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PatiencePays

Decades down the line, Sherman Robertson has finally made an album he likes

In a city where several storied blues guitarists still play gigs regularly on local stages, eastside resident Sherman Robertson remains relatively obscure. And, in a sense, he has no one but himself to blame. Since the early 1980s, he has only occasionally performed on local stages, mainly at special events or small, low-key jam sessions. But his absence here is more indicative of professional success elsewhere than of anything else.

Over the past five years, Robertson has also fared reasonably well in the recording studio, releasing three CDs internationally on prestigious labels. That includes his new one, Going Back Home, which is bound to further boost his profile. These days, Robertson is more satisfied with how he's being portrayed on disc. Such wasn't always the case. Despite all the positive attention bestowed on his previous two CDs -- 1994's I'm the Man and '95's Here and Now -- it took his recent affiliation with producer Joe Harvey to get the process, and the resulting product, right. The outcome is an energized 11-track collection that, unlike the earlier releases, finally lets Robertson be himself.

"The other two records ... I had the pleasure of making them, but it wasn't me. It wasn't really my record," Robertson says. "This one feels like my record."

Growing up in the Fifth Ward in the '50s and '60s, Sherman Robertson was surrounded by top-notch talent. Thanks to down-home nooks like Alfred's Place, "blues, straight-ahead blues" saturated his old stomping grounds several nights a week. Just a few blocks south of his Frenchtown neighborhood stood the upscale Club Matinee, once one of the nation's premier R&B showcase venues; and over on Erastus Street, Duke/Peacock Records was pumping out the hits. Suitably inspired by his surroundings, young Sherman dreamed of someday being part of it. By his teens, these fantasies were fueled by his fleet-fingered mastery of the electric guitar. In addition to playing with various blues groups, he studied at Kashmere High School under legendary bandleader Conrad Johnson and performed in his combo on weekends.

"I was 16, 17 years old, and I'm at the Sheraton, the Warwick; I'm playing big-band swing," Robertson recalls. "[Johnson] knew I was really in love with the blues. But he said, 'Get some learning first.' "

Robertson absorbed those lessons well, and as the talented teenager's reputation became known, he got a taste of the big time when he subbed briefly in touring groups with Junior Parker and Bobby Bland. Back home, he played all over town, earning the respect of guitar slingers a full generation older. Nonetheless, by the '70s, Robertson found himself in the automotive-repair business full time -- though he did continue to play at night. After cutting a few inconspicuous releases for a small label, he gave up on the Houston scene in 1982. Robertson opted instead for steady work backing zydeco great Clifton Chenier, with whom he toured extensively through the end of that decade.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that Robertson re-emerged as a featured artist leading his own band. He had a break when he connected with veteran British blues-rock producer Mike Vernon. "[Vernon]'s the guy that produced early Eric Clapton [with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers] and early Fleetwood Mac," explains the 49-year-old Robertson, whose relative youth compared with Houston's other outstanding African-American blues guitarists accounts, in part, for his familiarity with classic rock. "I was playing in England, and he came out to hear me play. He was blown away. He said I reminded him of a guy that he recorded years back, Freddie King -- that I had that same fire and charisma."

After some discussion, producer and artist wound up at Chipping Norton Studios, where Robertson recorded I'm the Man for the British Indigo Records imprint. The album was picked up for European release, and in 1994 found its way to the States via Atlantic's Code Blue subsidiary. Ultimately, the CD was nominated for a W.C. Handy award (the blues equivalent of a Grammy), establishing Robertson as a serious force in the industry.

Yet, Robertson contends that I'm the Man fell short of representing his full range of talents: "Overall, it [had] good tunes, good lyrics and everything, but it shined more on the soulful vocal thing. Mike didn't want to focus that much on guitar. He liked my vocals."

And after having established such a sharp reputation on the frets, Robertson was a bit wary of that direction. "We kind of had some controversy after I'm the Man, [because] people who had heard me live wanted to know where the guitar was on the first record," he admits. "You know, because they saw me as equally good on vocal and guitar."

Despite those issues, Robertson and Vernon got the go-ahead from Atlantic to produce a sequel to his Code Blue debut the following year. Recorded at Florida's Kingsnake Studio and Dockside Studio in Louisiana, Here and Now played up Robertson's lead guitar work, and was critically well received.

"That was the answer to some questions that we had in the workplace -- with the critics and everything," Robertson says. "But it still didn't sound like me, the way I could be at my best. The process was cold. You know, they lay the tracks, and you come in and sing on top of them, and then you had to come back and lay the guitar."

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