Featured Blues Interview – Roy Rogers
The distance from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall on Admiral Callaghan Lane in Vallejo, California to the old Fillmore West on South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco was roughly 40 miles.
Yet, back in 1968, the distance between those two venues had to be roughly the same distance as it was from Memphis to the moon for the late, great B.B. King.
It was at the Fillmore West where King – who had been playing the blues since the early 1950s – received his very-first standing ovation. The audience’s reception that evening moved King so much that it brought tears to his eyes right on stage.
Also in attendance at both the Vallejo VFW and the Fillmore West shows was a young Roy Rogers. And although he may not have had any idea of it at the time, he would one day be able to say that he shared the stage, as well as the recording studio, with B.B. King – along with John Lee Hooker – and a host of other legendary bluesmen over the years that were yet to come.
“I first saw B.B. King back in 1968 when he came to my hometown of Vallejo, California. He played the local Vets hall and we actually helped him and the band up the steps with their gear,” Rogers said. “It was a Sunday night and two weeks later was when he played the Fillmore, which was a real pivotal time for him. The audience in Vallejo was mostly older black folks who were long-time fans and dressed to the ‘nines’ and then two weeks later, he’s playing for Bill Graham’s crowd of young, white, long-haired hippies at the Fillmore and I was there for that show, too. I like all three Kings – B.B., Freddie and Albert – but as far as playing, it was always B.B. For me.”
Ever since Rogers (call him Roy, not Mr. Rogers, as ‘that’s the guy that stops and changes his sweaters and shoes, man’ – in reference to the dearly departed Fred Rogers from the long-running PBS series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) first placed a round tube on his left pinky finger, his highly-personal style of slide-guitar playing has left many jaws dropped and has raised many eyebrows as to just how he does what he does. His guitar playing will never be confused with B.B. King’s, yet Rogers does not hesitate to recite just what King meant to him as a guitarist.
“His impact on me was incalculable, I’ll put it to you like that. I had been to a folk festival and saw Muddy and Lightnin’ and Mance before that, so I was already in to the blues,” he said. “But B.B. Was always front-and-center for me. Early on – I wasn’t playing slide at that point – I wanted to play guitar like B.B. King. I mean, didn’t everybody? Then later on, I remember reading that one of the reasons that B.B. developed his style was that he never could learn how to play with a slide. That’s pretty amazing to think that vibrato of his came from that. He was basically trying to sound like a slide.”
Even after he had begun to make his mark on the world of the blues and had started to have his own impact on a generation of guitar players that were beginning to find their own way, Rogers often crossed paths with the King of the Blues.
“Well, I saw him so many times coming up and then of course, later on in life, I opened up a fair amount of shows for B. and then even recorded with him and got to play second guitar to him and John Lee Hooker for a track (“You Shook Me” from King’s Blues Summit album),” he said. “That was a wonderful experience. Separate from being the greatest blues musician you ever heard, B.B. was just the most gracious and friendly man you could ever meet. You hear that said about a lot of people, but with B.B., it was really true. He was so genuine. I mean, how many people do you meet that when they’re talking to you, their attention is genuinely focused on you? That was B.B.”
Rogers, who was indeed named after the famous cowboy (“Believe me, it’s given me a sense of humor my whole life,” he laughed. “Especially like that one time only that I wore my cowboy boots to the pencil sharpener (in school)”) started playing guitar when he was 12 and by the time he was the tender age of 13, he was in his first band and when he was in high school, he had his first blues band. By the time he was a ripe 15-year-old, Rogers was terminally infected with the love of blues music. But the slide bug didn’t really bite him until he fell under the spell of the iconic Robert Johnson.
“He’s the main man. We all have our stories, but as far as me, when I was a kid, I was like a sponge. For me (as a young guitar player), the blues trek took me to the Delta blues and the slide guitar just hit that chord for me. And Robert Johnson still is – as far as Delta blues – the quintessential guy,” Rogers said. “There’s lot of other great slide players, like Elmore James – who really electrified things, which undoubtedly Robert Johnson would have done, himself. I always put it this way – when you talk about influences, you can hear Robert Johnson’s influences in his playing. You can hear Son House and Charley Patton and the guys before him in his playing. But for me, Robert Johnson put it all together in a way that was so unique and so virtuoso and so masterful. How he did that, I have no idea and it really doesn’t matter. He really stands out among all the players in that idiom of Delta blues for me.”
