Indeed, for all the musicians the rock press has ever done disservice to, Trower's name has to be high on that list. Hendrix influence? Undoubtedly; Trower himself notes that experiencing Hendrix in concert changed his approach to guitar playing, and both players are heavily influenced by the roots of American R&B. But a Hendrix clone? No way, and as such his early label as "The White Hendrix" is, to my ears, a complete misnomer. That's where the disservice lies - it sells him short, much like saying Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were both blues guitarists... so they must sound the same, which would be unfair to both Waters and Hooker. Likewise here.
Trower, born in March of 1945, has actually been a working musician since 1962 (!!) when he formed a group that eventually became The Paramounts, a band that included Gary Brooker. They disbanded in 1966; Brooker went on to record the anthematic "Whiter Shade Of Pale" with Procol Harum, and Trower joined his old bandmate in 1967. He stayed until 1971 and appeared on the band's first five albums. Upon leaving Procol Harum, he formed a four piece band that included bassist James Dewar; the combo was short-lived and never recorded, but Trower retained Dewar (and added "lead vocalist" to his responsibilities), recruited drummer Reg Isadore and in 1973, the Robin Trower band was born. Isadore was replaced by former Sly and the Family Stone drummer Bill Lordan between his first two albums; this lineup remained consistent for four records, usually considered Trower's best known work - in fact, the first five studio albums of Trower's solo career all went gold. Rustee Allen (another Sly alum) was added on bass for the next three releases, which got Trower to the '80s. From that point on, with some thirteen studio albums already under his belt and his roots and style both well documented, Trower has followed an interesting musical path that has allowed him to both capitalize on his successes and further explore his love of blues and R&B.
When he collaborates, he chooses his projects well. Twice now, he has worked closely with ex-Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, resulting in two early eighties albums and another in 2008. The two seem to share very similar roots and passions in regard to American R&B, and they work very well together. Similarly, Trower has worked with Bryan Ferry as both a guitarist and a producer. On the surface, this seems like a very odd match... yet, both again share a deep felt love for similar musics and they work well together both in the studio and on stage. Trower got very high praise from Ferry in a 1995 interview I did with the latter, saying, "I really enjoy working with Robin. He's a real gentleman, and obviously he comes from the same generation as me, so even though we've used our musical influences in different ways, we have the same sort of musical education. We have a very similar grounding in black American music, both of us being big R&B fans. He has a lot of attack to his playing, a very passionate musician."
Ferry isn't alone in regards to high profile musicians offering their praises. On a CD reissue of an early Trower album, none other than Robert Fripp offered the following in the liner notes: "Robin Trower is one of the very few English guitarists that have mastered bends and wobbles. Not only has he got inside them, with an instinctive knowing of their affective power, but they went to live inside his hands. It is the rare English guitarist who has been able to stand alongside American guitarists and play with an equal authority to someone grounded in a fundamentally American tradition... I toured America in 1974 with Ten Years After top of the bill, King Crimson second, and Robin Trower bottom. Nearly every night I went out to listen to him. This was a man who hung himself on the details: the quality of sound, nuances of each inflection and tearing bend, and abandonment to the feel of the moment. Later, in England, he gave me guitar lessons." When Sly Stone's rhythm section hangs with you for years, when Bryan Ferry uses you as a musician and producer, when Robert Fripp seeks you out for guitar lessons... I'd say you're just a little bit more than a clone of Jimi Hendrix.
In addition to his collaborative efforts, Trower has released an impressive series of blues-based recordings that truly underscore his deepest affections, including a 2013 release entitled Roots And Branches (doesn't look like he's stopping any time soon!). His blues recordings garner near universal raves for the clarity, form and pure passion of his playing, and in my opinion he deserves every accolade and more.
