The Leader of the Band

Featured Image by Rich Voorhees

by Donovan Wheeler
primary photos by Rick Phipps and Rich Voorhees

When Tad Robinson substitute taught one cold winter day at Tzouanakis Intermediate School a couple years ago, he took his harmonica to work with him. Casual and unassuming, often going to his adopted day-job in Chuck Taylors and cardigan sweaters, Robinson stood before that room full of fourth-graders, and told them about the blues.

He told them, in terms they could understand, that it was a type of music expressing loss…and sadness…with full emotion. He explained to them that letting out that sadness is therapeutic, cathartic, and in many ways restorative (again…in terms they could understand). Then, after brainstorming with all the ten-year-olds around him about what “troubled” their lives, one student brought forth Robinson’s muse: “Indoor recess,” the youngster shouted over the chorus of suggestions.

Eyes alight, Robinson scribbled each specific complaint the kids harbored about one of the worst agonies borne out of institutionalized education (why they passed on math remains a mystery). His list complete—lamenting everything from the lack of sunshine and warm weather; to the noise (sometimes even the kids hate noise); to the hum-drum routine of board games, card games, more board games, Legos, and overplayed computer games—the singer pulled out his harmonica and led the class through his first rendition of “The Indoor Recess Blues.” And although Tad Robinson has heard the sound of raucous applause thousands of times in thousands of cities over his decades-long career, getting that specific crowd worked up about the blues stands out as a singular feat, an accomplishment which reflects more about the man than the genre.

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I’m not a ‘purist’ by any stretch. What I play is a distant cousin to more ‘traditional’ blues, but I was also very fortunate because when I was in Chicago I was able to learn traditional blues from the best. I learned from the second generation of blues greats, and I was very lucky to have landed in a place where I was able to learn from the legends. –Photo by Rich Voorhees

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Dubbed “simply one of today’s best soul singers” by Elmore Magazine, to everyone who knows and lives with him, Tad Robinson is less an internationally acclaimed recording artist and more just another eclectic, confident, intelligent character in the Greencastle scene. He could easily be mistaken for a DePauw professor, and as a matter of fact, the first time I met him eight years ago, that’s exactly what I did. But like many of us, those stakes appear to be growing as the music world’s economy continues to shift under his feet:

“The music story is the same as the American Story: there’s the 1% and then there’s the other 99%. It used to be there was more of a middle class in music. We’re talking good, blue-collar, working musicians who could actually make a living off their work and feed a family. But today, if you have a ‘day job’ you’d be crazy to leave that now because, even though there are still gigs, they do not pay like they used to.”

Of the many culprits lurking behind these seismic quality of life shifts, the chief instigator for the music industry has been the explosive impact of technology, specifically in the form of online radio programs such as Pandora and Spotify. The net effect—particularly with Spotify’s penchant for handing out full-length albums and entire artist catalogues for little more than the inconvenience of a 30-second Josh Lucas sales pitch for Home Depot—has been a sort of economic stagnation Robinson and other long-time musicians such as he had never fully anticipated:

“I have a catalogue that’s published by ASCAP and BMI, and I get regular payments from them for my body of work. Fifteen years ago, I never thought that this component of my income would diminish. If anything, I thought it would grow. I used to expect that it would become a part of my income that was larger than my live work. But because of the changes in music delivery [with things such as Spotify], my revenue stream has leveled off.

“There are still people who hear a song and say, ‘I want to buy that music.’ To them I say, ‘Bless your soul.’ But there’s a growing segment of society that thinks it’s within their right to deny the artists and the songwriters their due. It’s a conscious change of mind, and this new generation feels entitled to free music.”

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Robinson with Junior Wells in 1985.

