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Published: 2001/07/17
by Bob Makin

Word Up, Get Down with Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph, a 23-year-old sacred steel player from Irvington, may be
what Sam Cooke was to gospel singing and Jimi Hendrix was to electric guitar:
a secular pioneer and an innovator on his instrument. Not bad for a kid who
played the pedal steel to keep off the mean streets of Newark; unlike many of
his friends.

Randolph's "The Prayer" is a powerful gospel song dedicated to a friend, who was shot in the head four years ago on a night that the young pedal steel player opted to practice instead of hanging out. There for the grace of God goes Randolph, who, after eight years of playing sacred steel at the House of God Church in Newark and many other Pentacostal churches, has become a sensation on the nightclub circuit in less than a year. He quit his day job as a paralegal in a Newark law office in May after John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars tapped him for their gospel-inspired supergroup, The Word, which will release its self-titled debut album on Rope-A-Dope Records in August. By year's end, Randolph also will release his debut with the Family Band, which features cousins Marcus Randolph on drums and Danyell Morgan on bass and the unrelated Northwest Jersey-based Hammond B-3 organ player John Ginty, who has worked with the likes of Lou Reed and Sheryl Crow. Randolph has been playing since he was 15, when he received a lap steel from his father, Everette, a deacon at the House of God Church, for Christmas. He soon graduated to pedal steel, studied its sacred component with his grandfather in Ohio and started playing in church. Last year, he was featured in the folklorist documentary, "Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches," and the accompanying CD compilation, "Sacred Steel — Live!," alongside such elders of the instrument as The Campbell Brothers, Calvin Cooke, Ted Beard and the late Rev. Glen Lee, who collaborated with Randolph on a few tracks on "The Word" before he passed away earlier this year. Sacred steel, an affordable alternative to the organ in poor House of God churches, was kept a soulful secret for nearly 70 years until the documentary by Florida folklorist Robert Stone exposed it to a secular audience. By bringing the music into nightclubs and expanding the parameters of the pedal steel with tunes by his hero, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix, Randolph has brought more attention to the inspired style than anyone in its increasingly visible history. He credits his rocket to success to the positive energy and good vibes he and his band bring to an often tough and somber club scene. The last weekend in June, the concert industry, particularly the jam band community that has embraced Randolph like the new Hendrix or Coltrane, gave him a hearty thank you with an amazing array of gigs: the Jammys at Roseland Ballroom, the JVC Jazz Festival at the Bowery Ballroom and Gathering of the Vibes in the Red Hook, N.Y. Robert Randolph & The Family Band will perform July 20 at New York's Wetlands Preserve, where they'll take part in an all-star tribute to Carlos Santana. Having also performed with Karl Denson and Soulive, Randolph may record with Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks and jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan. A brief tour with The Word in early August will include stops at Walther's Grassroots Music & Arts Festival and the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival. For more info, visit www.robertrandolph.net

Comment on how you seem to be an overnight success as a nightclub act, but
you've actually been paying your dues for quite a long time by performing in
the church.

The energy that comes from church has really been lost in the nightclub scene. Instead of just playing music, we try to bring that positive edge of the music. That energy is coming straight from the soul, the heart. Before we get onstage, that's what we aim to do. After the show when people come up to me and tell me they've been touched by the music or the music sounds like it's coming straight from the heart and they've had so much fun, that's when we know we did well. That's why we've been doing so well in the nightclub scene. We're bringing a positive vibe and a great energy that makes you feel good. That's why people really enjoy the music. You go to church expecting to feel good. When you get home, you're like, 'Man, I feel good. I had fun at church.' It's like you just to a load off, the weight has been lifted off your shoulders. When we were in Boston somebody came to me and said, 'Wow, before I came to the show, I was a little down. Now I feel so much better.' Even when we were in California, we got the same response. *That's the type of music we try to write. I'm going to have so many more songs, much more singing. I'm not doing much singing. We do three singing songs. The others are just instrumentals, but we're getting ready for the album. It's going to be singing on every song.*

What do you think of playing the Jammys, the JVC Jazz Festival and Gathering
of the Vibes all in the same weekend.

