Cali Combo

San Francisco guitarist Roy Rogers melds traditional and modern blues

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Los Angeles, 1990: Slide guitarist Roy Rogers absolutely kills on the Robert Johnson song "Terraplane Blues." After the gig, a man approaches him with an intriguing proposition: Would Rogers be interested in owning a 1937 Hudson Essex Terraplane?

Rogers bit. "I had it shipped up (to Northern California) and rebuilt," he says. The bluesman still owns the vintage automobile, and has kept it stock, with a drab black paint job. He breaks it out occasionally for a spin. "It sounds corny," Rogers muses, "but every now and then I'll think, 'Robert could've been driving around in this car. Where was he going?'"

It's safe to say that the blues runs deep in Roy Rogers' veins. But this is no mere revivalist. With his band The Delta Rhythm Kings, he's carved out his own contemporary take on the traditional sounds that emanated so many decades ago from the Mississippi Delta. "He's absolutely traditional and absolutely original at the same time," Bonnie Raitt has said of her friend and sometimes collaborator. "It's a very modern thing he's got going on and yet it's deep in the trench."

Rogers' take: "How far do you want to think out of the box or do you want to make up your own damn box? Music has no boundaries, except for the ones you make for yourself. Defining how it, quote, should be played - I reject that completely. My music is based on tradition; it's Delta blues-derived, but why would I have the audacity to call myself a Delta bluesman? I was born and raised in California. It's totally inappropriate."

Although he might be reluctant to admit it, Rogers has taken slide guitar playing to places that Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and other bottleneck stalwarts never dreamed of. The general consensus among critics and musicians is that he's among the very best slide guitar specialists in the world.

He might be slinging a battered acoustic, a dobro or electric Strat, but Rogers will always have his glass slide covering his pinkie. Wearing his trademark fedora, vest and tab-collar shirt, and sporting a close-cropped beard, he roams the stage spinning out slurry, slinky lines countered with chords, riffs and the occasional single-note run.

During many tunes, the Rhythm Kings - bassist Steve Ehrmann and drummer Billy Lee Lewis - will drop out, leaving only Rogers to build a solo from a hush to an adrenalized crescendo. These are crowd-pleasing moments, and Rogers is generous with them. He does not, however, see these spotlighted forays as grandstanding. "I think about the dynamics" he explains, adding that prodigious technical displays are "not part of my thought process. I'm thinking about how to best present the energy."

Roy Rogers was born in Redding, Calif., in 1950, and was raised a couple hours south in Vallejo, 40 miles up San Pablo Bay from San Francisco. His parents were huge fans of Roy Rogers, the Singing Cowboy. (So is Roy; he has a big memorabilia collection).

He picked up the guitar at age 12 and a year later was a member of a band called The Newports with a bunch of guys in high school. They wore gold lamé jackets and played everything from Little Richard to "Harlem Nocturne."

He fell under the spell of the '60s folk revival, which exposed him to the acoustic blues of Son House, Tommy Johnson and the like. An older brother brought Robert Johnson's recordings home from college, which set Roy on his slide mission quest.

By the time he was in high school the San Francisco psychedelic scene was in full swing, but instead of slipping out of the house to crash acid tests, Rogers would hit Fillmore West to catch Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and others. "I never really liked the psychedelic stuff," he says. "I was already steeped in classic rock 'n' roll. I was a big fan of the early Stones, and I was already steeped in the blues. It's emotional content is what appealed to me."

In the '70s, Rogers worked in an acoustic duo with harp player David Burgin; the two released their first album in '76.

Rogers formed the Delta Rhythm Kings in 1980 and became a fixture at The Saloon, San Francisco's oldest blues bar.

A couple years later, Hooker, the king of boogie blues, lured Rogers into his band. He stayed until '86, and built an unshakeable bond with his mentor. But unlike so many white blues virtuosos who sign on with legendary black performers as a way onto the circuit, Rogers was able to take it a step further.

In '89, he got the call to produce a new Hooker recording project. With Hooker, his manager and Rogers acting as a business and creative triumvirate, they pitched the project to every major label. All passed (although they did secure distribution through Capitol). The creative side bore more fruit: They recruited a handful of vaunted guest artists, among them Carlos Santana and Raitt. The result was The Healer, a bona fide smash that sold 1.5-million units, won a Grammy and made the then 73-year-old Hooker a star. (He died in 2001.)

During the sessions, Rogers wanted to get Hooker to play National steel guitar, so he brought his prized 1931 model into the studio. Hooker flatly refused, but Rogers pressed on, and over a matter of weeks finally cajoled the blues legend to pick up the shiny ax. "Forty-five minutes later we had eight songs in the can," Rogers says. "He wouldn't put it down. It was one of my proudest things."

Rogers went on to record three more Hooker albums, each one an artistic and commercial success. Along the way, he and his Rhythm Kings expanded their touring sphere to an international level. Rogers has eight solo CDs to his credit, the latest of which is the recently released Live at the Sierra Nevada Brewery Big Room, which affords the slide master plenty of space to stretch out. The concert was also shot for a TV show and DVD release called Sierra Center Stage.

Now working outside the realm of major labels or specialty blues imprints, Rogers finds himself taking more and more control of his business affairs.

"Well, you gotta make a living," he says offhandedly. "But you're never taught the business. You learn by hard knocks. It's not just going out and playing a gig and hoping for the best. You have to have some kind of plan. With all that said, it still comes down to nothing is better than when you're in performance and the band is swinging."

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About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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