Big-city work, small-town setting

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Soul singer Tad Robinson is used to big cities. He regularly performs concerts in places like Tel Aviv, Chicago and Toronto.

Robinson was born and raised in New York. His family lived in a middle class apartment on the Upper East Side. His father and mother, 91 and 86 years old, respectively, still live in that same apartment. Although he's been away from the Big Apple for most of his life, he hasn't lost all his big-city habits.

"Maybe I'm a little bit gruff sometimes or loud because, you know, growing up in New York, you had to be loud to be heard," he said, laughing.

Robinson doesn't have problems being heard anymore. He has produced four CDs and has been nominated for seven Blues Music Awards, including two this year — Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year and Soul Blues Album of the Year for "Back in Style." Robinson, who writes all of his own music, will also perform in the Blues Music Awards on May 5 in Memphis, Tenn.

On a recent Friday night, Robinson performed to a sold-out crowd at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis. The next night, he sang the blues to a more intimate group of twelve at Sahm's Tavern, the Indianapolis city skyline glowing in the background.

He donned a white, crisp button-down shirt and jeans — vastly different than what he wears at home. In his two-story house on a quiet, one-lane road, Robinson is more comfortable in a zip-up sweater hoodie.

For Robinson, living in Greencastle for the past 16 years means being near his in-laws, running every other day and doting on his wife's pug, Leo. Certainly the small-town atmosphere has given Robinson the quiet, calm lifestyle he enjoys.

"Nowadays, being on tour or being connected is easy from anywhere," Robinson said. "It doesn't matter where you're base of operations is because if you're on the road, you're on the road."

Robinson stressed that location is less important than the people he gets to play with, such as long-time friend from Chicago, Dave Specter.

"We definitely have a solid friendship and relationship…a mutual musical respect," said Specter, who has toured across the world with Robinson.

Robinson always wanted to be a musician. Although his parents weren't musicians, their apartment was filled with music: a piano and his older brother's extensive record collection. He also believes growing up in a time period with eclectic music increased his interest in it.

"I would just lie back and listen and say ‘That's what I want to do,' when I was really young," Robinson said about spinning records with his brother.

Now, Robinson is compared to artists he grew up admiring, such as Al Green and Otis Redding.

"When I got my first Otis Redding records when I was [twelve or thirteen], I wore those records out until they couldn't be played," Robinson said. "That was my Bible — Otis Redding at Monterey Pop…that was everything you needed to know about being a soul singer."

Robinson doesn't try to replicate the sounds of musicians he looks up to, however. In a review of his latest album in Living Blues Magazine, writer David Whiteis wrote, "Unlike many ‘revivalist' blues and soul artists, he's found a way to retain his own voice, evoking the spirits of past masters but never sounding as if he's trying to be something he's not." 

In the fifth grade, Robinson began playing music in a rock band called the Four Gone Conclusions with three other kids his age, but he later ditched his grade-school and high-school bands for a better gig — attending Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. He graduated in 1980.

After meeting his wife, Amy, the couple moved to Chicago, where he performed jingles in advertisements for nearly a decade. In 1995, he became the first Caucasian musician to sign with a label called Delmark Records. Within six months, Robinson was flying over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where he has played several times a year ever since.

 "You have to have a presence in other parts of the world," Robinson said. "It's very hard to make a career just like playing on a circuit in the U.S. anymore."

Robinson has spent much of his career gaining new cultural experiences —  drinking coffee in Italy, seeing war in Israel, and attempting to communicate with people he meets who don't speak English. But traveling isn't always so glamorous — life on the road sometimes means seeing only a van, a hotel room and a concert venue.

Amy mentioned that because Robinson tours so often, they both cherish family time in Greencastle. 

"Ours has never been a relationship we took for granted and we treasure the time we have together," she said.

Robinson is most known for his vocal talent, but his 12 harmonicas resting in a red, plush fabric case are just as familiar to his lips as a microphone.

"Sometimes his harmonica playing gets taken for granted, and I think he's one of the best," Specter said.

Robinson, now signed with a label named Severn Records, has also sought out unusual opportunities, like writing background songs for three different feature films — "The Guardian," "The Perfect Murder" and "Under Siege."

"As a freelancer, at the end of every gig, you're an unemployed musician," Robinson said. "I mean, you're only employed as far as your calendar has bookings on it."

Robinson said that he always hopes to be asked back to locations where he performs, but he doesn't want to become too comfortable at a single venue.

He does perform every Monday night at Daddy Jack's restaurant in Indianapolis, where he has at least two devoted fans — Dave and Jill Freeman.

Amy noted that her husband's fans are diverse in both age and nationality, as a large part of his fan base is in Europe.

"It's not uncommon to see young people sitting next to a table of older ladies," she said. "That's what I love about going out to see him."

The Freeman's, who attended Robinson's recent show at Sahm's Tavern, slow danced when they weren't sitting at a table tapping their feet and shaking their heads to the beat.

Robinson is excited about his Blues Awards nominations, but he isn't expecting to win either of them.

"At a certain point, I would like to get [an award], but I don't see it happening for a while," said Robinson, who calls himself a "late bloomer."

"I'm not quite a veteran in the business, and the people I've been up against are," he said.

Robinson said that in his previous five nominations, he has never lost to performers at least 30 years older than him.

In the Blue's music world, 55 is a ripe age, and Robinson isn't thinking about retiring anytime soon. For now, he'll keep doing big-city work while keeping his small-town life.

Tad Robinson's discography:

Back In Style (2010)

New Point Of View (2007)

Did You Ever Wonder? (2004)

Last Go Round (1998)

One To Infinity (1994)

upcoming performances in indianapolis:

–Monday, May 2 at 8:00PM

Daddy Jack's with Soul Bus

–Monday, May 9 at 8:00PM

Daddy Jack's with Soul Bus

–Thursday, May 12 at 8:00PM

Flatwater with Kevin Anker, Jeff Chapin

–Monday, May 16 at 8:00PM

Daddy Jack's with Soul Bus

–Monday, May 23 at 8:00PM

Daddy Jack's with Soul Bus

–Thursday, May 26 at 8:00PM

Flatwater with Kevin Anker, Jeff Chapin