Who was/is Fenton Robinson ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Alligator Records was establishing itself as a source for ‘genuine houserocking music,' but Fenton Robinson didn't fit the mold. Japanese fans dubbed Fenton ‘the Mellow Blues Genius,' his jazzy, complex lead guitar runs and smoothly burnished vocals backing up the bold billing.
Born July 26, 1935 in Greenwood, Mississippi, Fenton started out singing in church. "I was born with that," said the late Robinson. "Came up a kid singing spirituals, and I turned from spirituals to blues." That turnaround occurred when he was "a kid growing up in the country. On the weekend, my parents would let us go to town. I'd sit around and listen to the box, the jukebox. Put a nickel in--it was a nickel then--and listen to guys like T-Bone Walker, ‘Big Boy' Crudup, Lowell Fulson, Muddy Waters. And then I got interested in playing blues. T-Bone Walker was my idol, so I built around that and went into a style of my own.
"I started playing guitar in '51. Memphis, Tennessee. There was a friend of mine taught me how to play by the name of Charles McGowan. He was playing, and I bought myself a $13 Stella guitar. We used to walk the streets at night, playing and singing," he said. "They always had an amateur show at the, I think it was the Palace or the New Daisy Theater there on Beale Street in Memphis. And we would go there every Wednesday night and be on the talent show."
Robinson made his first single in 1957 on Lester Bihari's Memphis-based Meteor label, Tennessee Woman. Later that year while in Little Rock, he joined forces with singer/bassist Larry Davis, the two signing with Duke Records in ‘58. "A guy by the name of Irv Forbes recommended me to Don Robey," said Fenton, who played lead guitar on Davis' original Texas Flood. Robinson had four Duke singles in all, notably the original As The Years Go By (see Part 2, CD 2) and a remade Tennessee Woman with New Orleans pianist James Booker contributing rippling piano, both cut in 1959.
"I came to Chicago in 1961. Started working down at Theresa's Lounge, 48th and Indiana, and I worked there four or five years," Robinson said. "Things was really rough. I got a little fed up with playing music, so I just worked with other guys and worked a day job part-time." Things eventually turned around. Fenton ended a long recording drought with the '66 swinger Say You're Leavin' for U.S.A. The next year he cut the original Somebody (Loan Me A Dime) for Sunny Sawyer's Palos label. There were three 45s for Mel Collins and Joshie Jo Armstead's Giant logo, and in 1970 Fenton cut an unsatisfying album with Nashville rock musicians for John Richbourg's Seventy 7 label. "I wasn't very happy with that one," he said. "They were sorry after they recorded the album that I didn't play more guitar on it."
Fenton's first Alligator album ‘Somebody Loan Me A Dime' was a 1974 masterpiece, beautifully spotlighting his buttery voice and subtle, understated axe. The remade title track, credited to Fenton, singer Jesse Anderson, and one Milton Middlebrook (an alias for Collins), improves on the original, Fenton's majestic guitar hook a thing of beauty. "I really like the way that came out," he said. Nine months in prison on an involuntary manslaughter rap stemming from an auto accident several years earlier seriously damaged his momentum, but soon after his release Robinson got to work on his '77 Alligator encore LP ‘I Hear Some Blues Downstairs.'
Robinson had been in another car crash back in 1952 that caused a serious head injury. He blamed that for causing the brain tumor that ended his life in Rockford, Illinois on November 25, 1997. "Over a period of years, if you stay with it, you come up with beautiful sounds, beautiful chord progressions," said Robinson, the personification of electric blues guitar class to the very end.