From Hoosier hotshot to Nashville cat
Mark Robinson has been playing guitar professionally for over 40 years, but one of his greatest musical heroes is an artist known for everything except the guitar.
“I’m a Johnny Otis freak,” Robinson says. “He was one of the coolest people ever. I’ve read everything about him, and I got to meet him while I was teaching at Indiana University. He was donating all of his papers, sermons, and tapes of his radio shows to the university and came to the university to give a concert.”
“Most people only know him from the song ‘Willie and the Hand Jive,’ ” Robinson continues, “but his career was just so broad and so outrageous. He was the son of Greek immigrants and grew up in a black neighborhood where he fell in love with African-American culture and music. He started as a big band guy and married an African-American woman way before it was legal in most states. He was a producer, talent scout, and a radio and TV show host, a preacher in an African-American church, and a civil rights activist. I’d love to write a book about him some day.
“When I met him, I tried to talk to him about his career, but he really wanted to know more about the college and more about the music program at the school. He was a great musician, but he really didn’t care about
That is an apt description of Robinson himself. In the last four decades, he’s backed hundreds of artists from world-renowned figures to total unknowns. He’s produced and engineered countless sessions, cowritten songs, built his own studios, taught audio and video production courses, and more. All the while his focus has been on the music rather than grabbing the spotlight for himself. When he speaks of his two solo albums, Quit Your Job - Play Guitar (2010) and Have Axe - Will Groove (2013), he puts the focus on the musicians he collaborated with rather than tout his own accomplishments. Talking with Robinson, his calm, steady confidence mixed with just a touch of Hoosier humbleness is evident.
Bloomington, Ind., might seem to be the dead center of white-bread Middle America. As Robinson recalls, it was actually a glorious place for a music-obsessed kid. Home to Indiana University and the Jacobs School of Music (one of the top music conservatories in the U.S.), Bloomington has a rich and diverse musical community.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s, there was a whole lot of cool music going on constantly,” Robinson says. “The clubs would bring in blues artists from Chicago, and there were a lot of free, outdoor shows at the university. I saw Richie Havens, Goose Creek Symphony, Ray Charles, and B.B. King. I was really lucky because I lived two blocks off campus. I could walk to campus and hear opera, the symphony, or a jazz band for free every week.”
Growing up in a cosmopolitan musical atmosphere would be a heady experience for any music fan; in Robinson’s case, it was instrumental in directing him toward a career in music. “There was never anything else that I wanted to do,” he says. “I was really serious about becoming a musician from the time I was 15. I played as much as I could every day, and with anybody and everybody that I could play with. My high school band teacher gave me a key to a practice room and let me keep my amp in there so I could practice every day. He figured it was the only way to keep me in school.”
Robinson was playing his first professional gigs at the age of 15, and went on tour for the first time at 17, backing homegrown Hoosier pop and country star Bobby Helms.
“He had three really big hits — ‘Fraulein,’ ‘My Special Angel,’ and ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ ” Robinson says. “We would play them three times a night, every night, at county fairs all over the Midwest. They were horrible gigs, but I didn’t know that at the time and loved it.”
Robinson attended IU, earning a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications while continuing to play music. After college, he took a number of jobs before ending up in a touring Top 40 cover band, grinding out Loverboy covers through a string of one-nighters. When his wife, Sue Havlish, got a job offer in Chicago, he didn’t think twice about packing up and heading north for the Windy City. Securing a position with a recording studio, Robinson spent his days engineering recording sessions and his nights learning the ropes firsthand from many of the best blues pickers in Chicago.
“I got to play with most of the then-living classic blues players,” Robinson says. “I was in the house band at Buddy Guy’s club for maybe eight months. I played with Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Sunnyland Slim, and Jimmy Johnson. After a few years, I began to understand how to play to the audience like they did, which was very different from the way you play to a rock & roll crowd. The showmanship of the blues was off the scale. There were a lot of lessons to be learned, and I certainly wasn’t doing it for the money. I played a gig with Koko Taylor from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. with just very short breaks. I ended up at the end of the night with 35 bucks. I’d spent more on parking and beer than I got paid, and that was at a time when Koko was one of the top-selling blues artists.”
By the late ’80s, Robinson and his wife had returned to Bloomington. Securing a master’s degree in telecommunications, Robinson taught audio and video production classes and managed the university’s TV and audio studios. In between his day job responsibilities, Robinson formed the band The Kookamongas that became a staple of the Bloomington roots music scene. He also built a home studio and produced several albums for local artists. After 17 years in Bloomington, Robinson’s wife accepted a job offer from Vanderbilt University Press, and the couple packed their bags and headed south for the Music City.
