This story has been passed along before—a tale of a young boy growing up in a house of God who is seduced by the soul of American gospel and taught the craft of music under the close supervision of his most respected elders. But this time around, it is not quite as traditional. Instead of walking up to a chapel door in the swamps of Louisiana or on a cross-filled hilltop along the highways south of the Mason-Dixon, this fable stems from a church in Orange, New Jersey, and is connected to a period in our history significantly after a Jim Crow America.
Recently, as of the past 20 years, artists have been rising from the ashes of the forgotten past to etch yet another passage into the ever growing scroll of verses which is closely guarded as rock-n-roll’s most cherished holy tradition. They are descendants from the musical divinity which walk amongst us, eerily out of place and even more so eerily out of time. Alongside The Black Crowes, The Kings Of Leon, The White Stripes and Comets On Fire, Robert Randolph & The Family Band are cut from the same cloth of legendary forefathers.
Robert Randolph spent his childhood in Jersey. “I grew up in Irvington,” says Randolph. “As a kid my most vivid memories were growing up in the church. The church was extremely musical and there were a lot of members there who were very talented.
“Since it was specifically a pedal steel church, it is where I learned to play lap steel and pedal steel,” explains Randolph. “I had the chance to watch some older guys play and that is who I wanted to be like, moreso than anybody else at the time.”
With his friends injecting influences of R&B and hip- hop, Randolph’s admiration for music branched out to a love for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sly & The Family Stone, and an interest in carrying on an 80-year-old time-honored tradition.
“Guys like Calvin Cook, Ted Beard and Henry Nelson were the pioneers of the original pedal steel sound, which dated back to the ’40s,” says Randolph. “The way Muddy Waters was transforming blues music, these guys were playing the pedal steel in a revolutionary way. Eventually I ended up really getting into Stevie Ray Vaughan when I was 18 and I wanted to play pedal steel like he plays guitar. People thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “The way I made a name for myself was taking a traditional instrument and really trying to kick it up a couple notches.”
The buzz surrounding Robert Randolph’s slide-work slowly began to make its way across the countryside via the rumbling grooves permeating the barrooms of NYC and the nationwide grassroots movement.
“It was a word of mouth thing that kind of got a lot of people interested,” adds Randolph.
The original incarnation of Randolph’s Family Band included Marcus Randolph (drums), Danyel Morgan (bass) and Jason Crosby (organ). The lineup was solidified with the 2002 release of Live At The Wetlands.
In 2003 a studio debut followed, which subsequently caught the attention of a seasoned British guitarist by the name of Eric Clapton. A touring relationship and a friendship ensued between the two, and in the midst of a prestigious slot at the 2006 Bonnaroo Music Festival, as well as a summer tour with The Black Crowes, Randolph found time to record his sophomore effort for Warner Brothers Records with a little help from some friends. Entitled Colorblind, the LP features appearances by Eric Clapton, Leela James, Dave Matthews and Leori Moore, and it was put together from a collection of session tapes originating from a handful of studios across the country.