Heart and soul

His first hit, penned some 30-odd years ago, honored another soul man. But with any justice, Greensboro-based singer/guitarist Roy Roberts may well become the subject of his own tribute song some day.

“In 1967, I released a record entitled ‘The Legend of Otis Redding’ — a song about his death,” the performer recalls (Roberts played with Redding in the mid-’60s). Roberts had never intended to sing the song himself. But fortunately for him, fate had hatched another plan. “I wrote the song for [my band’s] lead singer at the time, Johnny Dunn,” Roberts relates. “We got to the studio and were ready to record, but Johnny Dunn was nowhere to be seen. We didn’t have anybody in the studio who could sing, and I didn’t think I could. But [the record producer] looked at me and told me I had to sing the song. The money to get all those people there was already spent. So I sang the song, [and] it became a hit. … I haven’t looked back since.”

In the early ’70s, Roberts kept himself firmly in the game by creating his own record company (Roton Records) and releasing a hit R&B/soul tune, “I Can’t Go On Without Your Love.” But when the disco epidemic broke out in the latter part of that decade, the performer went from headlining 300 nightclubs in a five-state area to being, as he puts it, “temporarily out of business.” He soon drifted into country music, however — a field he successfully explored for much of the ’80s. From there, he dabbled in gospel for a time.

Throughout Roberts’ musical forays, however, the blues nudged him seductively. “Even when I was playing country music, I always slipped in those old blues. … I’ve been at the blues in one fashion or another for 35 years, and I’m not going to give up until they throw dirt in my face,” he declares.

In 1993, he released Introducing Roy Roberts on his new label, RockHouse Records. This aptly titled work heralded an entirely new era for the immensely versatile player: Releasing almost a disc a year since that time, he seems to have finally found his true niche — one he rules with a signature, self-contained majesty.

“[When I released the 1993 disc], it [ushered in] a new phase for me, because I had stopped playing music for a little while, about four years,” says Roberts. “When I came back, I got strictly into the blues. I had never labeled myself as being a blues player. I had always played R&B, country-and-western, and other [types of music]. But when I came back to start to play again, I had the radio on in my studio one day, and I heard a song by Robert Cray. And he and I sound so much alike. I said, ‘This cat’s out there making money, y’know, and [he’s] playing my style of music’.”

Laughing at the memory, Roberts recalls that it wasn’t long before he’d renewed his relationship with the recording process: “I just went in and started laying tracks and writing songs, and it kind of pushed me back out on the road again, in a different direction.”

Often praised for his steamy guitar licks, Roberts concedes that recreating the full impact of his live sound in the studio is sometimes a challenge. “I think [the sound] will eventually be captured on a CD,” he reasons. “The thing about that is, you just gotta keep recording, gotta keep that stuff coming, keep it fresh. … It’s a building process.”

Roberts’ latest work, Deeper Shade of Blue (RockHouse Records, 1998), is rich with love songs — but he claims his inspiration flows from more than one source. “The way I write songs, a lot of it is from things I’ve experienced in life, and a lot of the songs are about other people’s experiences,” he explains. “I might be sitting around, and you might say a little catchy something, and it’ll hit me as a song title, and then I’ll write from that.”

A worldwide performer, the smooth-talking bluesman notes one important difference between his fans at home and those abroad. “When I go to Europe, man, [it’s] the younger people who are all into it — into it big-time,” he says. “So I’m trying to target the younger crowd here, keep them interested in and involved with the blues.”

If he executes this feat, it will doubtless be done with the same leisurely grace that distinguishes his music. “I feel like I’ve found what I enjoy doing, and I’m going to stick with that for a while … take it day by day.”

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