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None of these modern dilemmas existed in 1976, when a barely 20-year-old Robinson both began his stint as an IU student and also unofficially launched his career with his own Hesitation Blues Band. But before making his journey to the Hoosier state, the singer first had to begin the long process of self-invention, and for Robinson that started with his New York childhood:

“Growing up in New York back then, every kid carried a transistor radio. We even had the little ‘ear-buds’ if you will—like the kids have today—but those were much cheaper versions. So, back then we all listened to what played on pop radio, and back then that was a generation of singers—Sam Cook, Ray Charles, Donnie Hathaway, Rusty Springfield. I don’t know if this is a case of rose-colored glasses for those ‘good ol’ days’ but in those days we were listening to this mixture of the British Invasion with the legends of soul and the Motown movement. And those voices on my transistor radio, echoed in my childhood.”

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The whole point of the record labels, in the business—and this might be an antiquated, 20th century concept—but what it means in genres that are actually traditions (blues and jazz and bluegrass)…it means that you’ve been vetted. It means at the very least that you didn’t stumble into it. –Photo by Rick Phipps

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Inspired by his initial pop heroes, Robinson migrated to nearby record stores where he began to snoop among the bread crumbs buried in each LP, looking for the origins to the songs and singers he’d come to enjoy:

“I started to ask questions and started to dig a little deeper. I started looking at the liner notes, reading the fine print, and asking myself, ‘Who wrote these songs? Who did them originally?’ Then you go back to that source material and you realize, ‘Oh this isn’t a Led Zepplin original’ or ‘the Allman Brothers weren’t the first ones to do this.’

“[Once you realize that a song’s history is] detailed in those liner notes, you’d ask yourself, ‘Who is Don Covay?’ and then you’d listen to him and, from that point on when you listen to the Rolling Stones, you think, ‘Oh, Mick Jaggar does [Covay’s] schtick.’”

After connecting the dots…leading from his contemporary pop hits to their blues precursors…Robinson’s “Eureka” moments, as he refers to them, shifted his record store visits from the more popular music in the front to less-visited soul and blues sections where he discovered a host of big names in the blues circuit ranging from Sonny Boy Williamson and James Cotton to Albert Hall and Junior Wells.

“So all of that inspired me, and even though I’ve actually played with a few of them, I still consider myself a fan of them because they were the ones I was listening to when I was figuring out what I wanted to become.”

Following a brief stint at Columbia University, Robinson made the switch to IU where he quickly realized how different the world was beyond the confines of the East Coast:

“I left the ‘concrete jungle’ for the corn fields, which is funny because I had never actually seen corn until I came to Indiana. In fact, I was taking a car from the airport, and I asked the driver, ‘What is this stuff?’ and he said, ‘That’s corn.’ And I said, ‘That’s not corn. Corn’s yellow!’”

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Tad Robinson on his band mate Paul Holdman: Paul is a tactician. He’s one of those guys who studies and learns the material and gets it down. When you’re part of a live band, you can’t make mistakes. Mistakes are bad, and things fall apart pretty quickly when they happen. In fifteen years, I don’t think Paul has ever made a left turn when we all expected him to go right. He’s steady; he’s reliable, and his mind is a steel trap. He takes care of his job. Some people might say, ‘Well, if he’s that solid, then there’s no way he can play with any emotion.’ But he’s deeply emotional and very creative, and he’s still growing, too. People don’t realize what this guy can do and can become. –Photo by Rick Phipps

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From Bloomington, Tad moved to Chicago and further developed his craft under the guidance of a new generation of American blues greats as well as those aforementioned heroes of his youth. Working his way to six or more gigs a week and playing in everything from a regular house band at Rosa’s to other stints in places such as Legends and The Hunt Club, Robinson eventually honed his sound and his style. That’s when key life changes converged.

As he moved toward establishing himself as a recording artist with a solo billing (first cranking out two discs for Delmark Records, eventually leaving them to sign with Severn’s label), he was also literally moving as well, from the fast-paced Chicago scene to the quiet streets of Greencastle, settling down a county away from his wife’s family to raise his two boys.   Despite the physical departure from the Windy City, Robinson’s career as a recording artist thrived, while his live work found new purpose in the development of a blues scene in the untapped clubs in and around Indianapolis:

“[Working in a soul/blues act in Indy] is harder because there are fewer venues that cater to the blues, and you end up playing the blues to audiences unaccustomed to it and not necessarily accepting of it at times. So, when you can’t make the crowd bend to you, then you have to bend to them, and that can be a challenge sometimes.