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Music junkie that I am, researching these articles is a lot of fun for me, and of course the greatest pleasure comes from giving myself the luxury of listening to an artist's work as I research and write. The thought that kept coming to my mind over and over as I enjoyed Trower's work was, "I really do have to wonder how much the Hendrix schtick from the press hurt his career." I know, I know, five consecutive gold albums is nothing to sneeze at; neither is a comparison to Jimi, but I really, honestly believe that Trower is so much more than all that. Who really knows what Hendrix might have accomplished had he lived longer, but it's not difficult to envision a career path similar to Trower's, experimenting with various collaborations and exploring the roots of the music he loved. Including his work with Procol Harum and Bryan Ferry, I count THIRTY studio albums in Trower's career, and it's pure pleasure to take the time to listen to his chronological development.
As a band, Procol Harum was indeed among the founding fathers of classic rock, and you can really hear Trower's development through the five albums he was a part of. By the time Broken Barricades was recorded, it felt like Trower had reached his peak within the group; PH was often a majestically near-artsy band, but Barricades was more guitar-driven than their previous releases. Being the Trower fan that I am, I guess it's no mere coincidence that it's my favorite album from that group. In retrospect, it also seems the perfect time for Trower to have gone his own way - I think both he and Procol Harum were able to continue developing more fully due to the split.
His post-Procol work has has blown me away on so many levels! When he goes power-trio, he exhibits a command of aggression and attack. When he does blues, I love his uptempo work for his incredibly melodic and tasty leads, and I really groove on his slow, deep passionate pieces. Now and then (and not often enough for me!), I hear good, funky nods that betray what must be an extensive knowledge of his soul roots (he references James Brown as a huge hero, with an appreciation for Brown's bridge between blues and rock 'n roll). He also does an excellent job of choosing musicians to surround himself with. While I'd love to hear him sing more (check out his lead vocal on Procol Harum's "Crucifiction Lane" from the A Salty Dog album; this man is a bluesman...), I also can't knock his choices for singers (which may also allow Trower more room to concentrate on his playing. I'd love to ask him sometime). It was a very wise move to make James Dewar his vocalist from the start of his solo days; Dewar was at times nearly as responsible as Trower for helping to define that early band's gruff-yet-sleek style. Furthermore, working with Jack Bruce is a win for everybody; again, they meld seamlessly together within an obviously shared vision, making me think that Bruce was a whole lot more of the reason for the excellence of Cream than he ever got credit for.
I wouldn't mind it at all if Trower decided some day to record an album of what he considers to be some of the soul/funk favorites of his life. With his perfect combination of know-how, ability and good old fashioned soul, I bet he'd knock that right out of the park. Then again, as I mentioned before - thirty albums and counting, an ever-continuing legacy of excellence in whatever he's pursuing at the moment... I strongly suspect that whatever comes next will be nothing but sheer delight.
I've seen Robin Trower in concert twice, once in Buffalo, NY (March, 1971) and once in Orlando, FL (March 1995); the first time, he was with Procol Harum on the Broken Barricades tour and the second time with Bryan Ferry on the Mamouna tour. I sincerely hope to see "Robin Trower" in concert some day...
For those who might like a quick little audio introduction to Trower's career, scoot over to Spotify or wherever and build yourself this 50 minute playlist for a peek at what the man can do. This is in NO way comprehensive, nor is it meant to be; it's also not meant to be a "greatest hits" compilation. I picked a few significant points in Trower's career and chose one or two tracks from each of the albums that I feel are representative of what he's capable of. It's a very nice listen, if I do say so myself!
- 01 Simple Sister (with Procol Harum, from Broken Barricades)
- 02 About To Begin (Bridge Of Sighs)
- 03 Lady Love (Bridge Of Sighs)
- 04 Some Rain Falls (Long Misty Days)
- 05 Messin' The Blues (Long Misty Days)
- 06 Roads To Freedom (Victims Of The Fury)
- 07 Victims Of The Fury (guess...)
- 08 It's Too Late (BLT)
- 09 Don't Want To Know (with Bryan Ferry, from Mamouna)
- 10 Just Another Day (Seven Moons)
- 11 As You Watch Each City Fall (What Lies Beneath)
- 12 Buffalo Blues (What Lies Beneath)