Freddy Robinson
" 2/24/39-10/8/09 "
by Robert Putignano

Truly a Unique Musician and Man of All Seasons

Freddy Robinson left us on October 8, 2009 after a bout with cancer. He was seventy. Robinson had a very unique musical journey that started in Chicago at Chess records in 1958 making recordings with the great Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Mighty Joe Young, and also recorded his own 45 sides in 1962, one for the Chess subsidiary Checker Records. During his Chess/Checker tenure, Robinson recorded on dates with Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Louis and Dave Myers, Fred Below, Lafayette Leake, Luther Tucker, Odie Payne, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Lockwood, Phil Upchurch, Lee Shot Williams, Billy Davenport, Detroit Junior, Monk Higgins, and others.

Freddy moved to the West Coast around 1968 and continued his affiliation with Monk Higgins who arranged The Coming Atlantis which was later titled Black Fox for the World Pacific Jazz label. For the most part, this new era ended his hardcore Blues affiliations. A decisive change indeed as Robinson was now jamming with R&B jazz musicians like: Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Ernie Watts, Harvey Mason, Blue Mitchell, John Guerin, Gene Harris & the 3 Sounds, Stanley Turrentine, Groove Holmes, Tom Scott, the Jazz Crusaders.... Well, you get the picture. But the Blues called on Freddy again as he also then recorded with Jimmy McCracklin in 1969, Shakey Jake Harris and the popular cross section Jazz Blues Fusion with John Mayall. Jazz Blues Fusion was a delicious mixture that exemplifies were Blues meets jazz, and arguably Robinson's most recognized body of work with two recordings for Polydor, one of which has never been digitally released, Moving On. There were also several (Monk Higgins produced) recordings with Bobby Bland, Smackwater Jack with Quincy Jones, and he spent years on the road with Ray Charles. Freddy's final recording came as a sideman on Mitch Kashmir's 2005 Nickels & Dimes for Delta Groove.

My first introduction to Robinson was with Mayall. I saw Jazz Blues Fusion three times, and what a delight. On one particular evening, there was a snafu with my ticket, and the theater made things right by putting me on stage. I was glued to Robinson who must of thought I was nuts, as I was in awe. Some thirty years later I got to interview Freddy on my radio show, and spoke to Freddy about his transition from being a Chicago Blues player, to becoming a first class West Coast Soul/Jazz guy, and I'll never forget his answer, "But, Bob, I was still playing the Blues." Indeed!

Enrico Crivellaro encountered Freddy (twice) during the summer of '99. "I met him on two occasions, both of them through the great J.J. "Bad Boy" Jones (You can read more about him at; JJ) was one of the legends of the Los Angeles Blues scene. I used to have a steady gig with JJ at a great little bar called The Gas Lite, in Santa Monica. This went on for over a year. We used to play there every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and it was just awesome. JJ was the cousin of Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. They grew up together in Louisiana, and every night I would ask JJ to play "The Things I Used To Do" because it was the closest I've ever (to these days) heard to the original version. It would give me goose-bumps every night.

"So the way I met Freddy Robinson was memorable. JJ Jones had called me for a gig in Lancaster, California. It was on a Sunday afternoon at a restaurant for a reunion of Vietnam Veterans of that area. We go there, set up, and right before we start, this guy shows up. He comes in, says hi to JJ, and JJ introduces him to the rest of the band. JJ says, 'This is my friend Abu, he lives here in Lancaster, I called him up, and he's going to play with us today.' At first it just looked funny. It seemed like JJ had a million friends wherever we'd go. I was thinking, who the hell is this "Abu" guy?

"At first I didn't think much of Abu. He set up a little 15-watt, $80 solid-state Crate amplifier, and to a gear-head like me, that looked almost insulting! But his face looked familiar, and so did his Gibson "Barney Kessel" guitar.

