Randolph—who plays one of the most difficult musical instruments there is: the pedal steel guitar—tells how he perfected his artistry.
Steel guitarist Robert Randolph
Tavis: “Rolling Stone” magazine named Robert Randolph one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. He plays one of the most difficult instruments there is, in fact – a pedal steel guitar.
He perfected his artistry by the way of the Pentecostal church, same church I grew up in, where for those of you who don’t know, we call this instrument “sacred steel.”
Now with his longtime band, Robert is about to release his first studio album in more than three years. It’s titled “Lickety Split.” Let’s take a look at a cut from that CD.
Tavis: See, I could shout to that.
Robert Randolph: (Laughter) Me too.
Tavis: I could shout to that.
Randolph: You can cut a step to it, huh?
Tavis: I can cut a step to that. (Laughter) How do you process that? Every time I hear you play, especially on a lick like this –
Tavis: I think there’s a scene in Ray Charles, the movie, “Ray?” You know the scene I’m going to, where he’s in the club?
Randolph: Yup, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: And they jump on him – “Stop playing that church music.”
Randolph: Yeah, “Stop playing that.”
Tavis: And they’re in there dancing and cutting a step to it. And Ray’s just got that church backbeat behind it.
Tavis: When I hear that, I could go to church on that. (Laughter) So how do you process hearing that, or have you stopped hearing that now?
Randolph: No. Well for me, I haven’t stopped hearing it at all. Like I said, I got a bunch of old uncles and aunts that call me up, and “You ain’t mixed that church beat in that song. You ain’t do that. You went too rock and roll this time.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Randolph: So they get on me, but it’s the roots of – our church, we’re sort of like the rock and roll church, kind of like the scene from out of “Blues Brothers,” with everybody flipping and jumping.
Tavis: James Brown, yeah. (Laughter)
Randolph: So by me playing the lap steel and the pedal steel, it’s got that loud sort of guitar edgy thing, and I’ve incorporated some different things to make it all work.
Tavis: Yeah. How did you end up on this instrument?
Randolph: Well, our church has a long history of pedal steel and lap steel guitars going all the way back to the 1920s, so it’s sort of like if anybody’s familiar – it’s sort of like the reggae or Buena Vista social club, or those kind of things.
But guys before me weren’t allowed to go outside the church and play, but I was a younger guy that came up in the late ’90s, and I said, “Look, I’m going out, take this music out, because it’s just something that it has a broader sound and a broader appeal, and let the world know what’s been going on in our church for the last hundred years.”
Tavis: Did you struggle with that personally, or how did you – how was the process for you for coming to that decision, because as you know, there’s so many great Black artists who have come out of the church, and so many of them have had that struggle with how to make that transition, if to make it at all.
Randolph: Well, a lot of Black artists can relate to this story. Our church is very old-time. Old-time rules, old-time laws, and a lot of it really doesn’t mean anything in regard to, like, you can’t go out and play that music for anybody. So I’m supposed to sit here and ain’t but 50 people in here and keep playing for y’all?
All y’all are talking about you got love. But for me, it’s been a great thing to go out. We started out playing, like, some small bars and clubs in New York City, and we would see that – small bars, 30 white people dancing. Really? They dancing?
Randolph: Because a guy came to visit our church, name was Bob Sohn (sp). He said, “Look, man, you guys need to go out and take this music out.” He started to document the sacred steel music in the church. He went to the one in Florida, went to the one in New York, then he came to New Jersey, because I was like the young guy.
He saw it going, he said, “Look, man, this thing has a bigger appeal to it. This thing could appeal to a bigger audience. You’ve got to find a promoter, somebody to just get the word out.”
It started to happen, and 2002 we were just packing all bars and clubs before we had a record label. Then we were packing out, selling a lot of tickets at Irving Plaza in New York and at TLA in Philadelphia, and it was just all to what we were doing in church, kind of incorporate some Hendrix in there, some Allman Brothers in there and things like that.
But it’s been a tough road, but hey, now I see the love and the support from everybody, so it’s been great.
Tavis: Yeah. I asked you how you chose the instrument, but I want to ask how you perfected the instrument. It is one of the most difficult to play. Not a whole lot of people are playing it. So how does a young guy end up being really good at this?
Randolph: Hours of hard work. (Laughter) Practicing.
Tavis: Yeah. But who were you learning from? Who’s teaching you, how are you getting to -?
Randolph: Well, in our church we had some older guys, Calvin Cook, who did play, who played the pedal steel guitar, the Campbell Brothers, Chuck Campbell, Ted Beard, Henry Nelson. They dedicate their time to teaching a lot of the young kids like they did me growing up.
So they spent a lot of hours with me, giving me advice on how to be precise and how to connect with a spiritual thing, because in our church, it’s common to play the pedal steel and the lap steel guitar.
Now there’s hundreds of kids playing since we’ve sort of taken off and we’re traveling and we’re playing, and all of these kids are like, “Oh, I want to play, I want to play that, I want to do that.”
So it’s just been hours of hard work, just playing and trying to incorporate different styles.
Tavis: Tell me about this new project, “Lickety Split,” the new one.
Randolph: “Lickety Split.”
Randolph: I came up with that title from hanging around down in the country, down in Nashville and Alabama, and we just compiled a bunch of songs that have our spiritual roots, compiled with Carlos Santana guesting on two songs, many guest stars – Buddy Guy. Secret track coming soon.
Trombone Shorty. It’s just the music makes you feel like lickety-split. You’re like, “What is that?” Well, get up and dance. (Laughter) Let’s get it done.