Robert Johnson may occupy the headline spot in Rogers’ Mount Rushmore of slide guitar players, but that doesn’t mean that the Bay Area maestro is content to just sit and back and copy all of Johnson’s licks.
“I certainly played more traditionally when I started out, but I never considered myself a traditionalist, per-say, as in preserving anything. I point to Robert Johnson, but back during his time, he was the new kid on the block,” said Rogers. “He really defined it in a way, especially rhythmically, that had not yet been defined. But I think everybody has to find their own voice. And for me, using slide guitar has always helped me to stretch the boundaries. It’s obviously going to come out as blues, but not always as traditional blues in that fashion.”
Some musicians go through a lot of strife and struggle throughout the whole of their career to ‘find their own voice.’ This doesn’t seem to be the case for Rogers, but that still doesn’t mean he’s reached the ultimate destination of his signature sound.
“I think I’ve found my voice in slide guitar, but I’m still looking for the right notes,” he laughed. “I think if you give up looking for the right notes, man, you’re done. As the poet (Robert) Browning once said, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ You don’t ever want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve reached the pinnacle.’ That’s what keeps you going … it’s the whole performance of reaching for it.”
With one quick spin of Rogers’ latest solo CD – his first in half-a-decade – it is readily apparent that the man is not content to simply plow over the same old ground. The tracks are fresh, fierce and leave no doubt that Rogers is not content to rest on his previous laurels. Like most of his solo work, Into The Wild Blue (Chops Not Chaps Records) is made up of lively instrumentals, as well as songs that do feature vocals.
“It was just time to make another solo record. You can view this one as exploring new possibilities,” he said. “For this new record, I wanted to explore some different things, like R&B things and not just ‘rock it up.’ I approach making a record in a very old-school way. It’s important that the sequencing and the songs go together. It’s like chapters in a book to me. I like to make a record that’s a record. I grew up with that process and even though you don’t have a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B’ anymore, I still approach it that way. Hopefully that gives you an overall feel of listening to a real record.”
Four of the tracks on Into The Wild Blue feature Rogers letting his guitars do all of the talking. And in Rogers’ hands, those guitars can sing a mouthful; especially on the ethereal “Song For Robert (A Brother’s Lament)” a stirring and delicate song for his younger brother, Robert, who had recently passed away.
“Instrumentals have always been a big part of it for me. I just love the different slide textures. Like I said, it’s all blues to me, but it’s not like straight-ahead blues. Normally when I write a song, I start with the music, because the music gives me the mood that I’m in, either you’re happy or sad or pissed off or whatever,” he said. “Lyrics are always harder for me. They’re more difficult to capture. I mean, you can feel something, but describing that feeling in words can be tough. I can come up with riffs all the time. If I feel something is strong – like the title track, Into The Wild Blue – that goes through different feelings in the song, if that’s strong enough and stands on its own, I don’t need to try and come up with lyrics or match it with some words. But if I did, I would approach it from the same way of writing the song. I have had songs in the past where I’ve had a lyric and tried to put something together … but that’s not as prevalent as having a riff that’s great and is poignant. The rhythm of the music is and has always been so important for me. I sometimes consider myself a better rhythm player than a lead player. Rhythm moves you every bit as much as a good melody, if not more so. If you don’t have a groove, you don’t have much, man.”
Rogers has never limited himself to strictly absorbing the blues and nothing else. He’s always been intrigued by the sounds of funk, jazz, good old rock-n-roll and even a bit of Motown sounds, and all those elements can be deciphered on Into The Wild Blue.
“All of your influences do come out. One of the tunes on the record, “Got To Believe,” has that kind of R&B groove that’s straight out of Al Green. And I wanted that kind of groove,” he said. “But as far as most of the riffs, they just come out. I’ve been doing this long enough to where I want this kind of riff for this song and that’s just the way the tune comes out. I don’t think, ‘Oh, this is a Motown riff.’ But we’re all products of our influences and we can’t get away – nor should we want to – from that.”
Maybe it was just from the outside looking in, but Rogers’ trio of collaborations with the late Ray Manzarek, legendary keyboardist and founding member of The Doors, seemed like a bit of a head-scratching pairing. After all, you had a dyed-in-the-wool blues guitarist in one corner and in the other, a key component of the swingin’ psychedelic ’60s. But as it turns out, the pair were really closer to kindred spirits than they were musical opposites.