"In pure JJ's style, two minutes before the gig starts, JJ comes to me and says "Enrico, I am just gonna sit out for the first set. You know, it's a restaurant. People here want to hear some jazz.. So I had to quickly think of a few jazz standards that I knew, or some of those "BBQ Jazz" boogaloo tunes, until I figured I had enough to get through the set. So we start to play, and Abu is sitting next to me with his guitar on his lap. I play the intro to the first tune. Then I take a solo, and for the entire time Abu is not even touching his guitar, he's just looking at me. He doesn't even play one single chord, and I don't know what to think. However, at some point I turn to him and I give him the 'Hey, take a solo' nod. Abu comes in with a solo that just DESTROYS me. Unbelievable! The whole band stared at him. We were just in awe. It was some of the best guitar playing we'd ever heard, a combination of Blues and be-bop that was simply phenomenal. This went on for the entire set. I would play something, and Abu would simply trash me with any note he'd play.

"Later in the set he finally took the initiative and started a song. It was Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". He had a big grin because somehow he knew that I didn't know the chord progression on the bridge. I was pretty much freaking out, and when the bridge came, he turned his guitar neck to me so that I could see the chords he was playing. He played them in such a clear, idiot-proof way, that he had no doubt that I was going to get them. As soon as the bridge was over, he turned back the other way and gave me a big smile. I will never forget that moment. In one second I had learned the bridge to "Take Five," but I also learned that the first thing you need to know when you want to be a musician is that you need to be humble. That is the way the "old guys" would learn their music. by watching musicians who were more seasoned than themselves.

"Once the set was over, I went straight to Abu and said "Abu, you are amazing. How come I don't know you?" He just smiled, and told me, "Let's go outside for a minute." He asked me about me, about what style of music I was into, things like that. He takes me to his car, and from the car he takes a copy of Living Blues magazine. He opens it and shows me a feature article on him--it must have been ten pages, filled with pictures of him playing with everybody--people like Jimmy Reed, and so on. I was even more puzzled. There was no way that I shouldn't know this guy! He saw the look on my face and told me to read through. I got to the end of the article, and there was a paragraph saying something like, "If you wonder who this Abu Talib guy is, his given name was Freddy Robinson--but don't call him Freddy. He rejected his name in favor of his Muslim name". As I read that, I go 'Oh, you are Freddy Robinson!!' And he says: 'No.' I insist...'I want to be called Abu Talib, but you are Freddy Robinson.!' 'No.'

"There was no chance he'd admit that he was Freddy Robinson. I found out later that he had instructed his wife how to answer the phone, and whenever anyone would call the house asking for Freddy, she would say "Freddy's dead", paraphrasing Curtis Mayfield's song. I asked why he changed his name to Abu Talib.. He said, 'I converted to Islam quite a while ago. What do you think makes more sense, a black guy named Freddy, or a black guy named Abu?' I couldn't argue with that.

"I asked him about that Jazz Blues Fusion album by John Mayall, on which he plays the guitar that has always been one of my favorite records because of his stellar guitar work, a must-have for any Blues guitarist. Abu said. 'Back then I could play real fast. Now I can't anymore. I had a motorbike accident years ago (note: I believe it was in the 80's). I broke my left arm and since then my playing hasn't been the same.' I made him notice that with a broken arm he could still play better than most guitarists on earth. He replied 'No, before the accident I could play as good and as fast as George Benson.' I didn't doubt it, and I wish I could have seen him in those days.

"It was enchanting to be around Freddy/Abu. I wish I could have stayed the whole day, he had so many stories and so much to teach. Pretty soon it was time to go back for the second set, and as I felt that I was blessed. It doesn't happen every day to be jamming with someone with the background, the skills, the history, the prestige and the heart of Freddy Robinson.

