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."
Not surprisingly, both Vernon-produced sessions had adhered to the standard industry practice of recording various elements on separate tracks and then overdubbing. Though there are obvious advantages to such a process, it was a wet blanket for Robertson, who rarely sings in public without a guitar in hand. "It was a nightmare, really," he confesses. "It's like taking something you're really used to doing naturally, and then you have to dissect it or do it differently."
On the strength of his first two major-label outings, Robertson spent the next few years touring all over, underscoring his reputation for inspired live performances. He also began to concentrate more on his songwriting, a skill that had gone largely untapped before. Then, after a 1997 show at B.B. King's nightclub in Los Angeles, he met producer Joe Harley, the guy behind AudioQuest Music, perhaps the leading audiophile label devoted to new blues. Having masterminded acclaimed studio sessions with the likes of Mighty Sam McClain, Terry Evans (with guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder), Ronnie Earl and Doug MacLeod, Harley obviously knew how to facilitate a quality artistic vibe. So when AudioQuest proposed a recording session, Robertson was eager to oblige.
In early 1998, Harley, with the help of Robertson's manager, Cathy Bauer, assembled a first-class backup band for the project, including two charter members of Little Feat, keyboardist Bill Payne and drummer Richie Hayward, bassist Bob Glaub (John Fogerty) and saxophonist Joe Sublett (Texacali Horns). By late March, they'd all gathered at OceanWay Recording in Hollywood for the sessions that resulted in Going Back Home, a 60-plus-minute collection that combines seven Robertson originals with four choice covers. More than anything else, it captures the freshly uncorked essence of Robertson's double-barreled vocal/guitar attack, thanks, in no small part, to its live, direct-to-two-track analog format.
The organic studio experience couldn't have pleased Robertson more, helping him come to terms with what had truly bugged him about his earlier releases. "When we recorded with Joe Harley, I'm looking at the guys, and we're playing, we're sweating; it's like at a gig," he says. "We're in separate booths still, but we're making eye contact and feeding off each other. We're laying the tracks together --in other words, like a real band, just like when I'm playing on the stage."
Apparently, the new approach was liberating for everyone involved. After some rehearsal to feel each other out, the five players eventually clicked, found a groove and coalesced. "Sherman settled in pretty quickly and just played his Texas tail off," producer Hardy says."I told him not to worry -- or even think about the fact that tape was rolling -- and just play."
The performances attest to Robertson's comfort level. "Musically, it was fantastic, because these guys were studio jocks, plus good stage people," Robertson says. "It was different also because these guys were more Texas. They were more me."
That reality is based in the Lone Star roots Robertson shares with Payne (originally from Waco) and Sublett (a native of Corpus Christi). "They put their heart and their soul into it," he says. "It was great, and it was simple."
As its title suggests, Going Back Home is dominated by a homecoming theme, not just in the more natural approach to recording but in the autobiographical nature of the songs Robertson contributes. On the title track, he explains in plain English why he deserted Houston 16 years ago ("there were no blues jobs to be found"; his favorite club converted "into a brand-new disco house") and his reasons for coming back to stay, in 1996. "Guitar Man" and "Driving All Night," in particular, celebrate the urge to return to the site where it all began so many years ago.
"I'm very happy, and I feel strong about this record," Robertson says. "I'm able to go out and brag about it for the simple reason that it feels good. It felt right laying it, and as I hear it back now, I know we got it right.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.