To tell you the truth, I don't know what any of those things are so I can't even be afraid. People are telling me like a year back, 'This sounds like The Allman Brothers,' and I'm like, 'Well, who are The Allman Brothers? Who is Buddy Guy?' People were like, 'Wow, isn't it a big deal to be playing with Derek Trucks.' He's a great, great musician. All of these guys and all of these events are big events, but it's just something I didn't know about. I'm not afraid when I get onstage because I just have in my head that I'm going to have fun, like in church. That's mainly where I get the attitude from. I try to apply it to the way I grew up. Playing in a church, you just go ahead and play and give it your all. If you mess up, then you mess up. You can't fix that. *So far people just enjoy the music and coming to the shows. I'm just going to keep on going on. I have so many songs that are great songs. I really didn't take it seriously until February. That's when I decided May 1 was going to be my last day at work and I was going to go full time. This is just something I always wanted to do but was unsure about quitting my day job.*

After all the years of playing in the church, how does it feel now to be
obtaining success so quickly, to be able to quit your day job after only a few months
of playing clubs?

*It hasn't been a money success, but it has been a success in that we're gaining a lot of buzz and lot of interest. Playing in the church was always different. People in our church — it's kind of a weird thing — if you started listening to other music than church music, then you were known as a bad guy. It's like that in other churches, as well, more strict churches. The thing is we're trying to implement the human voice, most of the sacred steel players. Our church doesn't have an organ player so this pedal steel became the main instrument. We had to implement the human voice and be the backup instrument as well with a strumming type of sound. It's a weird story.*

You take that out of the church and people recognize because gospel has had
such a strong influence on rock 'n' roll, but church folk just know gospel,
not its evolution into rock 'n' roll.

You could ask somebody from church who Bo Diddley is. They may know who he is, but they've never heard any of his music. Like Buddy Guy. I never sat and listened to any of these people until I heard Stevie Ray. Then I fell in love with Stevie Ray because he played how we play in the church,with all out reckless abandon. The energy, he just goes for it. *Some of the guys in the church don't get into the fast note picking, but they get the job done. Each of the older sacred steel players are unique in their own way because all of them have created a trend and it's just gong to go on and on and on now.*

They've always played for the church. There's some folks who consider that
sacred and don't want it to come out of the church. But how is your approach
to your instrument different in a nightclub than it would be in a church?

*All the music we have played, we could play in church. When you're
getting into the way you word a song, like people in the Christian world, all
they want to sing about is God or Jesus.*

What about 'I Don't Know What You've Come To Do?'

*Oh yeah. We do that in the church with the same energy. But as far as songs with words, like 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' you couldn't sing that in church even though there's nothing really wrong with the song.*

So it's not so much the style of playing, it's the secular material you
choose to do that you couldn't do in church. So you can make the pedal steel
guitar sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix in church the way you
do in a nightclub?

*Oh yeah. I knew about those sounds from the older guys. They got into
using a wah and a distortion. I picked up using the wah from the older guys,
like Chuckie Campbell and Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard, but as far as Stevie
Ray's aggressiveness and his fast picking I picked up from him and brought it
into the church.*

Pedal steel also has a rich tradition in country music. Has that influenced
you at all? If so, how have you taken those traditions and made them your own?

The only thing we knew in our church is that it was used in our church and in country music. In order for me to grow on that instrument, I had to learn from somebody who already has knowledge in the pedal steel, which would be country music. I really would have to study some of the country stuff to get to know the knowledge of the guitar and the pedals and things like that. *But what really triggered me when I first started playing was I would have friends come over and they would go, 'Well, what kind of instrument is that. It sounds good, but what do you call that thing? What is it, a turntable? Is that DJ equipment?' I'd been seeing it all my life in church. The more I play it at shows, the more people are like, 'Well, what is that? I never saw that thing.' So that was the thing that gave me the extra push to get the instrument known. I wanted to get it known playing all types of music, whether it be pop, rock, gospel. Introduce it to all audiences so all audiences will know what the instrument does, what it can sound like.*

And that's something nobody has ever done before.

