Guitarist Robben Ford utilizes his instrument to express a variety of musical
moods. From his early days backing Jimmy Witherspoon, to his
tenure as leader of Robben Ford & the Blue Line, he has shared his love of the blues
millieu. Ford founded the jazz group Yellowjackets, and his playing has spanned
fusion and other crossover arenas. Through his affiliations with artists such as
Joni Mitchell and Phil Lesh, Ford has explored experimental rock and pop music, as well.
Ford especially enjoys producing and performing vocal-oriented music, and
has lent his fluid voice to several of his own releases.
Digital Interviews: You started out on the saxophone when you were 10 years old?
Robben Ford: Yes. At 10, I started playing the saxophone because I saw someone play it and it just
totally inspired me. I had an epiphany. I was just, ďThatís it! Thatís what I want to do!Ē
That was the first instrument I really fell in love with, and ran with.
DI: How did you cultivate an interest in music?
RF: Both of my parents were musicians. My father was a professional. My mother never was,
but they were both very musical. The whole family had musical inclinations. My older
brother is a drummer. My younger brotherís a harp player -- blues harp. We had a band
together in our teens.
DI: That was the Charles Ford Band?
DI: You taught yourself the guitar?
RF: By 13 I started fooling around on the guitar. My dad showed me a couple of chords,
and then I just, basically, started trying to play what I heard on records. I learned most of
the chords that I know out of books, and the rest just by listening, playing, listening,
playing, you know.
DI: When did you move from your hometown of Ukiah, California, to Los Angeles?
RF: First, I moved down to the Bay Area, around San Francisco. I didnít actually live
in San Francisco, but all around there, and played for a while with my older brother. We had a
little blues band, and we wound up working with Charlie Musselwhite.
DI: Was that your first ďprofessionalĒ gig?
RF: Definitely. I was 18.
DI: What did you take away from that experience?
RF: Well, it was a strange experience, because Charlie didnít really like my guitar
playing. He did like my saxophone playing. But, he didnít really need a saxophone player; he
needed a guitar player. [laughs]
DI: You were headed in the guitar ďdirectionĒ at that time?
RF: I definitely was, but Charlie liked my brother Pat so much that, basically, he hired
me so that my brother wouldnít leave. Thatís how I got my first professional job. [laughs]
DI: And then you worked with Jimmy Witherspoon?
RF: I put together a group after the experience with Charlie. I was trying to move more
toward playing, what I considered, real jazz. Out of Chicago blues, and B.B. King and that
thing Iíd been into. So, I put together a group of different musicians -- guys that I met
locally in the Bay Area. On our third or fourth gig, we opened for Jimmy Witherspoon. He
showed up with only a guitar player, so he asked us if weíd back him up for the weekend,
which we did, and then he invited us to be his band. So, we jumped in.
DI: How did you get to play with Joni Mitchell?
RF: During the two years I worked with Jimmy Witherspoon, I was seen and heard by
various people, and among them were members of the L.A. Express, who were backing Joni for
that tour. Tom Scott. Roger Kellaway was the keyboard player originally, at the beginning of
the tour. Max Bennett on bass. Max had heard me playing with Spoon, and Roger Kellaway had
heard me playing at this guitar festival that I was a featured artist on. So they invited me
to join the band, and I wound up touring with them for that year, basically -- 1974.
Most of í74. During that time, I met George Harrison when we were in England, and he invited
me to do his next tour -- his only tour, which was the end of that same year. I worked
with Joni all through 1974, up until October or November, and then in November we cut the
L.A. Expressí second album -- the first for me. Then Tom Scott and I went straight into
rehearsals with George Harrison, and toured with him for two months.
DI: So you had been playing blues, but then you, kind of, moved into the jazz arena.
RF: The music I was listening to was John Coltrane, and mainly a lot of the Impulse
artists. In particular, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, of course. But I was listening to
a lot of saxophone players -- Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman.
Those were the things I was really into, so I was trying to find something that made sense for
me to be doing on the electric guitar.
DI: A lot of people can really only play one style, but you, from the beginning, have had a
RF: Iíve always liked a variety of music, although the things Iíve really been drawn
towards, initially, were the blues, then jazz, and then classical music. Iím into traditional
American forms -- blues, jazz and then Western classical music. These are the things that I
listen to. Pop music, of course, I dug when I was a kid, like everybody else, but when I was
growing up, the pop music was Junior Walker & the All-Stars, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.
The dose was R&B, and, of course, the English Invasion, which preceded that.
DI: Tell us a little bit about the Yellowjackets.
