Friday, April 29, 2011

Howard Roberts, Jerry Garcia and "The Twilight Zone"

Guitarist and author Howard Roberts
Howard Roberts (1929-92) was a guitarist who moved from Phoenix, AZ to Los Angeles in 1950. He rapidly became one of a handful of "first call" session guitarists, a musical genius who could play any style brilliantly as quick as you could count to four. He played on literally thousands of recording dates, for jazz and pop records, commercials and movie and TV soundtracks. He was mostly known only to Hollywood studio professionals and other guitarists, but his lasting claim to fame was that he was the one who played the "neener-neener" notes that made up the legendary theme to "The Twilight Zone" TV show. This famous guitar part was re-recorded by Jerry Garcia in 1985, when old friend Merl Saunders became the musical director for the revived television show.

Howard Roberts' 1978 instruction book Super Chops
Although to my knowledge Garcia and Roberts never met--sad to say--there is a much more significant musical connection between the two that goes way beyond the fact that Garcia redid Roberts' most famous lick.  Roberts moved from studio recording to focusing on training musicians, and starting in 1970 Roberts published a number of guitar instruction books. Jerry Garcia was already an accomplished guitarist by this time, but in various interviews he cited Roberts' books as one of his chief source of instructions. It is a remarkable testament to both Roberts' ability as a guitarist and clarity as an educator that he could write a book that improved Jerry Garcia's guitar playing throughout the 70s.

As a result, I have always been interested in Roberts' guitar playing from the perspective of Jerry Garcia's playing. There are some remarkable parallels, but they are some steps removed, since Roberts' best playing was done live in Hollywood in the late 60s, not released until the 90s, and there is almost no chance that Garcia ever heard him perform. Nonetheless, for Jerry Garcia fans, knowing that Garcia took instruction from Roberts via his books means that many of the concepts in Roberts playing would have transmuted themselves to Garcia, so comparisons between the playing of Roberts and Garcia are not at all a dry academic exercise.

Howard Roberts' 1963 Capitol album Color Him Funky
Color Him Funky and HR Is A Dirty Guitar Player
Although Howard Roberts had a varied career as a bandleader, dating back to the mid-50s, his best known albums were the first two that he released on Capitol Records in 1963. Color Him Funky was a conscious effort by producer Jack Marshall to frame Roberts' awesome chops in a commercially viable format. Playing in a quartet that featured organist Paul Bryant, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Earl Palmer, Color Him Funky had 12 short, melodic tunes with a danceable beat. The music was very accessible, but the solos were absolutely scorching, even though the backing band stayed in the pocket the whole time. Roberts did not use techniques like distortion or feedback, as the world was not ready for them yet, but for Garcia fans, listening to the Roberts quartet was like hearing the Jerry Garcia/Merl Saunders band on triple speed. HR Is A Dirty Guitar Player, released a few months later (with Burkley Kendrix taking over on organ), had music in a similar vein.

Garcia would have discovered Roberts' books in the early 70s, and must have looked backwards at his albums. Roberts did release a studio album in 1971, the strange concept album Antelope Freeway, but I'm sure Garcia was steered back to Roberts first two 1963 albums on Capitol. For one thing, a player of Garcia's caliber would not have been interested in instruction from a musician who was already inferior to his own playing, but despite the simplistic setting, Color Him Funky and HR Is A Dirty Guitar Player are guitar extravaganzas that must have indicated to Garcia that Roberts' advice was well worth taking. Roberts released a few more albums in the same vein in the later 60s (Goodies, Something's Cookin', and so on) but the first two were the best.

Howard Roberts Live
Howard Roberts rarely played live outside of the Los Angeles area, to my knowledge. I know he played a Nob Hill hotel in 1967 (I think the Venetian Room at the Fairmont) in 1967 with trombonist Frank Rosolino, but I haven't been able to track the exact date. In any case, I find it unlikely that Garcia saw him. Even if Garcia knew the name--he might have--Roberts had not yet started writing guitar instruction books. In any case, although I think that Garcia would have been perfectly willing to put on a suit and tie to see a musician he was interested in, I don't think he could have afforded the cover charge at the Fairmont back in 1967. As a result, I have to assume that Garcia never saw Howard Roberts live, and more's the pity for that.

Howard Roberts And The Magic Band, Live At Donte's, North Hollywood
Jazz musicians are legendary for focusing themselves on endless practice and theorizing to create the most challenging music imaginable; in return, they usually dismay or distress any potential audience other than their fellow musicians, leading to lives of bitter penury in cold water New York walkups, ameliorated only by booze, junk, cigarettes and the solace of knowing that you are ahead of your time. There were many great jazz musicians in Los Angeles in the 60s, but the best of them lived a very different life.

