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Robben Ford is one of the premiere electric guitarists today, particularly known for his blues playing as well as his ability to be comfortable in a variety of musical contexts. A four-time Grammy nominee, he has played with artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Witherspoon, Miles Davis, George Harrison, Phil Lesh, Bonnie Raitt, Claus Ogerman, Michael McDonald, and many, many others.
Born in 1951 in Ukaih, California, Robben was the third of four sons in a musical family. His father Charles was a country and western singer and guitarist before entering the army and marrying Kathryn, who played piano and had a lovely singing voice. Robben’s first chosen instrument was the saxophone, which he began to play at age ten and continued to play until his early twenties. He began to teach himself guitar at age thriteen upon hearing the two guitarists from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. In the late 1960’s, Ford frequented the Filmore and Winterland Auditoriums in San Francisco to see Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Albert King, B.B. King and all of the progenitors of blues. “It was an incredible time for electric guitar,” Ford recalls.
On his interest in jazz, Ford says,” I fell in love with the sax playing of Paul Desmond and The Dave Brubeck Quartet, and before long found Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Yusaf Lateef, Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and of course, Miles Davis.” These influences have stayed with Ford, playing a large part in his particular blend of jazz and blues that define him as a guitarist and allow him to play in a wide variety of settings.
After high school, Robben and his brothers Patrick (a blues drummer) and Mark (a blues harmonica player) formed The Charles Ford Blues Band (named after their father) and recorded for the Arhoolie label. Robben (on sax and guitar) and Patrick went on to tour the U.S. with Chicago harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, again recording for Arhoolie.
Robben’s first attempt at forming his own jazz quartet was picked up by legendary blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, bringing Robben to L.A. He toured the U.S. and Europe with Witherspoon and was seen by Tom Scott, and members of The L.A. Express, who were about to begin a promotional tour with Joni Mitchell for her recording “Court and Spark”. Ford was invited to play guitar on the tour and played on two recordings with Mitchell and The L.A. Express. “The two years I spent with Joni were the most formative of my musical life. Joni was just brilliant and very accessible then, and the members of The L.A. Express became good friends and teachers to me. It was great.”
Beatle George Harrison invited Robben to join him on his “Dark Horse” tour of the U.S. and Canada, raising Ford’s musical profile even further. Shortly after the two month stint with Harrison, Ford moved to Colorado to take a much needed break from music and to study with Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa. In 1977, he was approached by Elektra records to record for them, which produced his first solo recording “The Inside Story” with a group of musicians who went on to become The Yellowjackets.
Elektra closed their doors in the early 1980’s, leading to a time of uncertainty for Robben. He moved to San Francisco to be close to family and his early musical history. Soon his career would take another upward swing, recording and touring with Michael McDonald,securing a recording contract with Warner Brothers Records, and meeting his soon-to-be wife, actress Anne Kerry. After moving to New York with Anne, he was called to play with musical icon Miles Davis. “Producer Tommy Lipuma played Miles my work with the Yellowjackets, then three days later, Miles called me personally to join his band. Shocking!” Ford lamented having to leave Miles after only six months because of recording commitments with Warner Brothers, but was told by Miles that if he ever wanted to come back, “just come back.”.
Robben’s 1988 release for Warner Brothers, “Talk to Your Daughter” brought his first Grammy nomination (Best Contemporary Blues Recording) and he started touring the world under his own name. Still based in New York, he backed David Sandborn on the television music show “Nite Music”, in which Sandborn hosted a variety of musical acts. Ford toured with Sandborn in 1990, then moved back to southern California shortly thereafter to be closer to his own band.
After leaving Warner Brothers, Robben signed with Stretch/GRP records, where he finally found a real home for his creativity, recording three CDs for them with his band “The Blue Line” (Tom Brechtlein on drums and Roscoe Beck on bass). After a very fruitful eight years, Robben disbanded the group and recorded two more CDs for the label which had then become Stretch/Blue Thumb: “Tiger Walk” (an instrumental recording done in New York with Keith Richard’s rhythm section) and “Supernatural”, Ford’s most accomplished work up to that point as a songwriter.
As his contract was up at Stretch/Blue Thumb, Robben signed with Concord Records, the largest independently owned record company. In 2002, he released “Blue Moon”, and in 2003 “Keep on Runnin’”, a recording full of the 60’s blues/R&B feeling with which he grew up.
Ford’s third release for Concord is entitled “Truth”. “I feel this is the best work I have done in terms of a solo recording. It is my most realized work as a songwriter, and I feel like I am reaching higher ground as a guitarist. “Truth” represents the blues as they are today; some of the songs are sociopolitical in essence, but not without humor, and the musical setting is fresh.”
Robben currently lives in Ojai, California with his wife Anne, with whom he collaborates with on various musical projects including her recent CD “Weill", which Robben produced on their own Illyria label.