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Photo: Amy Robinson


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The blues has its share of secrets: esoteric tunings, regional styles, rare recordings on long-gone labels like Vocalion and Cleartone. But Tad Robinson knows one of the biggest — how to write and arrange great songs, and bring them to life. Robinson’s elegant 2007 album A New Point of View is full of perfectly tailored numbers, from Tad’s own Stax-inspired “Take the Long Way Home” to Johnnie Taylor’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” — all buoyed by one of the finest contemporary voices in blues and soul, and by all the classic trimmings: lush horns and strings, poignant guitar playing, and Robinson’s own poised, melodic harmonica. “You have to let people know that a song is part of you,” Robinson says, “that you are giving something of yourself to them in a song. And I need to believe in every song I perform.” It’s no wonder A New Point of View continued the Chicago bandleader’s string of accolades and honors dating back to his late ’80s tenure in the Windy City blues-rock outfit Big Shoulders. Like his 2004 Severn Records debut Did You Ever Wonder?, the disc garnered a Blues Music Award nomination for “Soul Blues Album of the Year.” And it triggered Robinson’s third nomination for “Soul Male Artist of the Year.” Robinson’s been formulating his style — a timeless blend of blues and soul with flourishes of pop — all of his life. Of course, what really brings Robinson’s tunes to life is his voice. “I’ve consciously worked on developing my style of singing since I was a kid,” the 53-year-old vocalist explains. “I pulled my rock and soul influences together and started singing in the school chorus.” At the same time he got his first harmonica from an aunt. His curiosity about the instrument and its potential led him to blues. “I discovered Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells and James Cotton, and it just blew my mind to hear players like that. I started devouring every blues record with harmonica I could get my hands on. Learning the licks became my apprenticeship, and led me to the great guitarists and singers and the rest of the genre.” That path eventually led Robinson to Chicago, in the mid-’80s. “I wanted to be able to hear the great blues and soul singers in the city — Otis Clay, Junior Wells, Syl Johnson, Tyrone Davis, Denise LaSalle — and be part of that music scene. I immediately started working in the clubs. There was a lot happening in Chicago then, and for two years I led the Wednesday night house band at Rosa’s. We’d play the first set, and the second was an all-star jam where Junior Wells, Sam Lay, Bob Stroger, Louis and Dave Myers… just about everybody at one point or another… would come play.”Tad was also drafted by the members of Big Shoulders to front the band for a year, and he played jazz gigs, where he developed a friendship with Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling. “Kurt was a major influence on me,” says Robinson. Robinson also began singing commercial jingles, which contributed to his improvisational skills. “You never know what’s going to be thrown at you in a session,” he says. “You have to be ready for any style of music.” But the soul-blues man’s most important meeting was with guitarist Dave Specter. He and Robinson formed a musical bond on the bandstand at Rosa’s Lounge, and when Specter signed with Delmark Records he invited Robinson to sing on his debut for the label, 1994’s Blueplicity. That led to Robinson’s own recordings with Delmark, ’94’s One To Infinity and ’98’s Last Go Round. “Signing with Severn was another important step in my evolution as an artist,” Robinson says. “At Delmark, we recorded just like we were playing in a club. We’d just set up like we were on stage and start rolling the tape. But when it’s time to make a new album at Severn I’m able to work with the musicians for about a week before we start to record, and we get to experiment with tempos and arrangements, and alter the song list. It really means that every musician is deep inside the music before we push the ‘record’ button.” That strategy along with inspired song choices and writing has paid off not only in critical acclaim for Robinson’s Severn releases, but in a larger audience and invitations to play prestigious blues festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Robinson’s just recorded all the tracks for the sequel to A New Point of View. “Basically, I’d describe the new one as more of the same — very soulful and groove oriented, and the focus is squarely on my voice,” he says. “I feel like, musically speaking, this album will help me move on to the next chapter,” he continues. “I’m in a good place creatively right now. I’ve learned to connect with my audience through a collection of songs I’ve developed that I really believe in. That’s important, because blues fans can smell a fraud a mile away. And they know what we’re doing is 100-percent real.”
Ted Drozdowski