, MS
Died: Nov 25, 1997
Styles: Chicago Blues, Modern Electric Blues, Modern Electric Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, Soul-Blues
Instruments: Guitar, Vocals
His Japanese fans reverently dubbed Fenton Robinson "the mellow blues genius" because of his ultra-smooth vocals and jazz-inflected guitar work. But beneath the obvious subtlety resides a spark of constant regeneration - Robinson tirelessly strives to invent something fresh and vital whenever he's near a bandstand.
The soft-spoken Mississippi native got his career going in Memphis, where he'd moved at age 16. First, Rosco Gordon used him on a 1956 session for Duke that produced "Keep on Doggin'." The next year, Fenton made his own debut as a leader for the Bihari brothers' Meteor label with his first reading of "Tennessee Woman." His band, the Dukes, included mentor Charles McGowan on guitar; T-Bone Walker and B.B. King were Robinson's idols.
1957 also saw Fenton team up with bassist Larry Davis at the Flamingo Club in Little Rock. Bobby Bland caught the pair there and recommended them to his boss, Duke Records prexy Don Robey. Both men made waxings for Duke in 1958, Robinson playing on Davis's classic "Texas Flood" and making his own statement with "Mississippi Steamboat." Robinson cut the original version of the often-covered Peppermint Harris-penned slow blues "As the Years Go Passing By" for Duke in 1959 with New Orleans prodigy James Booker on piano. The same date also produced a terrific "Tennessee Woman" and a marvelous blues ballad, "You've Got to Pass This Way Again."
Fenton moved to Chicago in 1962, playing South side clubs with Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Otis Rush and laying down the swinging "Say You're Leavin'" for USA in 1966. But it was his stunning slow blues "Somebody (Loan Me a Dime)," cut in 1967 for Palos, that insured his blues immortality. Boz Scaggs liked it so much that he covered it for his 1969 debut LP. Unfortunately, he initially also claimed he wrote the tune; much litigation followed.
John Richbourg's Sound Stage 7/Seventy 7 labels, it's safe to say, didn't really have a clue as to what Fenton Robinson's music was all about. The guitarist's 1970 Nashville waxings for the firm were mostly horrific - Robinson wasn't even invited to play his own guitar on the majority of the horribly unsubtle rock-slanted sides. His musical mindset was growing steadily jazzier by then, not rockier.
Robinson fared a great deal better at his next substantial stop: Chicago's Alligator Records. His 1974 album Somebody Loan Me a Dime remains the absolute benchmark of his career, spotlighting his rich, satisfying vocals and free-spirited, understated guitar work in front of a rock-solid horn-driven band. By comparison, 1977's I Hear Some Blues Downstairs was a trifle disappointing despite its playful title track and a driving T-Bone tribute, "Tell Me What's the Reason."
Alligator issued Nightflight, another challenging set, in 1984, then backed off the guitarist. His most recent disc, 1989's Special Road, first came out on the Dutch Black Magic logo and was reissued by Evidence Music not long ago. Robinson passed away on November 25, 1997 at the age of 62 due to complications from brain cancer.
- Bill Dahl (All Music Guide)