*Nobody's done that because people have been afraid. There's even some country pedal steel players who are, like, that's not how the instrument is supposed to sound. It really shows how ignorant somebody can be. Just imagine if the person who first started playing the saxophone said, 'Well, no saxophone is only to be used in jazz music,' when it can cross over to every style of music that there is. That's what I'm trying to break as far as the pedal steel, the fact it can be played in rock, blues, pop, country, gospel everything.*

And especially the improvisational way you play it, jazz. Obviously John
Medeski's really digging you. He's putting out a record with you. So you
gotta be a good jazz player to play with him.

*Medeski only heard me play one time before we decided to do a record. It was a show that I sat in the the Allstars. Medeski came there and right after the show, he was like, 'Well, you know. What do you think about recording an album with us?' They had plans of doing a gospel instrumental album with just Medeski and the Allstars. They were like, 'We want to invite you.' It turned out so great, everybody's all excited about it now.*

How does playing a 13-string pedal steel instead of the typical six or
eight-string affect your playing?

*The 13-string is a tuning I came up with. Some people play a 12. Some people even play a 14 string. But with the tuning of a 14-string, you only can play country or jazz music, you couldn't dare go into rock or something like that. My 13-string tuning was custom-made. I had a 12-strong before, and I studied rock, country, blues and some other stuff. I was like, 'If I get this 13-string, I'll be able to combine all of those tunings and a lot of the music I'll be able to put into this instrument. I should be able to get all of the chords, whether it's country blues or rock and put into the pedal steel.' That's how I came up with that. Playing a six- or an eight-string, you don't have all those options, you could do some of those things, but it wouldn't sound as full.*

It doesn't sound as rich, doesn't have as much vibrato?

Exactly.

You're the only sacred steel player to obtain secular success?

*Well you have the Campbell Brothers, who went into the folk
scene. They've been doing well. But they mainly do a church set at a folk
festival. They wouldn't do 'Voodoo Chile.' But it's great for them. For me,
I'm the younger guy. Most of the other guys hold offices in the church.
They've been in the church their whole lives, now their in their 30s, 40s,
50s and 60s. It wouldn't go over as well in the church if all of a sudden
they were leaving after 30 years of playing in the church to go play secular
music. Me, on the other hand, I'm young, so everybody's like, 'Go ahead. Go
for it.' Some people are like, 'No, it should only be in the church.'*

It's kind of the way Sam Cooke was with singing. Do you think the younger
sacred steel players will follow your path?

*Oh yeah. They're going to be a lot more. I know they're going to be more people doing it in the church, but it's just going to open up a range of pedal steel players worldwide now because everybody's now like, 'Wow, I didn't know this instrument could do this.' You hear how versatile the instrument is. I'm not saying anything about regular six-string guitar, because I love regular six-string guitar, but when you put those two sounds together, it's like, 'Wow, this is a great sound.'*

Being in the documentary and on the compilation, do you feel you've made your
mark in the history of sacred steel if you'd never come out of the church or
not?

*Pretty much, yeah, because that's the tradition I'm from. Sacred steel will always be the backbone where I came from, House of God Church, that whole scene. That's where I came from. But I pretty much made my mark with the sacred steel thing just from having one song on the compilation. That's good enough for me in the sacred steel scene.*

You've brought so much attention to sacred steel and pedal steel innovation
that it leads me to say that you are what Sam Cooke was to gospel singing and
Jimi Hendrix to electric guitar: a secular pioneer and an innovator on his
instrument. With that in mind, comment on how you gravitated to the sacred
steel to stay off Newark's mean streets while your parents were getting
divorced and on how, having done that, you're certainly on the right road to
accomplishing your muical goals.

*It was a pivotal point in life when everything was just hazy. All my friends were getting in trouble. Pedal steel was a way for me to stay off the streets. It really helped me out. Even back then, I had decided, my goal when I'm playing this instrument is to take it to new heights because this is what saved me. I even have a song called 'The Prayer.' It's about one of my friends who got killed. I was supposed to be with him that night, but I had a guitar to run home to. I chose not to. I had been with him, I probably would have been killed too, the same night. Somebody just walked up to him and shot him for no apparent reason. I was 19. Living in an environment where at least 70 percent of your friends are drug dealers or in street gangs…*

Even though your father is a deacon? Even a straight-laced family like yours,
it's hard to avoid?