“That was just such a great collaboration and friendship that I had with Ray. I didn’t even know this, but Ray was originally from Chicago. We just clicked. They asked Ray about his influences in some of the interviews that he did and he was always so eloquent. He’d say, ‘Well, you know I grew up in Chicago and I remember when the local radio went from playing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” to “Hoochie Coochie Man,”” laughed Rogers. “But he grew up around that music (blues) and The Doors music certainly was steeped in the blues. Ironically – and Ray and I used to have fun with this – but I wasn’t a big Doors fan, at all. He would jokingly say, ‘To hell with you, Rogers.’ But at that point (late ’60s) I was a blues fanatic. I came to appreciate the sound of The Doors later on, but not back then. I wanted to see Wolf and to see Muddy and Bo and Freddie, back then.”
Rogers and Manzarek issued three albums – Ballads Before The Rain (2008), Translucent Blues (2011) and Twisted Tales (2013), before the multi-talented Manzarek passed away in May, 2013.
“When I first met Ray, he was doing solo shows and telling Doors stories and I sat in with him (the two shared a mutual agent) and took my little Valco amp and played behind him. And it was one of those situations that just clicked,” said Rogers. “He was playing solo piano and I was playing guitar and I thought, ‘This is fun, why don’t we do this again?’”
Which is just what the duo of Rogers and Manzarek began doing.
“We did that for a couple of years (played as a two-piece) and became fast friends. We said, ‘This is too good. Why don’t we record this, but do it as a band?’ So I put the band together with some players from here in the Bay Area and that’s what led to Translucent Blues,” he said. “And it was highly-successful and hit the charts, so we started touring it, on a kind of limited basis. That was a fun record … it kind of defined the blues in a new way. Ray always liked to call it 21st century blues.”
Those ’21st century blues’ that he and Manzarek forged were light-years away from the sounds of the master where Rogers really started to become a household name in the blues – the one-and-only John Lee Hooker. Rogers joined Hooker’s Coast to Coast Band back in the early 1980s and eventually became bandleader and later produced four of Hooker’s late-period – and most critically acclaimed – albums (The Healer (1989), Mr. Lucky (1991), Boom Boom (1992) and Chill Out (1995)). The Healer even earned a Grammy Award.
“I was such close friends with John … and I played with him from ’82 until ’86 and that was a real thrill. People ask me all the time what I learned about music playing with John Lee Hooker. I say, ‘I didn’t learn about music, I learned about life playing with him.’ It was one-and-the-same for John and guys like that,” Rogers said. “He was his music. He was such a deep cat. If he felt like it, John could take it as deep as anybody … anywhere … think about that. We’re talking more than just being able to hear a pin drop in a room. We’re talking about a man who’s expressing himself through music so profoundly … it’s amazing to witness, or in my case to play with a guy, who can take it down so heavily. That’s the kind of stuff that I reach for in music, because that’s the brass ring. And I just loved his laugh … man, what a great laugh that man had.”
Those Rogers-produced albums by Hooker featured a cornucopia of star musicians in their own right; such as Keith Richards, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt, to name just a quick few. But according to Rogers, there was no doubt as to who the real star of those sessions was.
“We had all these great players in the studio, but the focus was always John Lee Hooker. A lot of people do those kind of records (classic artists paired with newer, or ‘big-name’ stars), but they don’t keep the focus on who they should focus on. I always kept the focus on John Lee Hooker, period,” Rogers said. “People were just happy to be in the studio playing with him and we got some great tracks.”
One of the most incendiary duets of all time has to be Hooker’s run-through of “I’m in the Mood” with Bonnie Raitt from The Healer. That track is so sexually-charged that it threatens to explode from the get-go and is so swampy you can almost feel the heat and sweat the studio session generated. And for a real mind-blower, Rogers says all he had to do was just press ‘record’ one time for that song.
“Yeah, that was a first take. That’s amazing, isn’t it? We did try a second take, but we put up a rough mix of it (the first take) and went out to John’s car and me and him and Bonnie and a bunch of us listened to it and I said, ‘Folks, that’s it to me. I don’t think we can get any better than that. This is the one that makes your hair stand on end.’ Everyone agreed, so I said, ‘We’re done with that one,’” he said. “It’s pretty rare, I’ll tell you that. But to his credit, John was always up to try new things and we threw a lot at him. John was a very spiritual guy … and when he sang, that voice was just unbelievable. It just really moved people. Those were special times.”