RF: I put the band together to do my first solo album, which was called
The Inside Story, on Elektra Records. That band, in that form, did the record, but
Russell Ferrante was the only guy who was free to go on the road with me, so Russ and I
continued to work together. The group got back together again a little bit later on, and we
started playing locally. Then my manager suggested we shop a separate deal for the band. I was
signed to Elektra, and had already done my album with the band, but the band wasnít signed. I
was already, at that point, starting to move towards more vocal-oriented music, and the band
was a fusion band. So, we shopped a separate deal for the Yellowjackets, and I became a
featured artist with the group that I had started.
DI: What were some of your most important musical experiences?
RF: The two big ones were Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon. Jimmy Witherspoon was
just a great commanding presence on stage. He was a great leader. Where he led, I was glued to
him. It was like, ďWherever youíre going, man, Iím right there with you.Ē And Joni was the
DI: She had a definite idea of what she wanted to do?
RF: Sheís just herself. Spoonís the same way. Itís not so much an idea -- although,
there are ideas, of course -- but itís really just that theyíre so who they are. Joni
is a genius, and she was at the prime of her career when I worked with her.
Court & Spark was the album, the zenith of her career. The glory of her career was
right at that time. So, I was there at a very fortunate time. Plus, I was working with the
L.A. Express, which was a bunch of great and already-evolved musicians. And I was kind of
evolving. [laughs] I was working with people who were all great, and I was learning so much.
I learned more from those two situations about how music doesnít have to be one kind of thing,
because I was, sort of, a blues and jazz purist. I learned how to be a versatile
musician within the context of the L.A. Express and Joni Mitchell. That music, you couldnít
even pin it down -- it was just beautiful music.
DI: And you also played with Miles Davis.
RF: The thing with Miles, that was sort of like a coronation. That was like knighthood.
It was like having gone through the ordeals and the growth, and finally reached Miles Davis,
and he goes, ďYes, you are worthy.Ē [laughs] To work with Miles Davis truly blew me away. I
mean, that was the only thing in my career that really blew me away. The other things -- when
I was invited to play with the L.A. Express and Joni, I didnít realize what a great
opportunity that was, at first. But I worked into it, and they all treated me like an equal,
and it was just great.
DI: How old were you?
RF: I was 22 when I joined them and did that tour. And I had my 23rd birthday on the
George Harrison tour, which was right after that.
DI: You worked with Miles in 1986. What other adventures were happening in your career
around that time?
RF: Well, right before I worked with Miles, I toured some with Michael McDonald. I
worked with Michael, off and on, for about a two-year period. I was trying to find my voice as
a songwriter, and going more towards vocal music, which I already had been doing. But I was
getting these other jobs where, basically, I wasnít featured, so it wasnít my thing. I
was, even though people didnít know it, working more toward R&B and vocal-oriented music. So,
after playing with Miles -- in fact, during the time I was playing with Miles -- I signed with
Warner Bros. And in 1988, through no fault of my own -- the record should have come out much
sooner -- finally the album Talk To Your Daughter came out, and that was a blues record, and it was
nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Recording that year. It was the beginning of my solo
career, really, even though I had done the solo album on Elektra, The Inside Story,
where the Yellowjackets started.
DI: So were you going back into a blues sound?
RF: Iíd already been working in that way. I was playing blues, a variety of things,
whenever I would play on my own. I would play some fusion works. Russell was still writing
in that way, and he was playing with me whenever I played. But I didnít really have a band; it
was just jam bands.
DI: This was in 1988?
RF: Talk To Your Daughter came out in í88, but the initial recording started in
DI: Your next release, Robben Ford & the Blue Line, didnít come out until 1992.
RF: Well, when Talk To Your Daughter came out in í88, thatís when I started
[thinking], ďOkay. Itís me. Iím doing my thing. Iím making records now. Iím touring on my own
now.Ē Thatís when things started to come together.
DI: Were you nervous about going in that direction?
RF: No, Iíd been trying to do it for years. I just was being thwarted by record
DI: Did you start with a stripped-down, trio setting?
RF: I wanted at least a quartet -- I really wanted a quintet. I did a quintet
tour, I did a quartet tour, and then I did a trio tour. The money was so bad that the only way
to do it was a trio tour. [laughs] So I called up [bassist] Roscoe [Beck] and [drummer] Tom
[Brechtlein], and said, ďYou guys want to do this as a trio? What do you think?Ē So we
rehearsed for a couple days as a trio, and took off, and we wound up touring like that for
four years. We eventually got a keyboard player.
DI: Did you enjoy touring or recording more?
