Ever since he formed his first band in 1969, Robben Ford has had a colorful, yet underrated career. He has had the privilege to play with a variety of artists, from jazz musicians like Miles Davis to hard rockers such as KISS. Yet his roots have always been the blues, and that’s arguably what he can play the best, as heard on albums such as 1992’s Robben Ford and the Blue Line.
Californian guitarist Robben Ford, born December 16, 1951, came from a family of musicians. His father Charles was a guitar player in his younger days, and it was his name Robben used for his first band – the Charles Ford Blues Band. While it did not include the Ford family patriarch himself, the band did include Robben’s brothers Mark on harmonica and Patrick on drums. The Charles Ford Blues Band recorded one album in 1972, and before that, served as Charlie Musselwhite’s backing band. They would reunite from time to time in the following decades, recording several albums in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, including tribute albums to the boys’ blues heroes, Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield.
The ‘70s and ‘80s were an exciting time for Ford. Playing mostly as a sideman, Ford backed up blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon from 1972 to 1973, folk singer Joni Mitchell in 1974 and saxophonist Tom Scott the same year. Scott and Ford’s band, the L.A. Express, was ex-Beatle George Harrison’s backing group on his 1974 tour of the US. In 1979, Ford released his first official solo album, The Inside Story. This mostly instrumental album had more of a jazz-fusion sound than anything else, and Ford’s Inside Story bandmates would go on to form the core of the Yellowjackets. In 1982, Ford had what one may call his most adventurous project to date, two cameo appearances on KISS’ album Creatures of the Night. Ford was one of several musicians who played lead guitar on that album, contributing on “Rock and Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You.”
In between solo releases, Ford teamed up two legendary jazz musicians in separate projects – Miles Davis in 1986 and Sadao Watanabe in 1985 and 1987. Ford’s 1988 solo album Talk to Your Daughter included a cover of Albert King’s signature song “Born Under a Bad Sign” which appeared in the 1989 Clint Eastwood film Pink Cadillac. Not only did this cover underscore Ford’s natural preference for the blues, it also gave him a bit of long-overdue mainstream recognition. Several blues-oriented albums would follow in the years to come, including Robben Ford and the Blue Line (1992) and Mystic Mile (1993). Most of Ford’s ‘90s releases were blues-oriented albums, the sole exception being 1999’s jazzy retrospective Sunrise, a collection of live recordings from 1972. Ford is currently on Concord Records, which released his four solo albums thus far in the 21st century, including the most recent, 2009’s Soul on Ten.
Though mostly known as a sideman, Robben Ford has established himself as a credible and versatile solo performer. Equally adept at blues, jazz and even heavier sub-genres of rock, Ford is a skilled guitarist and (again) underrated vocalist who is still very active touring, recording and collaborating with some of the biggest names in music.