When he’s not on the road with his Delta Rhythm Kings or working on his own material in the studio, Rogers can be found producing records for a variety of other artists. He’s quick to point out what he considers to be job number one when he’s sitting in the producer’s chair.
“To be a facilitator. You have to facilitate and maybe assist someone in defining what they do. Maybe with an arrangement, or with tempo. I feel like a lot of times in this music that we’re talking about, producers have too much power,” he said. “I want to work with an artist and achieve what their vision is. With John Lee Hooker, it was a little different, because he was a living legend. You could still have a bit of an edge in the studio, but you wanted him to be in a comfort zone, as well. I heard stories about when he recorded with Canned Heat that they recorded all night. But that was a different deal; they were going for the boogie to have an all-night feel and to feel the sweat coming off the record. In our situation with John, I wanted him to be in a comfort zone and to have the studio set up for him. But the bottom line is, you’re (the producer) not playing the music, they (the artists) are. I’m harder on myself when it comes to my own music.”
Another hallmark of a Roy Rogers-produced album is the efficiency in its birth. While he’s not trying to rush things just for speed’s sake, he’s also not one to do a bunch of goofing around or hanging out at the studio as some kind of a vacation destination, either.
“When I hear stories of people taking a year to make a record in the studio, I just can’t imagine that. You want it to be right, but whoa! I think I recorded Into The Wild Blue in two weeks, then I took a break and went back to mix it, which was another two weeks. So it took about a month, which is just right for me,” he said.
In 1990, Rogers was also involved in the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to The Hot Spot, where in addition to John Lee Hooker, he also rubbed shoulders and worked with Taj Mahal and Miles Davis.
“That was completely wild … Dennis Hopper had made this film and his favorite jazz guy was Miles Davis and his favorite blues guy was John Lee Hooker. And so Taj Mahal and I backed them up,” Rogers said. “That was pretty amazing … every time Taj and I see each other, we talk about The Hot Spot, because it was such a special deal. I mean, think about it, John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis? Wow.”
Rogers also teamed up with the highly-underrated harmonica genius of Norton Buffalo (Steve Miller Band) for a few albums and the pair quickly developed a chemistry that worked on all levels, as their albums most definitely attest to. Another Bay Area-artist that Rogers has collaborated with over the course of the past couple of decades is the Red Rocker himself – Sammy Hagar.
“That was really fun, jeez. He had the idea some years back to do a blues-oriented record, but I think he tabled it. When he had left Van Halen, he had written this song called “Little White Lies” and that’s how I synced up with him,” Rogers said. “Someone had recommended me to him, because he wanted the song to have a bluesy feel. It ended up being kind of a minor hit for him. Then I started playing with him (live) and on a couple of his records and then we went on Letterman together and all that stuff. Sammy’s just the real-deal; a wonderful guy. You know, slide guitar can really fit into a lot of different music.”
Blues music has been around longer than most people on this earth have been alive. It certainly pre-dates Rogers and even goes back further than B.B. King’s debut at the fabulous Fillmore West. And the way that Rogers views things, no matter what you want to call them, the blues will probably outlive us all, as well.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, people have always put together their influences and came up with new music. When people say ‘blues’ well what kind of blues are you talking about? Kansas City blues? Delta blues? Piedmont blues? People can get so wrapped up in labeling things that they can miss what’s in the music,” he said. “You’ve got to remember, labels were put on music to sell it. That’s the only reason for labeling music. You can call it whatever you want, but you should listen to the music first. But this music will always survive. When you look over the last century, it amazes me as to how much music got recorded that there was supposedly no audience for at all. That’s just amazing and it will still be so.”
With so much already inked onto his resume, what’s left for Roy Rogers to accomplish?
“Well, when I look at my career – if I could be so blunt – I’m not trying to get anywhere. I just want to make good music. I’m not trying to be more famous or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody wants to sell more records, but that’s a real chore these days. It’s really always been all about the music for me. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with such amazing people.”
Visit Roy’s Website at: www.roy-rogers.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.