RF: All of it. Iím happy doing any of it. Oh man, I like just making music. The
satisfaction that comes from making records is just unique unto itself, and the satisfaction of
playing live is unique unto itself.
DI: Do you get into the production aspect, as well?
RF: Iíve produced virtually every record Iíve ever done. I like working with people,
but if itís my record, Iím going to have the last say. Definitely. But Iím very open. I
hire people because I know theyíre the best person for the job. A good producer is somebody
who picks the right people. You donít tell them what to do; you just pick the right person.
DI: Your release Tiger Walk was real funky. Tell us about the making of that album.
RF: I really wanted to do something that was just fun, and not vocal-oriented. I didnít
want to be writing lyrics and singing. I loved that band from Keith Richardsí records -- Charlie
Drayton on bass, Steve Jordan on drums and Bernie Worrell on keyboards. I wrote the music for
that band. I hired as producer -- he really engineered the record and made the phone calls --
great guy, good friend, Niko Bolas. Heís very good friends with all of those guys, so he
called them and got their interest. Itís like a rock-R&B album.
DI: Youíve been a regular at Yoshiís in Oakland for a while.
RF: I go up there every year, year and a half, and do a week. It is a great jazz club.
Good sound system. Great people working it. We have great crowds there when we play. Itís a
good situation for me. I do two shows a night for six days, and itís a great scene.
DI: Tell us about your latest release, Supernatural.
RF: Itís an album of, what I consider, the best songwriting Iíve ever done. I think
itís the best record Iíve ever made. To me it represents a lifetime of looking to find my own
voice as a singer/songwriter, and Iím very proud of it.
DI: What are you looking to do in the future?
RF: Iím probably going to be recording a new album in December. I really can never
speculate on what itís going to be, because itís always different.
DI: With all the touring you do, when do you do your writing?
RF: Generally, in the past, Iíve taken a three-month break just to write -- at least
two to three months. Thatís worked out for the last few records that Iíve done. But this next
one is going to be written while Iím touring with Phil Lesh. [laughs]
DI: Were you familiar with Phil's music before?
RF: I was not. No.
DI: Tell us how you became a member of the group.
RF: The drummer, John Molo, is very close with another good friend of mine, and my name
came up in conversation. He said, ďI wonder if Robben would be interested in playing with Phil?Ē
She gave him my number, he called me up and said, ďWould you be interested?Ē I said, ďSure,Ē
not having any idea what I was getting into, but he sounded like itís a good thing, you know. Phil called
and asked if I wanted to come up and jam for a few days, which I did. Iím in Southern
California, and he flew me up, and put me up for three days, and we jammed.
DI: Did you receive some songs in advance?
RF: They did send some stuff to me, but I had no time to really look at it. So, it was
very fresh. It was a ball. We just had a ball. I left, and he played with some other people,
and then he called me up and asked if I wanted to do the tour.
DI: What are some of the favorite songs that you might have in this repertoire?
RF: Itís, in some cases, hard for me to say because I donít know the titles. We have
about an 80-song book. I like ďBox Of RainĒ a lot.
DI: Phil worked with Jerry Garcia for so many years, that many people who come to the shows
really want to see how you can play. Youíre a focal point. Can you handle that pressure?
RF: Oh, yeah. Iíve been doing this a long time, and Iím here because itís a great deal
of fun. Thereís a lot of music being made and itís too fulfilling to be worried about anything.
[laughs] Itís great. It really is great.
DI: Didnít you work with Paul Barrere and Bill Payne before?
RF: I recorded with Little Feat. The album was Down On The Farm.
DI: Whatís it like working with them now?
RF: Itís great. Theyíre people who are very realized. Theyíre making music, and theyíre
making it with authority. Thatís the kind of people you want to be working with, where youíre
just free to do your thing. We make it easy for each other.
DI: On this tour, are you getting fulfillment in your jazz influence? Do you get to let
RF: Totally. Iím doing everything I do, and just about any time I like to do it. Itís
just incredible that way. Thereís no other gig like this.
DI: How do you view Phil as a bass player?
RF: Heís got a totally unique style, and I am intrigued by it more and more. You
just start being drawn in.
DI: What would you say to somebody who is starting out in the music business?
RF: The most important thing is that you make sure you follow the music, which is a
musicianís way of saying follow your heart. The two things are intertwined. You know, when you
even mention the phrase ďmusic business,Ē the older you get, the sourer it sounds. Itís a terrible
business, you know. Music and business have nothing to do with each other; thereís no
correlation, so itís always a rub. I would encourage people, donít be swayed by the music
business. If youíre truly, in your heart, a musician, stay one, and let the business find you.