“I had no idea what I was going to do at first,” Robinson says. “I thought I’d have to get a job right away, but Sue said, ‘Why don’t you just play guitar for a while and see what happens?’ I knew a little bit about Nashville. I’d been here a few times, but I didn’t know many people here. I was really lucky because right away I met a couple of people who sat me down and talked to me about the local scene. Dave Pomeroy was one. We had lunch, and he talked me through how things work in Nashville. I was really surprised by how open the music community is here. People don’t hold on to gigs like they do in other towns. If someone gets a road gig, they’re happy to pass their local gigs on to others.”
Robinson quickly found that the best way to gain entry to Nashville’s community of musicians was to have some chops and the willingness to give back to others the same type of opportunities that are given to you.
“I was doing everything,” Robinson says, “recording demos for people, teaching guitar, playing gigs — pretty much anything to make a buck playing guitar. I connected with a lot of cool people, most of whom I still work with in one way or another. I didn’t think I would set up a home studio because it seemed like everyone I talked to had one, but people I played with would say they needed a place to make demos, so pretty soon we were fired up here.”
The “here” that Robison is referring to is the studio he’s assembled in the basement of his Madison home. It’s a far cry from a precisely built, sound-balanced recording studio. Other than a modest size recording console and an ample collection of guitars, microphones, and other professional gear, the room itself looks more like the practice space of a classic ’60s high school garage band. With knotty pine paneling and comfortable, well-worn furniture, you can almost imagine a quartet of long-haired malcontents bashing out Yardbirds covers while a crewcut-topped, disgruntled father shouts “Turn that noise down!” While its appearance may not match some people’s conception of what a professional recording studio should look like, according to Robinson, the secret is not in a carefully constructed room.
“For me, producing is about capturing a performance correctly,” he says. “Sure I may use EQs and other devices if I need to make it sound better. I’m not opposed to that, but capturing the sound of a great player up front, that’s what’s important.
“A lot of the people I work with are older musicians who have years of experience as performers,” Robinson continues. “When David Olney comes in here, he performs like he’s playing for 20,000 people. He just lets it go, and all I have to do is make sure I don’t miss it. There’s one song where I was recording him with a pop filter over the microphone, but he moved it because he couldn’t see the lyrics. There were a lot of pops in the song, and I spent hours going through the recording, removing every one because his performance was balls to the wall and I didn’t want to lose it.”
In addition to producing Olney’s When the Deal Goes Down, Robinson has recorded Mark Huff, Tiffany Huggins Grant, Ray Cashman, and many other local musicians. Although he stepped away from academia when he initially moved to Nashville, he’s found his way back to the classroom in recent years.
“It started with teaching guitar lessons not long after I first moved to Nashville,” Robinson says. “Then I taught music theory part time at the Art Institute of Tennessee and then production classes. Starting this fall, I’ll be teaching a few audio production courses at both the Art Institute and Belmont.
“I keep on top of my game by working with students and learning from them while I’m also teaching them. I’m passing something on that they might not get from someone younger who knows more about the technical side, but not the artistic side. Someone who is really a tech head doesn’t come from the point of view I come from. I’m much more excited about the song or the singer than I am about the technology.”
Robinson’s immersion in the Nashville music scene also led him to center stage as a performer and recording artist, a move he previously never considered.
“I had never been a frontman or singer,” Robinson says. “It had never been a goal for me. When I moved to Nashville, I started writing songs with all these great songwriters and I had some cool songs nobody else was going to sing or record, so I put a record together.”
Robinson’s two albums brought him back to the straight-ahead electric blues sound he learned in the musical trenches of Chicago. While he’s proud of both records, he’s also interested in moving beyond electric blues for future projects — exploring a larger musical palette. It’s a desire that has arisen from his own wide, musical tastes as well as the vast Nashville talent pool available to him. He’ll be tapping both his tastes and Nashville talents for the “Mark Robinson Showband & Rhythm Revue” shows at The 5 Spot. Backed by a first-class band, he’ll be playing his own material and spotlighting performances by other Nashville musicians every Thursday night through the month of September.
“Working with the showband idea has been a way to pull all these people I’ve worked with together,” Robinson says. “It’s like what Johnny Otis did. He was the ringmaster. With the showband, I can do my bit and then bring on other people and give them a chance to shine. All the way from jazz-oriented musicians to bluegrass players, we can pull them all into the show. The great thing about Nashville is you can always get the most amazing people to play. All it takes is a phone call, and if I don’t have their phone number, I know somebody that does.”