Bill Roberts: Probably the Best Guitarist You’ve Not Heard
There’s a saying that “guitar players are a dime a dozen” but the truth is really great guitarists are more like one in a million. Madison has been fortuitous in consistently beating those odds. In a city brimming with exceptional players and rising stars it can be a challenge to stand out. Youth harbors optimism and the luxury of time for those who chase their dream but opportunity may not knock at all and when it does it may prove to be illusory or get swallowed up in the debris that is the music business. As musicians age it’s prudent to create balance in life. Being able to play great solos is one thing but for guitarists, finding the right vehicle is key to rising above the fray.
There’s another saying that the chances of success in the music business are also one in a million. This one holds true. How often does the right combination come together and stay together? Youth brings all kinds of dynamics into the equation that often manifest themselves in self-destruction. For the mature musician, experience brings a temperament and a worldly wisdom. It becomes a little easier to hit the stratosphere when the stars are acceptably out of reach. Many great guitarists find their niche after burning all that youthful energy. Not that any of them would mind success; the definition just seems to morph over time.
Bill Roberts is one of those players that doesn’t make a lot of fuss. He shows up, he plays, good music happens and style and taste transpire. He’s one of those “where have you been all my life” players whose musicality can’t be denied. One of those players who elicits remarks like, “Who is that guy and why haven’t I heard this talented player before?” One of those rare hometown staples that has sustained his occupation in music, never wavering from his career choice. Now that is a difficult row to hoe because, as we all know, the pay scale for musicians normally hovers between poverty and the gutter. As it turns out Bill Roberts has been in your life if you have been around since the late seventies or just about any time between then and now.
Roberts has been playing guitar since the age of thirteen. He’s taken a few lessons along the way but is primarily self-taught. He learned some blues scales and such and, like most players his age, was heavily influenced by Clapton and Hendrix, seeing both of them perform early on, Clapton in Blind Faith at the Wisconsin State Fair and Hendrix in Milwaukee a year or two later. Another primary influence was Doug Yankus, who played in Appleton blues-rock band Soup, one of Wisconsin’s finest early rock bands (Check out this Isthmus profile on the band). Soup was also at the State Fair in 1968 and was later tapped by Clapton for an opening slot. Yankus later went on to play on recordings from John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Rosanne Cash, Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, among others. Hendrix was taken to Milwaukee by kingpin Wisconsin promoter Ken Adamany to see Soup. As legend has it Hendrix told Adamany, “If you book me, don’t have him open.” One of Roberts’ early bands was the very Hendrix-inspired Rainbow Bridge.
Roberts also has a close relationship with his keyboard-playing brother Steve, who still plays a vital role in Roberts’ music. Steve was working at Athens on the corner of State and Gilman around this time and Roberts would drop in as Luther Alison would rehearse downstairs. Alison taught Roberts a few tricks and his lifelong flirtation with the blues became cemented. Soon after he found a book in Patti Music (on State Street) that melded jazz scales and blues guitar. Toss in the love of rock-and-roll and you’ve got all the elements that inform Roberts’ style.
These days Roberts is himself an instructor, something he truly loves to do. Music can be a life-changing catalyst and finding a young person willing to take the leap can yield rewards. There are fundamental differences in music instruction these days, with videos on YouTube and digital technology, just about anything can be broken down and learned quickly; much more efficient than having to lift a phonograph needle umpteen times to nail a lick. It’s the aesthetics that drive an aspiring guitarist to achieve and Roberts breaks it down into the simplest of terms: “Some players look at it as a chore; something they have to do. For me, I loved it; I couldn’t wait until I got to play guitar again.” His love of the instrument is apparent; just take a look at this photo of a joyous Roberts discovering a 1954 gold top Les Paul prototype.
“The average guitarist owns eleven instruments,” Roberts says. “You never know when you’ll need the other ten.”
In the seventies Roberts eventually began hanging out at The Gallery on King St (now Woof’s). There were folk shows upstairs where Duke Erickson, Dave Benton and Bob Olson often played. When Olson left for Boston, Erickson recruited Bill on guitar. Seeking to form a band, Roberts suggested drummer Butch Vig whom he had been jamming with around town. Erickson was writing by this time and the band rehearsed in a house on Linden Street, behind the Barrymore Theater. The original formation of Spooner was born with Roberts on guitar.
(more Spooner photos at the end of the article)
After a few years with Spooner, Roberts and brother Steve got caught up in the punk scene and formed So What? becoming the first band to play the legendary State Street venue Merlyn’s. The band was together from 1979 – 1981 and also landed on the cover of Mad City Music Sheet published by Gary Sohmers.
Roberts was there to open another legendary club, O’Cayz Corral, with Pat McDonald and the Essentials, also playing on that band’s Essentialist Propaganda EP. Roberts recalls a story about the group making recording plans and, while loading gear after a gig, Barbara Kooyman exclaimed that “their future was looking so bright they might need shades.” Needless to say, the remark was not lost on McDonald. Also playing in the Essentials at the time was saxophonist Sarah Hastings and she and Roberts would eventually become a couple and are still together.
Before McDonald took off for Austin in 1986, Roberts and Hastings decided to relocate to Minneapolis. Roberts had his own group there called New Rules and played with some other groups including a reggae band that almost got signed to Capitol Records. But mostly he didn’t feel like he was assimilating and that a lot of the people he was playing with were Wisconsin transplants, so after twelve years he and Hastings moved back to Madison.
Roberts joined up with Shari Davis in her Hootchy Kootchy Band (Steve played in Shari Davis & the Conniptions previously). He would also spend four years at the King Club playing with the Clyde Stubblefield Band. Then Roberts and Hastings formed Blue Beyond in 2000. The band released one CD early in 2007 and received several nods in the Madison Area Music Association Awards.
In addition to teaching, Roberts still plays in several groups including the Bill Roberts Combo (also featuring bassist Ben Schult, keyboardist Joe Wallner and drummer Chris Sandoval) and the Bill Roberts Trio as well as sitting in with just about anyone and frequenting many of the jam sessions. His style is remarkably fluid with a special emphasis on phrasing, something he actively works at, citing the Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green as stylists to aspire to.
Recently, Roberts and brother Steve decided they wanted to put a recording studio together. By this time, Roberts had written a whole lot of songs, perhaps hundreds, and the two undertook a Bill Roberts recording in their new Dick Mixin’ studio. It seems a little odd that it took so long but Bill Roberts finally released an album under his own name this year entitled Blues Rides Shotgun (read the review here). While the title suggests that the music on the album is blues, it also suggests that the blues is not in the driver’s seat. The album, in fact, contains a variety of styles and, some very well-written and concise songs. “I really made a conscious effort to not have an album full of songs that were just excuses for soloing,” Roberts says. There is also some great singing, especially on “Angeline,” a beautiful song recorded with the Krauss Family members Ruth, Kate and Rick on vocals and highlighted by Ruth’s violin.
Next up is an album that features Steve and then there will likely be another Bill Roberts recording. Roberts also may put himself out there a bit more as a session player, something he’s always wanted to do more of.
So how is it that a guy who has been in so many seminal Madison bands is still largely unknown? Chalk it up partly to modesty on Roberts’ part but there are a lot of musicians like him, though as guitarists go, few can match his versatility and precision. Next time you drop into a blues jam (currently running at the Brink Lounge on the first Thursday of the month) be sure to check the guitarist. He might just be the most famous player you’ve not heard of.