Tavis: How do you process – you’ve played around the world at this point, but in some ways you’re still that young kid from New Jersey –
Tavis: – who many in the country are starting to discover now, and you’re playing with legends like Santana and Buddy Guy on your record. How do you process that? That’s high cotton, as they say in the South.
Randolph: Yeah. Well, it’s – for me, I’ve been fortunate to have these guys appreciate what I do musically, and I really don’t process it until I’m listening back, and I’m like, “Wow, I’m actually battling with Carlos Santana on this song, doing this song, and we’re going at it.”
Out came this great, energetic piece of music. That’s when it all hits me, when I’m sort of driving in the car one day, because hey, we were in the studio with this guy; now I can’t get him on the phone. (Laughter)
Randolph: But that part is cool. But I’ve been very fortunate to have been accepted into the fraternity of great musicians and great artists – Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews. I’ve recorded with great gospel artists – Karen Clark, Marvin Winans. So they’ve all accepted me into their great music fraternity.
Tavis: You going to tour for this?
Randolph: Yes, we’ve got a tour coming in the summertime. We’ll be out everywhere. Look at the schedule at RobertRandolph.net, @RRTFB on Twitter. You could follow me, because I need more Twitter followers. (Laughter)
Tavis: You and everybody else try to push those numbers up.
Randolph: I actually follow you on Twitter too.
Tavis: I appreciate that. Is that your way of telling me I need to follow you now?
Randolph: Yeah, you’ve got to follow me. (Laughter) Tell your followers to follow me.
Tavis: Okay, I will do that for you. You have my word, I will make that happen. For those who have not been to a Robert Randolph show, they will get a chance to perhaps see you this summer. How would you describe your show? What’s the show like?
Randolph: The show is like the scene from “Coming to America.” You’re not sure what you’re supposed to do and you go, “Can I get an amen?” “Amen.” Somebody jumps up, “I’m very happy to be here.” (Laughter) You’re not really sure what you want to do.
You’re not sure if you want to breakdance, if you want to shout, if you want to throw the rock and roll symbol.
Randolph: But it’s great. I tell people it’s a mixture of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, the scene from out of “Blues Brothers” when everybody’s doing backflips in church – it’s a mixture of all of that, and that’s what you get at a Robert Randolph and the Family Band show.
Tavis: On this “Lickety Split” project, how did you – give me some sense of the track selection, how you put together the project in terms of the songs.
Randolph: What we did putting together the record, because I’ve recorded probably 40 songs, and in choosing the songs that’s actually on the “Lickety Split” album, we just wanted to make sure we kept the energy up.
We had the signature guitar licks in all of the songs, the performances were good. But I’m real critical of myself, so that’s why I’m trying to process it all.
But we just wanted to make sure, we’ve kind of gotten back – because for a few years, we’ve kind of gotten away from our roots with including the whole gospel influence with the party vibe of the whole thing that makes you feel good. With this record I just wanted to make sure we got back to that –
Tavis: You’re on Blue Note now.
Randolph: I’m on Blue Note Records now, Blue Note, brand new label, and they’ve been great.
Tavis: Don Was.
Randolph: Mr. Don Was.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Randolph: Great historically music label that allows musicians and artists to be who they are, and not try to force you down a path of oh, why don’t you do this, why don’t – you need to do that? It’s like, I’m not that guy.
Tavis: One thing I will say about a Robert Randolph show, you will not sit down.
Randolph: No, there’s no sitting.
Tavis: Your whole records, man, from like beginning to end, it’s like you like a workout tape. It’s like you can’t sit down. You don’t do slow stuff.
Randolph: No, no, no.
Randolph: No, no, unless –
Tavis: It’s all up-tempo.
Randolph: Yeah, yeah. That’s the thing. Every once in a while I try to write a love song and I go, “Ah, it’s not working.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Leave that to Stevie Wonder, huh?
Randolph: Yeah, leave it to Stevie, Marvin Gaye, John Legend and all them cats.
Randolph: But yeah, I like to make music that’s very upbeat and makes you want to dance, but choose lyrics that are really inspiring.
Randolph: That’s really my thing as a young Black artist. I really, my goal in every song is to try and be a positive influence for younger up-and-coming artists, to show them that you can make great popular music while having something good to say.
Because I’ve seen the effect that a lot of the negative hip-hop music or R&B has had on our young kids, so.
Tavis: You work with young kids too.
Randolph: Yes, yes, yes. I’ve got the Robert Randolph Music and Arts Resource Center coming.
Tavis: Right, mm-hmm.
Randolph: In Irvington, in Newark, New Jersey. It’s been a big battle trying to sift through all of the stuff with the board of education, which –
Tavis: It’s politics.
Randolph: It’s been a headache, man, and that’s really the problem with our school system. It’s the board of education, it’s not the teachers. But now we have the Robert Randolph Music and Arts Resource Center coming soon, where we’ll be working with kids, working with parents also, in inner cities, underprivileged kids.
Tavis: I assume there probably will be a music program somewhere in there.
Randolph: Oh, yeah, yeah, music and arts program where you’re going to see a lot of kids playing pedal steel and lap steel guitars.
Tavis: I’m sure.
Randolph: Organs and just giving these kids something to do.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, you heard him say he doesn’t do love songs, (laughter) but if you want to have a good time you should pick up the new project coming shortly from Robert Randolph, called “Lickety Split.”
It is an awfully good time, and as you heard at the top, that little bit we played for you, you won’t put this thing down. Robert, congratulations, man, good to have you on the program.
Randolph: Thank you, brother, thank you.
Tavis: Have a great summer. I will see you on tour this summer.
Randolph: I’ll see you.
Tavis: Somewhere. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us, and as always, keep the faith.
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