Freddie Roulette may be one of the few living blues steel guitarists. I
first heard of him on Earl Hooker's Arhoolie Records release "Two Bugs
and a Roach" (Arhoolie CD 324). In the 1970's, he released a solo album
called "Sweet and Funky Steel" on the Janus label. It was briefly
available as a Japanese import in the 1980's when I picked it up.
Although some of the songs sound a little dated, it's a good example of
steel guitar in a blues context.
Freddie's playing style is enhanced by intense high-note squeals. He has
a "cool" tone, very different from your typical country-style player.
According to Andy Volk, Freddie Roulette uses the following tuning from
low string to high:
G A A C# E A C# E
(string gauges .034, .052, .052, .038, .034, .020, .016, .012)
So it's your basic plain vanilla "A" tuning with the unusual unison "A" strings and a high "G" on the bottom making it an A7th tuning. My exposure to Roulette came from a Charles Mussellwhite CD reissue on Mobile Fidelity where he does some amazing playing but you need headphones to pick it out in the mix.
The last time I saw him perform was at the Guitar Player 25th
Anniversary concert in San Francisco, playing the B.B. King tune "The
Thrill Is Gone" with Henry Kaiser and Harvey Mandel. Although the show
featured many hot guitarists, his solos stood out, both because of the
uniqueness of his instrument and because of his style.
He is featured on the slide guitar compilation Slide Crazy (Rykodisc RCD10346) doing the song "Holiday for Strings". Freddie also appears on the album The Psychedelic Guitar Circus (Rykodisc RCD10347) with Henry Kaiser, Harvey Mandel, and Steve Kimock. This CD has now been reissued in the USA by Rykodisc. He also shows up occasionally at some of Harvey Mandel's gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area. More information on Harvey Mandel can be found here.
Q. Well Fred, how did you get started on your instrument?
A. I was a little kid in grade school, St. Mary's School in Evanston, Illinois and I saw this girl playing a little six string lap steel so I decided to pick it up and I tool lessons in grade school from about seventh grade to eighth grade, something like that, and then I learned all the basics real quick, 'cause I learn quick, and I just went downtown in the Blues area and started picking up blues on my own.
Q. Who were the first bands you played with?
A. Earl [Hooker], I played down there with Puppy Hall Blues, Big Moose Walker and I played down there in the "Go-Go" era, down in old town in Chicago.
Q. What tunes did you play in those days?
A. Oh, I don't know! Basically coast to coast blues, all those classic blues, Puppy Howl Blues, you know, Bloomfield and all those guys were in Chicago then.
Q. Was that a time when you could go hang out and play?
A. Well I still do that (laughs)!
Q. Have you been back there recently?
A. No, but it's probably like the Bay Area!
Q. Was it a long and tortuous path that brought you to California?
A. No, it was a glorious, adventurous path. I came out with Musselwhite and we just went all over the United States.
Q. Who else was in that band?
A. Oh, he changed bands. Freddy Below, Louis Myers, but before that there was Eric Severied, Tim Kaihatsu who's with Robert Cray right now. I met Musselwhite in, Chicago and Musselwhite sent for me when he was in Massachussetts and our first gig was in Hartford, Connecticut with B. B. King, (laughs) so I remember that was the first gig I played with Musselwhite... officially.
Q. Did B. B. have anything to say?
A. Yeah, we sat back and drank about a half pint of gin and that was the first and last time I ever had a personal contact with him.
Q. What about Albert King?
A. I lit his pipe for him once (mine was already lit) and that was at the Keystone in Berkeley.
Q. You're working on an album now?
A. Yeah, it's gonna be half jazz, half blues, you like Round Midnight to Ray Charles' "Heat Of The Night" which I've always wanted to do that song, which I've never really done and released it on an album. And a few originals, I've got about 30 minutes of material right now. Being a steel guitar player, I have to stretch that instrument way beyond its original intent in order to make it, which is what I do, so I have to be creative, which I am, not to a great success I would want to be, but you know, I can get by!
Web sites: Freddie Roulette
Big thanks to David Gross firstname.lastname@example.org, who corrected my memory
of the Guitar Player anniversary concert, and also provided me with
updated information on Freddie Roulette.
Thanks to Corey Cowan Peadge@aol.com for the correction to the song
"Puppy Howl Blues".