*Yeah, because when you're growing, regardless of how many times you go to church, you still have friends, you still go to school. You can't avoid that. I went to Irvington High School. It was one of the baddest high schools in the state. Constantly fights. Those years, I had plenty of fights. There was just a lot going on. I love in Maplewood now. We moved to Maplewood right after I got out of high school. But everything is right next door to Newark.*

Why did you gravitate to the pedal steel instead of other forms of gospel
music or, for that matter, rap music, which is huge in Newark?

From seeing other guys playing it in church. When you grow up in the church, you always enjoy going to church. I used to play the drums in church as well. My brother's a singer, my sister's a singer. My other brother plays saxophone. I'm like,' Well, I can't sing. I need to play a string instrument or something.' So I went to the pedal steel. Regular six-string guitar crossed my mind, but I wanted to go for something that's more challenging. So I figured a pedal steel would be more challenging. My father bought me a small six-string lap steel, but I didn't play for over a year. I picked it up and I was like, 'Man, I'm not playing this thing.' That's when I was outside, hanging on the street corners. My parents helped me out a lot. They were like, 'You don't need to be out there. You need to go to church.' Most people don't have those positive images in their life. That helped out as well to stay off the streets and to play the pedal steel. They didn't make me do it.

*Pedal steel is a challenging instrument. Two other church buddies — we
were all about the same age — they were playing the pedal steel in the
church. Then we were in competition with each other. My cousins were playing
string instruments. When I'd go to their houses in Detroit and Ohio, it would
be a challenge. Once you start playing music, you're there for hours. You'll
intend to be there for one hour, you'll be there for five or six hours. It
just helps when you have people your same age to play
music with instead of being on the street. That's really what helped me out
and gave me the real energy.*

Are you surprised that young people are so into your rootsy, for the most
part instrumental music?

*I'm not really surprised at it. Most of the time church people are the biggest music critics, in a good way. Most of the great artists have come from the church. Growing up in the church, singing, playing the drums or the organ, you have to be so perfect. Everybody's on you every Sunday. All young kids in the church enjoy music. Young people in general enjoy music. If the music is played and it has that energy and the right feel, anybody will love it. Music soothes people. It makes you feel good.*

A lot of the kids who dig you — call the NYC Freaks — are really into Jerry
Garcia, who was a good pedal steel guitar player. Since gaining this
following, have you check out any of Garcia's pedal steel work?

*Actually, I haven't even gotten into it. I like the country pedal steelers, but I haven't gotten around to it. I probably will.*

Tell me about with Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars on 'The Word.'

*That was fun. The album was made in less than a week. Maybe it took 16 hours of recording. We didn't do any recording till I got off work so I didn't get to Medeski's studio in Brooklyn till about 8 o'clock. We recorded from Monday to Thursday till midnight. A couple of the songs are just one take.*

How much of The Word is original material and which ones are yours?

*'Without God,' 'Joyful Sounds,' which I wrote with Glen Lee. He's one of the sacred steelers. Another is 'Call Him By His Name.' He lived in Florida, but he passed away the week that we recorded 'The Word.' That's why I recorded some of those songs: 'I'll Fly Away,' 'At the Cross,' 'I Shall Not Be Moved' and 'Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.'*

What are plans for The Word?

*It's supposed to be released early August. We're supposed to do a two-week tour of the East Coast then.*

'The Word' is coming out before a record by your own band. What's the plans
for that?

*We have a record probably coming out early Fall. We don't know which label. Labels are interested. We'll see. We have some songs done, but some labels want us to do a live album, some want a studio. If we have to make a live album, that will be easy.*

###

Bob Makin, a New Jersey music write for 20 years, has been covering the jam
band scene since 1988. Jam bands can send him info at makinclan@aol.com and
material to PO Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.

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