“In Indy you have places like the Jazz Kitchen that have expanded their selections including things like Latin Jazz on some nights and some ‘jam bands’ on other evenings. They’ve had to really open up because the blues scene just doesn’t run as deep in a place like Indy as it does somewhere like Chicago or New Orleans.

“Overall, though, Indianapolis [still] has a pretty strong music scene, and if you’re willing to really put your nose to the grindstone you can end up getting five, six, seven, eight places to play on a rotating basis.”

Largely established in the Indy area—with regular gigs in places such as the Slippery Noodle, the Jazz Kitchen, and frequent nights in the Greencastle area—Robinson has been able to expand his stage presence performing in blues festivals as far west as Portland and as far south as Tampa, but in Europe…particularly in Scandinavia…Tad Robinson has found a growing fan base who (as Tad’s son Avery says of them) “really love their blues.”

But the bulk of Robinson’s attention has lately been focused on the recent release of his fourth record under the Severn label: Day Into Night. Much like the thematic implications of the album’s title, several tracks depict many of the signature themes of the soul/blues genre—stories of loss, regret, missed opportunities. And just as Robinson had explained to that classroom full of elementary students, wading into these themes can be overwhelming, but they can also be intoxicating and rejuvenating. All of this is best embodied in the disc’s lead track, “Soul Lover,” a story of lost love wrapped up a steady melody anchored by the singer’s voice. And while “Love is a Winner” counters with a powerfully upbeat message, tunes such as “Call Me (Version 1),”—with a near-perfect mixture of melody, rhythm, message, and vocals—evokes the most powerful reaction.

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Photo by Harlan Lee Terson.

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When speaking of the label, and specifically of the philosophy of Severn’s owner David Earl, Robinson is most thankful for the decision to break from what has become the expectation in the blues world and instead return to the genre’s vocal roots:

“Most people, when they think of the blues, think of wailing guitars by virtue of the fact that everyone knows about Joe Bonamassa and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

“So the blues world sort of became a guitar world, to the point where the ‘singing guy’ became a secondary focus. For better or worse, the success of guys like these—especially Vaughn in the 80s and 90s—transformed the way most of the country interprets what ‘blues’ is supposed to be.

“Severn Records is less interested in that sound, and they’re more interested in the ‘soul’ side, which is vocals-heavy rather than guitar-heavy. It’s a mixture of this soul and blues, all original work written by me, and some other writers…and by that I mean, we at the label, have this collaborative—almost assembly line—way of doing things. It’s like Memphis’ label Stax or like Motown, which hosted a house band who backed all the different singers who came through the doors.”

The Robinson/Severn team-up has been a relationship which has produced a discography that shows a different facet of the blues, one that—rather than drive us away from ourselves as we get lost in rapid guitar chords—instead has allowed us to turn into ourselves and face the fears and regrets which haunt us. Enjoyable? Yes. Artistic? Certainly. Soulful? No doubt. But really that ability of his music to create that inward conduit to the truths we often rationalize, or sometimes even block out altogether isn’t the only trait which makes Tad Robinson an engaging man.

If you force the issue with Tad and get him to talk about it, no doubt he’ll share the depth of his music with you.  But let him choose the conversation, and he’ll tell you about the project his wife, Amy, is launching with her middle school art students…or about his youngest son’s progress in college…or his oldest son’s work at AIG…or about the folly of supply-side economics.  He’ll talk about all of that with as much, if not more, passion than he would about writing a song or standing in front of a large crowd.  For Tad Robinson, the people around him, and the people in his life are the real music he wants to share.  And behind that lies the real power of Robinson’s sound.


Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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