The Story of Your Passion is Also a Story of Overcoming Fear
He was six when he heard Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill*, got those telltale chills up his spine, and knew he was born to play guitar and sing. He was nine when that passion was tested, and it took him five years to recover.
Sometimes our passion for something must be tested so we know, absolutely, that this is exactly what we want. When Duke Robillard stood on a stage to sing for the first time in front of a large audience, the spotlight on him, his nine-year-old confidence and character were simply not prepared for what he saw. His mother told him later - he doesn't remember this at all - that he sang, yes, and was crying at the same time.
I can imagine that little boy in his bowtie and fancy, Sunday shoes standing there, terrified and yet completely committed to doing what he set out to do. It took him a long time to recover from that stage fright. Duke wouldn't sing for an audience again for five years, and even as a professional musician with Roomful of Blues, he fought the urge to walk away from the stage, full of anxiety and fear.
But when you know innately what you were born to do, at no matter what age you figure it out, you're tested over and over again. And every time you stand up to that fear, every time you make the choice to put yourself back on that path, you not only strengthen your commitment to your life's work, you give the gift of what you were born to do to the people around you.
Thank goodness Duke got past that stage fright to create and perform incredible music for the past 50+ years. Here's one of my favorites from Roomful of Blues' first album:
Duke and I met in 1997, though my husband introduced me to his music a couple of years before that. A friend gave us tickets to see him as a wedding gift; it was a small venue in Washington DC. Bob and I were standing right up front near the stage for Duke's set, and I was completely sold on this guy's talent. As we waited for the next act to come on stage, I went to grab us a couple of drinks. On my way back, I saw Duke's bass player, Marty Ballou, standing near the stage and introduced myself. We hit it off; not only was I seriously impressed with the incredible soul with which he played the bass (he made a 3/4 bass look small), he is also a warm, affectionate, and kind person. (He was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2015.)
The next band got started, and we were getting squished by the audience. We decided to head to the back of the bar, and maybe leave since we had come to see Duke, and not the other guy on the stage. As I led the way through the crowd, I could see Marty waving at me - he was a head taller than anyone else in the room. He gave me a big hug, and I introduced him to Bob. We met Duke a few minutes later, and couldn't believe how down to Earth he was. Marty and I exchanged numbers, and every time the band would be within a couple of hours' drive of Washington DC, Marty would call me and ask how many he should put on the guest list. We followed them around the region for two years, and then moved to Montana. I kept in touch with Marty, and once in a while I'd email Duke just to check in.
To this day I cannot believe our luck in connecting with these musicians. (Duke was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2014.)
Naturally, we refer to a variety of music throughout our conversation on this podcast. This first reference was part of a story when my sister and I saw him in Baltimore. I introduced the two of them and my sister said: "Huh. You're not ugly at all! Actually, you're very handsome!"
I couldn't breathe for a moment, and knew I had turned beet red. That's when my sister looked at me and realized what she had said. Completely embarrassed and trying to recover, she said: "Sarah made me a mix CD and your song, I May Be Ugly But I Sure Know How to Cook was my favorite song on the mix... so, um, that's why I said that..."
Thank goodness he's such a good sport, charming, and has a sense of humor. We all burst out laughing as he walked away to start his set. Did I mention I just love this guy?
From Duke's recent album, a refreshing collection of swing music with some of my favorite female vocalists, here's Squeeze Me with Madeleine Peyroux:
And just to show off a bit, here's Duke in a jam session with the amazing Stevie Ray Vaughan:
In the podcast, I mention Ed Sheeran's version of the song The Parting Glass, and here's the one I listen to:
And, just for kicks, here's the other version I mention in the podcast, by the Wailin' Jennys:
I hope you enjoy this episode, and that you do some of your own digging into this extraordinary musician's work. Of course, I highly recommend his most recent album, Duke and His Dames of Rhythm.
If this podcast speaks to you, please leave a comment and let's start a conversation about the challenges we face, even when we absolutely have no doubt that we're doing what we were born to do.
*Blueberry Hill was recorded by Glenn Miller's big band. Jack Rabid, an infamous NYC drummer and punk rock DJ, recently told us the story that Fats Domino was inspired by Glenn Miller's version of the tune. It's likely that Glenn Miller was inspired by Gene Autry's version in the movie The Singing Hill. So there you have it - the beat goes on... so to speak.