Howard Roberts



The year was 1968 - post 'summer of love', the height of psychedelia and acid rock. Groups like Blue Cheer, The Doors, The Amboy Dukes, Iron Butterfly, The Lemon Pipers and Steppenwolf were getting a lot of airplay on the radio. I had just begun to play the guitar - strumming songs like 'Gloria', 'Cherry, Cherry' and 'Hey Good Lookin.' A cousin of mine who is a fine musician noticed my budding interest in guitar and gave me a few ideas/ pointers. He admonished me to develop "big ears" and explained that this meant broadening my musical exposure by listening to other types of music besides rock. He was partial to jazz. He sat me down and put on a record. He told me, "You'll like this. Trust me." Out of those speakers came a guitar sound unlike any I had ever heard - bluesy, real cool and clean. Really melodic too. I asked him "What is this?" He said "It's jazz - and the guitar player is Howard Roberts." That record was H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player and it was my introduction to jazz guitar.

Howard Roberts was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1929. He began playing guitar at age 8 and by age 15 was playing gigs in and around the Phoenix area. In 1950 (at age 20) Howard decided to move to Los Angeles, and through hard work and the invaluable assistance of fellow guitarist/arranger-composer Jack Marshall, Howard met and began playing with some of L.A.'s very best musicians, including Bobby Troup, Chico Hamilton and Barney Kessel. This led to a job with Bobby Troup and circa 1956 to a solo recording contract with Verve Records. At around that same time as he signed with Verve, Howard decided to concentrate on recording/studio work - work that he would do nearly non-stop until the early 1970's.

Howard's studio career has to be one of the most prolific ever. He played rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and even mandolin on his countless studio dates. He played on an incredible number of television and movie projects. That's Howard playing the eerie lead line from the Twilight Zone T.V. show, it's his big sound on the theme from The Munsters, and his chord backing on I Dream Of Jeannie. He backed jazz, pop, country and rock 'n roll artists like Georgie Auld, Peggy Lee 'Fever', Eddie Cochran 'Sittin In The Balcony', Bobby Day 'Rockin Robin'. Jody Reynolds 'Endless Sleep', Shelley Fabares 'Johnny Angel', Dean Martin 'Houston', The Monkees, Roy Clark, Chet Atkins, The Electric Prunes and hundreds of others.

But Howard wasn't just a first call studio cat. He wore many hats (literally and figuratively). Beginning in the late 60's Howard's interest in studio work diminished. He began to travel and hold guitar seminars all around the country. Howard had a genuine talent for teaching and curriculum development - a talent he shared with his wife Patty (who as of this writing is still active in the education field). This interest/talent led to the founding of a school for guitarists: GIT (The Guitar Institute of Technology). He also established Playback Publishing and wrote several books as part of a structured guitar music curriculum. And if that wasn't enough, for several years Howard wrote a monthly column ("Jazz Improvisation") for Guitar Player magazine. And as jazz guitar great Jimmy Bruno told me, "Howard's column was great. It had stuff you could actually use."

Howard had already recorded under his own name on at least one other label (Verve Records) before he signed with Capitol Records. Prior to that (circa 1955) he recorded at least two records as part of pianist/song stylist Bobby Troup's band on the Bethlehem label. Color Him Funky and H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player are the first two albums Howard recorded for Capitol and they have more than a few things in common. They were recorded within a few months of each other in 1963 at the Capitol Tower (in the now legendary Studio A) and are loaded with outstanding guitar playing. (Howard would go on to record nine more LP's for Capitol before signing with ABC Impulse.) Both projects were produced by Jack Marshall and feature a quartet line-up: guitar, organ, bass and drums. The outstanding rhythm section is the same on both dates - Chuck Berghofer on bass and Earl Palmer on drums. Paul Bryant and Burkley Kendrix are on organ and both LP's feature Howard's astounding jazz guitar sound - for my money, one of the best ever. Studio A had something to do with this great sound (as did Jack Marshall's production and Hugh Davies', Joe Polito's and John Kraus' superb engineering). But it was the terrific combination of Howard's fingers, his black guitar (the often modified Gibson archtop that he acquired from Herb Ellis in the early 1950's, which is pictured on the the back cover of Color Him Funky and this CD) and his Benson amplifier that produced the extraordinary sounds on these records. The songs on both LP's run in the 2 minute range are are relatively short for the jazz idiom. H.R. aptly described his music as earthy, down-home enjoyable jazz and clearly its earthiness as well as the short run length was an attempt to attract mainstream radio airplay and new fans who couldn't quite grasp bebop, cool or free jazz. Of course, length of song has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the performance - and every one of the songs on these albums feature big-time quality performances by everyone involved.

Howard had a number of distinctive stylistic trademarks that stand out on these LP's. He combined elements of bebop and cool jazz with a decidedly funky-bluesy bent (especially on his solos). H.R. had a tremendous energy and drive in his playing which really comes through on tunes like 'Hoe Down' and 'Rough Ridin'.' He steered clear of standard arrangements. His version of 'Li'l Darlin' is taken at a much livelier tempo than usual and is my all-time favorite. 'The Days Of Wine And Roses' and 'If Ever I Would Leave You' are both handled in this same vein. His ballad work was impeccable, especially his ultra-smooth and tasty chord melody work heard to great effect on 'Satin Doll' and 'When Lights Are Low'. And of course there are the classic H.R. funky/bluesy moments on 'Watermelon Man,' 'One Long Day,' and 'Dirty Old Bossa Nova'. Howard also managed to come up with catchy endings that really contrast with the rest of the tune. Check out 'Shiny Stockings' and 'One Note Samba' and you'll definitely hear what I'm talking about.

Like many supremely talented musicians, Howard liked to wing it on his own sessions (undoubtedly a contrast to the more rigid requirements of many of his studio dates), and I have it on good authority that for a number of his Capitol projects (including these) H.R. eschewed formal preparation/rehearsal, preferring instead to wait until the night before the session to pull an all-nighter - preparing sketchy arrangements for the next day.

Howard passed away in June of 1992 and the guitar community lost an exceptionally fine musician. You could call him a Dirty Guitar Player or Color Him Funky but to those of us who are big time fans, Howard Roberts will always be the dirtiest, funkiest, jazziest and oh-so-bluesiest guitar player of them all.


JIM HILMAR
Seattle, Washington
March 1997
Liner notes 1997 by J.E. Hilmar