Seated at his pedal steel guitar, Robert Randolph gets a thrill leading his Family Band and the crowd into a musical party. He gets an equal charge speaking to inner-city kids, encouraging them to seize life’s opportunity. He practices what he preaches.
Randolph recently moved from Morristown to a West Orange house he bought at a bankruptcy auction, and is living there while he renovates it. Once he sells it, he’ll move on to the next house, somewhere in the same area. “It’s fun, man,” he says. “There aren’t many things in this world where, with a little time and being careful, you can at the end of the day put a hundred grand in the bank.”
He is rarely home to oversee the renovations. For the last year, Robert Randolph and the Family Band have been on tour, promoting their 2006 CD, Colorblind. They’ve played small venues as headliners and larger ones opening for stars such as The Allman Brothers Band and the Dave Matthews Band.
Like his music—a mixture of R&B, funk, and classic guitar rock—Randolph is a tough man to classify. He’s a guitar god—Rolling Stone in 2003 listed him among the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. But he’s also a quintessential Jersey guy, who loves to hang out at bars with his blue-collar buddies. On stage, he’s having nothing but fun, twirling around in his chair, telling his fans, “If you feel good, let it out!” But offstage, he’s deeply religious, passionate about telling kids to aim higher than a life of hanging out on a street corner.
He knows from experience. “Probably fifteen of my friends are in jail,” he says of his days as an “inner-city knucklehead teenager” in Irvington. Even though both his parents were heavily involved in the Pentecostal House of God church—his mother as a minister, his father as a deacon—Randolph still managed to get in trouble, gambling and dealing drugs. One thing that saved him was his relationship with his father, with whom he lived after his parents divorced in 1990. Another was playing pedal steel guitar. “It kept me in the house more,” he says. “It made me go to church more.”
The weepy twang of pedal steel is usually associated with white country music. But it has long played an important role in the black church, where it is nicknamed “Sacred Steel.” Randolph grew up hearing sacred steel played at the House of God. Legendary gospel guitarists such as Calvin Cook and Aubrey Ghent enthralled him. By the time he was a teenager, he knew he wanted to be in front of the congregation.
“In our church, it’s the coolest thing to do,” he says. “If you’re a pedal steel guitar player, you’re dictating the music part of the service. You’re in control. Plus, it’s such a beautiful sound.”
Randolph received his first pedal steel guitar as a gift from another legendary player, Chuck Campbell. Randolph started studying the instrument in earnest at seventeen, and soon was playing at services in his home church in Orange, among others. He started playing with many of the people who would later make up the Family Band. But in 1998, someone handed Randolph a Stevie Ray Vaughn tape, and everything changed.
“You gotta understand, when you’re black and you grow up in an inner-city neighborhood, you don’t even know that [music like that] exists,” he says. “Stevie Ray Vaughn was the first type of rock ’n roll I really listened to.”
At a conference of sacred steel enthusiasts in 2000, Randolph met Jim Markeo, who eventually became his manager. “He sent me a box of, like, 60 CDs, everything from the Allman Brothers to New Jersey native George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix. I’m listening, like, Wow, what the hell is this? That’s when I went musically haywire.”
Later that year, Randolph and his band struck out on the secular circuit. Markeo got them gigs at clubs around New York City, then a 2001 appearance at the influential South by Southwest festival in Austin, where they were heard by reps from big labels. Warner Bros. signed them, and the first disc they delivered was Live at the Wetlands, recorded at the New York club in 2002.
Randolph’s decision to play secular venues did not go over well with House of God officials. Congregants read about his appearances and noted that he was playing clubs where alcohol was served. It didn’t matter that Randolph and his band were behaving themselves. “I could have walked into those clubs with a Bible in my hand and a clergy collar on, and the [church members] would still have been, like, No man, you’re just sinnin’.” He continues to attend services at his home church, but he’s no longer allowed to perform there.
The conflict rankles. “People are concerned that you’re straying away from being a Christian,” he says of the House of God’s restrictions. “That’s not what it’s about. God is a much more wide-open God than that.”
Guitar deities Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana gave Randolph valuable career advice. (The jubilant, twenty-minute jams on Live at the Wetlands earned the Family Band tour dates opening for the legends.) Santana encouraged Randolph to collaborate with other songwriters to keep his sound fresh. It certainly had worked for Santana. “He was playing mostly in Latin America and whatnot,” Randolph says. “Then he wrote a bunch of songs with [Matchbox 20’s] Rob Thomas and other people, and it turned him into another person, revived his whole career.”
Clapton advised Randolph that an album should do more than just replicate a band’s live sound. His reasoning, Randolph recalls, was that “by the time you record the tunes and play them live, you’re gonna [develop] another version anyway. So get the most true-sounding thing that sounds like what you want to do. And craft it in the studio, so it’s great for the listeners in their cars.”
The results can be heard on Colorblind, with its tight, hook-laden songs. Clapton sits in on a remake of the Doobie Brothers’ hit “Jesus is Just Alright.” Dave Matthews also plays on the CD.
Randolph’s music may be familiar to people who are unfamiliar with his name. The opening guitar strains and chorus of “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” have been used to promote the comedies 30 Rock, on NBC, and Back to You, on FOX. He finds it flattering, but frustrating. “So many times people come to our shows,” he says, “and hear the song and they’re like, Wait a minute! We didn’t know you played that song! We love that song! It happens way too much.”
Though he owns his songs, and makes money from the ads, he feels the band needs to be better marketed. According to Randolph, the Family Band is popular with Adult Album Alternative radio stations, but because no stations in the New York/New Jersey area play the AAA format, he has a hard time gaining traction in his own home state. Even with the popularity of music downloads, Randolph says that FM radio “is the number one driver for your music getting out there. Any record you see winning awards has a top song on the radio.” He vows that “before all is said and done, I’m gonna have a big radio smash.”
His motivation is not fame for fame’s sake, he says, but rather using “the power of the microphone” to tell African-Americans that they themselves are the only ones who can improve their lives.
“I get into some of this stuff with the kids and their parents,” he says of his school visits. “I tell them you’re not gonna go anywhere in life thinking, The white man is the devil, and the Jewish man did this, and I’m a slave, and even if I go to college, I’m still gonna be a sorry black man. Maybe you should go to church, because the church doesn’t speak of the white man, the black man, the Jewish man. The Bible doesn’t say any of that.”
He brings friends of all stripes with him to illustrate that determination can be just as important as a college degree. “When people tell kids, ‘Hey, if you don’t go to college you can’t be anything,’ I say, ‘Hey, this guy didn’t go to college, and he’s an electrician. This guy’s a plumber, and he’s making $400,000 a year.’”
Randolph is currently writing songs for a new album. Despite rubbing elbows with rock gods, Randolph still likes coming home to New Jersey. He frequents bars in Morristown, rooting for the Knicks and the Mets and hanging out with friends and family.
“I purposely like to be around different people all the time,” he says. “It helps me grow mentally. If I write a song, now I got something to use that is a new experience, something I didn’t know.”