"Houston -- A Great Place to Be From" could be the motto for local musicians -- especially blues musicians -- who achieve any degree of visibility and success. For a town that's so famously pro-business, there's never been much effort made to encourage the local music business -- despite a pool of talent that could leave Seattle or Austin in the dust. With the exceptions of a handful that includes ZZ Top, Scarface and Clint Black, the talent has traditionally had to choose between a life of relative obscurity on the Gulf Coast or leaving town to seek fame and fortune. Add Sherman Robertson to the list of those who had sense enough to get out of Houston. But now things have changed for Robertson. He's riding the success of his first major label release, I'm the Man, and he's so highly regarded in England that people in the U.S. are starting to talk about him. In fact, Sherman Robertson's career is going so well that he can even risk moving home.
"It's a great town for music," Robertson explains, calling from the road somewhere between San Francisco and Salt Lake City. "My friends in Houston have been saying, 'Come back, it's happening again.' So I'm going to give it a try."
If so, it'll be the first time in a while. Robertson's been on the road for most of the last decade, hanging his hat in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, between tours with everyone from Clifton Chenier to Albert Collins. But the recent tendency of major labels to acquire and fortify blues-only subsidiaries has left this particular Houston-born bluesman on solid enough ground to define success as "something you have to leave and go get and bring back."
A solitary big break that vaults a performer from obscurity to fame is almost unheard of. More common is the path Robertson followed -- years of diminishing obscurity and increasing opportunity and, finally, steady success. Robertson's professional career began in the late '60s when he was playing guitar in the Kashmere High School Band. Bandleader Conrad Johnson was impressed enough with his student to ask him to join his "night job" jazz group, Connie's Combo.
The Kashmere Band and Connie's Combo years were Robertson's musical apprenticeship. Then came the journeyman years of developing a unique voice while earning a living. Those years make it impossible to mention a name from the Houston blues scene that isn't a friend, a mentor or a former Robertson band member. Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price was an early employer and inspiration. Johnny Copeland toured in front of Robertson and his band for a year in the early '90s, and deprived himself of a rhythm section by convincing his friend to launch a solo career. Between those steady gigs, there were long years with the accordion-and-rubboard set, playing guitar with Clifton Chenier "back before [zydeco] really started happening" and then with Alton "Good Rockin' Dopsie" Rubin.
Working for Rubin led to Robertson's first international notice. In the mid-'80s, Paul Simon, looking for a zydeco band for his Graceland album, caught Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters in Lafayette and knew his search was over. Robertson smiles as he remembers, "I got to do 'That Was Your Mother.' When we got through, [Simon] walked over and said 'Great, great rhythms, man, that was beautiful.' I was honored and tickled to death."
Of course, being from Houston, he'd been involved in other sessions that weren't such a tickle. During the 1970s, Robertson was involved in two legendary LPs recorded for the Lunar 2 label at the Agora Ballroom. Those records may have done fine for someone, but Robertson never saw any money from them. Avoiding a perhaps justifiable rancor, Robertson describes the arrangements as "a typical thing. First time around you just there for the ride. I'm not bitter about it. Not having had the opportunity to record [before] ... what can I say?"
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Despite such side trips, Robertson's career made steady progress through the '70s and '80s. By the time the current decade began, Robertson -- inspired by the success of Joe "Guitar" Hughes on the European festival circuit, and following Copeland's advice -- set out on his own. For two and a half years he toured Europe and the U.S. non-stop, and the reaction he got from crowds in venues such as the Dutch Blues Estafette in Utrecht brought him to the attention of England's Indigo Records, which recorded I'm the Man. Not long after the CD's release to rave reviews in the United Kingdom, Atlantic Records' Code Blue subsidiary picked it up for distribution in the U.S., trampolining Robertson into his home country's spotlight.
It only takes one listen to I'm the Man to see why, after all these years, Robertson is suddenly an overnight success. Even in the crowded field of Texas blues, this is head turning work. Robertson's guitar is flawless boilerplate Houston blues, while Kim Foreman's work on piano and Hammond organ earns him a seat on the bench next to Gatemouth Brown's Joe Krown and Copeland's Floyd Phillips. Robertson's devotion to the T-Bone Walker tradition invites comparisons between I'm the Man and Copeland's recent career-defining releases. Further similarities between the two artists' vocals -- in strength and clarity more than in style -- are also obvious. Indeed, the album's only shortcoming, and it's a minor one, is that Robertson's rigid adherence to the blues format makes him neglect his considerable experience as a zydeco picker. However, the shortage of genre-busting statements on this CD just gives listeners something to look forward to -- and fuels speculation about Robertson's already recorded, but as yet untitled, next album, which is scheduled to be released in April.
Years of playing have proven beyond any doubt that Robertson ranks with the best of the Houston team. And now that he's successful enough to get back in the local dugout, having Robertson come home to his vast network of relatives and friends should lead to a few interesting sightings, some impromptu jams -- and some incredible music and memories for fans of Bayou City blues.
Sherman Robertson performs at 9 p.m. Friday, March 17 at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond, 266-9294. $9.