"One night, later on, Freddy came down to Santa Monica with his friend and fellow Lancaster resident Finis Tasby. I was sitting at the bar while JJ Bad Boy Jones, Finis Tasby and Freddy Robinson were jamming the night away. Only now (with both JJ and Freddy gone,) do I realize the magnitude of that jam. It was Blues history in the making. I wish I was less naive and had pictures and videotapes from that night. I don't, but that night will stay in my heart until the end of my time. Sometimes I wish time would stand still and would allow us to enjoy these wonderful people forever. Unfortunately, that's not the case. But what I can do is smile every time I play the bridge to "Take Five." That's how Freddy played it, with a smile. What a lesson, what a man.

"Well, Bob, I wish you could have been there, too, that day! This is my little story with Freddy Robinson. Hope it can help you with your article. If it doesn't, it was good for me anyway to write this down and remember that day!" Hubert Sumlin on Robinson About a week after Robinson's passing I was with Hubert Sumlin and startled him when I asked him to give me a comment about Freddy. Hubert was not aware that Robinson had passed, but after choking up a bit, 'Oh Lord, I didn't know. I got to work with him. He was a great player. Freddy did the original "Spoonful" with the Wolf and a lot more. And don't forget his work with Ray Charles. Freddy was a special guy.'

All in all, Freddy had five full length albums credited to his name. The last The Real Thing at Last was credited to his Muslim name Abu Talib, plus one Ace Records import compilation, Bluesology. Here is a selected discography of Freddy Robinson/Abu Talib recordings, both as a leader and as a sideman:

Howlin' Wolf 'Spoonful,' 'Howlin' For My Darling.' Back Door Man,' Wang Dang Doodle.' Chess 1960

Little Walter 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' Checker 1959

Freddy Robinson 'The Creeper,' 'Go-Go Girl' Checker 1966

Freddy Robinson The Coming Atlantis later titled Black Fox World Pacific Jazz 1968

Groove Holmes & Ernie Watts 'Come Together' World Pacific Jazz 1969

Blue Mitchell 'Bantu Village' Blue Note 1969

Freddy Robinson 'Hot Fun In the Summertime' Pacific Jazz 1970

Jazz Crusaders 'Old Socks, New Shoes' Chisa Records 1970 Re-released on Verve 2008 The Night Blooming Jazzmen (self titled) Mainstream 1971

Gene Harris & The Three Sounds Blue Note 1971

Quincy Jones 'Smackwater Jack' A&M 1971

Monk Higgins & the Specialties 'Heavyweight' United Artists 1972

Eddie Kirkland 'Front and Center' Trix 1995 Recorded '70 & '72

Blue Mitchell 'Blue's, Blues' Mainstream Records 1972

Shakey Jake Harris 'The Devil's Harmonica' Polydor 1972

John Mayall 'Jazz Blues Fusion' Polydor 1972

John Mayall 'Moving On' Polydor (sadly never issued digitally) 1972

Blue Mitchell 'Grafitti Blues' Mainstream 1973

Night Blooming Jazzmen 'Freedom Jazz Dance' Mainstream 1973

Louis Myers 'I'm a Southern Man Advent 1978

Bobby Bland 'I Feel Good, I Feel Fine' MCA 1979

Abu Talib 'The Real Thing At Last' Son Pat Records 1994

Freddy Robinson 'Bluesology' Ace compilation 1999

John Mayall 'Rolling With the Blues' Shakedown Records 2003, recorded '72 & '73

*Hear a few Robinson solos on Brother Ray's live recording 'It's A Blues Thing' on Monad Records; which also features Billy Preston and Esther Phillips.

How many Bluesmen do you know that have covered this wide spectrum of genre busting music? And all the time Freddy played with taste and finesse. He possessed a big, fat beautiful tone and was also one of the coolest cats on the planet. Given Talib's/Robinson's talents, the heavyweights he recorded with, and the decades he was on the scene, it's a shame that Robinson is somewhat under-recorded. But no matter. Long live the guitar artistry of the late-great Freddy Robinson, a truly unique musician!

Bob Putignano: