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Robin Henkel

Robin Henkel
Been There and Gone!
By T.E. Mattox

ome of Robin Henkel's first musical memories center around the Seattle coffee house scene his parents frequented during the folk era of the early '60s. But one of his most lasting memories, and one that would have a substantial impact on his direction in life came in 1962 when his father took young Robin to see a bluesman named Josh White perform at Seattle's Convention Hall. Henkel says simply, 'I was knocked out!' Not only did Henkel experience his first blues concert, he and his father went backstage after the show to meet the legendary artist in person. Even as a 10-year old, Robin remembers vividly, "Here he was, bigger than life like Paul Bunyan, he had his shirt off and was drenched in sweat, with a towel around his neck, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and was just chilling out after the show." Robin's eyes gleam when he recalls, "I had my little playbill and I go, 'c-c-c-could I-I-I h-h-have y-y-your au-au-au-tograph?' He signed it, 'Robert, I wish you best always.' And I have that framed today some 50 years later."

Robin Henkel
Robin Henkel hard at work. Photo: T.E. Mattox

Born into a Navy family in Pensacola, Florida the fall of 1951, Robin and his parents would relocate to the Northwest and eventually, San Diego. Henkel says he's been a West Coaster since 1957 and can recount the San Diego music scene from about the age of eleven. "There was a fellow named Pat Foster and he played a 12-string guitar." Robin says. "And back in that folk music era that was like plugging into a Marshall amplifier. I remember him playing 'John Henry' and have a strong memory of that. The earliest folks I played with… a fellow named Jay Graft who was just a high school buddy. But by the time I was in high school, about 17 years old or so, I don't know how this happened but I got in a soul band. We played James Brown, the Temptations, all of those Motown singing groups. We played 'Mickey's Monkey,' 'the Philly Dog,' 'Soul Finger,' 'Walkin' the Dog,' and 'Green Onions.' The band was called The Highlights and at 17, I was the oldest one in the band. Everybody in the band could read music except for me. They had an arranger, I mean a legitimate arranger that wrote musical charts for horns. I musta' done something right, I stayed in there, playing bass. I was a bass player in that band. That was really, really good."

Fine-tuning his ear for music and with repetition, Robin says he became more of an instinctual player. "In addition to hearing folk music and the blues with Josh White… with those old record turntables when the needle goes to the center, it goes out and plays the song again. And I'd be out in the garage building something and hear that record like 5 times over until I couldn't stand it anymore and flip it over and hear it 5 more times on the other side. So, by the time I got good enough on guitar, those songs just started to almost play themselves because I just heard them so many times."

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"… we live in a culture where if you see a song on MTV, you're looking at a woman's butt and a '55 Chevy on the video. And that's what music has become."
– Robin Henkel

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Henkel is known largely as a bluesman, but his repertoire much like his presentation can be extremely diverse. Something the musician doesn't shy away from. "If we were to take a cue from the 'blues police' aficionados, sometimes I add a little too much. You know I'll add a little jazzy chord that you would never hear in a Jimmy Reed song. I remember one time, Kenny Schoppmeyer, we were playing a Muddy Waters tune and he would jokingly tell you when you're not playing the right stuff. He would always do it with a smile on his face and I was doing this ninth chord and Kenny said, 'Muddy never played that chord in his life." (laughing) "Because he knows the official way that song went and had a sense of authority about it. I didn't take that as a put down."

You played with the Blues Ambassadors? "Yeah, I played with the original Blues Ambassadors... for two or more years. When Earl asked me to play," Henkel recalls. "In a way that brought me back into the blues scene, the actual blues scene. That put me in the clique of people in San Diego that were doing it. I was playing the U.S. Grant Hotel in a tuxedo, playing Fred McDowell tunes, Robert Johnson tunes with no real cultural or social connection to the other groups of musicians that were doing that. Playing with the Blues Ambassadors brought me into Croce's, brought me into contact with Blind Melon's which was probably the most important one. Because at Blind Melon's you had Bill Magee, Len Rainey, O.C. Anderson and national acts coming in. I warmed up for several national acts with Blonde Bruce or the Blues Ambassadors. I remember we opened for Elvin Bishop and B.B. King… Junior Wells. By the time '89 came around, I was playing with Earl and there was a blues scene. Eric Lieberman had his band, Earl Thomas, and like I said Len Rainey, Bill Magee… God, there was lots of other bands; Fuzzy Rankins and the Bluesmen, Candye Kane. Why that was important for me was really the social element of hearing these people play and more so, just meeting everybody. Blind Melon's would have a blues fest like once a month. They would start the music at five or six in the afternoon and each band would do a 90 minute set and they could get five or more bands in until closing time."

You list so many musical influences, do you think that is why you seem to explore more diversity in your style of play? "As a musician you lose your innocence. When you hear something you go, 'Oh, check the bass line, check that…' and you get a lot of benefit from your knowledge of music. One of my English teachers said, 'You lose your innocence when you learn stuff.' You're not just listening for the sheer enjoyment. Being into jazz and Antonio Carlos Jobim and stuff like that, you definitely become a student of beautiful and well-executed chord changes. You become somewhat of an intellectual about harmony. I'm always analyzing people, where did they get that? Is that natural ability or did they go to music school? Who did they study with, where did they get those ideas? Was it their parents, did it happen by accident?"

It's always a learning experience when attending a Robin Henkel performance. You drop so many pearls of wisdom during a show, and you seem so well-versed in the guitars, their craftsmanship as well as the originators who played them? "Well, I don't know all the history and I haven't studied it, I just know little bits and pieces. And when you put your bits and pieces together and talk to a crowd of people, you might sound like you know everything. But you don't. You're just giving them little anecdotes about Fred McDowell, Josh White, Miles Davis, whatever. I haven't read those people's biographies and studied their entire discography and I don't really qualify myself as that. But from a person listening to me talk, they may go, 'God, this is some kind of friggin' professor or something!' And I'm not tryin' to bullshit people, I'm just sayin' if you've got a couple of unique anecdotes, just at the right time and can back it up with a little song here and there, it really goes a long way to pull people's interest in. And I think that's kind of marvelous in a way, because we live in a culture where if you see a song on MTV, you're looking at a woman's butt and a '55 Chevy on the video. And that's what music has become."

Henkel raises both hands as if to say, don't get me wrong. "I love women's butts and I love old cars, I love both of those things. But this is a song, right? Junior Brown has a song called; 'My Wife Thinks You're Dead.' In that video there are all these bizarre little scenes of him running around and it's cute as hell, but when it goes to the guitar solo, it GOES to the guitar solo. You see the guys hands play the solo and I go, 'that's the REAL DEAL!' That guy has an appreciation of the musicianship culture. Even though I've been entertained with all this other stuff when it cuts to the solo, I can watch the guys hands play it. That's right on. So when I get asked, 'what are you, what do you do?' When you talk about me performing, that's part documentary, part history and part music, I do all of those things but I don't qualify myself as a historian that could actually teach a class, but we're saying it's interesting. When you hook people's interest and it's not about cars or butts, it's about the actual history of the music; that to me is the real deal. So, I have a sense of pride talking about music and making the music and the history and what happened to a lot of these guys and where they came from and what they did, make THAT the entertainment rather to have to fall back on jokes about drugs… it's real."

When I see you playing with Billy Watson and Whitney Shay… it just seems like you all are having such a great time together, how does it get to that point? "I don't have to fake having a good time. When you enjoy the people you're playing with it's that much easier. Even though Whitney and I have plenty of songs that we do, over and over and over again, and there's somewhat of a set routine, I don't know if I'd call it improvisational, it's like a 'just play it out as it goes' element. So it's not always the same every time. We'll veer away from the arrangement, Billy's in there too and it comes out a little different each time. There's a certain fun in that. Each one of us is good a taking the lead, and each one of us is good at falling into the background and supporting. Jazz musicians are really good at doing that."

Billy Watson, Whitney Shay and Robin Henkel
Billy Watson, Whitney Shay and Robin Henkel. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

You also have a history with another blues woman named Anna Troy. "I met her at an open mike at LeStat's." Robin says. "What year I don't really know... maybe 2000, right around there. When I saw her perform, I didn't know who she was, but I noticed her. She stood out. When she hit the guitar, BAM, she hit the guitar, like a ballsy attack! When she sang, the combination of her voice and her guitar playing and… Whoa! A 20-year old young lady… she's pretty ballsy, really. Her sister now apparently, is kind of a rock star, Lindsey. But Anna and I became friends and I think she started picking up on what I was doing, the blues thing. We hung out together and played together and Anna was very prolific at writing songs. She was always coming up with a new song and she would get her heartbroken by something."

Ten albums currently, are there any new projects in the immediate future? "Number Eleven is on the way." He smiles. "In the last 8 years, I have recorded twice with the intention of making a record and not finished it off. I was working on it, working on it, working on it, got busy doing gigs, got busy doing gigs, work on it, busy doing gigs, six months go by… I forgot about it. There's a little bit of a disease in perfectionism. You want it to be good and while you're trying to make it good, you're burning out on it. And by the time you make it as good as you want it, you don't like it anymore. So what I did, I went over the last 30 years and I've found tapes and I'm going to put out a record from 1988 till now, from recordings that were made in that time but were never released or very limited release. So this is a compilation of some of the best recordings I've ever made. There's only one blues song and there's only one cover song. I might have two records out in the same year. I'm recording right now; I need to come up with another 'just country blues' record, with a few covers and several original tunes in that genre."

Robin Henkel performing
Henkel narrates the story of the blues. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

I've heard you've been spending a lot of time in jail!? "I've been going to jail… and teaching some guitar. Rob Bird is my contact for that. There's a program, it might have been started by one of the guys in the band, the Clash that wanted to create some sort of outreach for guys that are prisoners. To give them a guitar, provide some creativity and a means of self-expression while they're in prison. I think it may have started in England but it came over to the United States and it's called, Jail Guitar Doors. Rob Bird asked if I would like to go to one of the local prisons and teach. And I found out later it was definitely a low-security place down on the Mexican border. It's about self-esteem building to a point where it's almost not about the guitar and more about socialization and getting use to other people and you get a guitar lesson out of the deal, too."

Find out more about Jail Guitar Doors here; to find out where he will be playing in 'general population,' check out Robin Wenkel's website.

Related Articles:
San Diego's Mr. Natural... Billy Watson; BB King; Phil Gates Plays it Forward; The Blues Are Alive and Well in Southern California; Nathan James: Southern California Roots Run Delta Deep


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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA



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