The recording industry was so remunerative back in the day that Southern California's best jazz musicians spent all day in the studios, recording for pop and rock records, movie soundtracks and TV commercials, among many other projects. Since all self-respecting jazzmen can read music and play brilliantly on command, their talents were much in demand, as long as they could show up to work on time. They could make as much money as they wanted, and then return home to happy suburban lives in Glendale or Silver Lake-no cold water walkup on 128th and Lexington for them. Jazz? They played as much as they wanted, usually on weeknights (assuming their wives were OK with it), in tiny clubs for their hipster jazz musician friends.

The 1960s LA jazz scene was full of obscure musician's projects where players played for each other, and often this music rarely saw the light of day. A jazz club in North Hollywood called Donte's was one such hangout, where Los Angeles's best studio musicians met for jazz dates, just to prove they were still real players, after a day of playing some variation of "Last Train To Clarksville." Fortunately, an avid jazz fan had the foresight to record some of these dates, and as a result some remarkable recordings have been preserved of Howard Roberts in his prime in 1968. Two cds worth of material were released in the late 90s, and Jerry Garcia fans should indeed take note: many of the characteristics of Garcia's guitar playing can be heard in Howard Roberts playing, giving an indication of just how much Garcia may have been getting from Roberts' books some years later.

Howard Roberts recorded live in July 1968, released 1995
Howard Roberts: The Magic Band Live At Donte's
released 1995, VSOP Records #94 recorded July 1968
  • Howard Roberts-guitar
  • Tom Scott-alto, tenor and soprano sax
  • Steve Bohannon-Hammond organ
  • Chuck Berghofer-bass
  • John Guerin-drums
Although the setting is distinctly jazzy, the guitar playing is reminiscent of the Hooteroll? album with Howard Wales, and particularly the Garcia/Wales album Side Trips (recorded May 18, 1970 at the Matrix). Organist Steve Bohannon was mainly known as a drummer, and an amazing one at that, for the remarkable Don Ellis Orchestra (another LA jazz musician project), but it turns out he was a driving and versatile Hammond player as well. Then 20-year old Tom Scott was already a session pro, and here plays much more outside than he would in his commercial work in the 70s (including his solo on the studio version of "Estimated Prophet"). The group works out on five jazz standards, and Howard Roberts is somehow both dominant and restrained at the same time.

Howard Roberts recorded live in May 1968, released 1998
Howard Roberts: The Magic Band II
released 1998, VSOP Records #102 recorded May 1968
  • Howard Roberts-guitar
  • Dave Grusin-piano
  • Chuck Berghofer-bass
  • John Guerin-drums
  • with Tom Scott (ts), John Gross (ts), Pete Christlieb (ts), one track each.
A somewhat earlier date, with Grusin's piano instead of Bohannon's organ. I had heard Grusin many time on movie soundtracks and 70s "funky jazz" albums, and found his playing unmemorable. At Donte's, he sounds like Horace Silver on LSD and he's absolutely brilliant. As a Deadhead, much of the music reminds me of the middle section of a wild 1973 "Playing In The Band," with Howard Roberts sometimes sounding like Garcia, sometimes Bob Weir, and sometimes both at once. Roberts bends notes, but he doesn't emphasize the electronics of the guitar, yet it's clear that his approach to jazz guitar had a huge influence on Garcia, even if it was mediated through his books.

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda
Howard Roberts and his studio jazz pals had no economic incentive to take their music beyond their local jazz clubs, so its all but impossible that Garcia ever heard Roberts play live. Its remarkable as a listener, however, to hear many of the elements in Garcia's 70s playing embedded in Howard Roberts' 60s music, knowing that Roberts would transmit his concepts to Garcia through his books. Roberts went on to found the Guitar Institute of Technology in 1977, which subsequently became the Music Institute, and remains a thriving musical education enterprise to this day. By the 1980s, Roberts had largely retired from performing, and he moved to Edmonds, WA. He died in 1992.

Since "The Twilight Zone" was Howard Roberts' most iconic lick, he must have known that Jerry Garcia had re-recorded it in 1985. I am not aware of what Roberts may have thought about it, although I would really like to know. I have no idea if Roberts was aware that Garcia had used his book--so many serious players admired Roberts that he may have stopped counting. Listening to Howard Roberts in his band in 1968 in Hollywood reminds me more of many aspects of Garcia's playing than it does of most rock guitarists, which to me is a sign of Roberts indirect but very real influence on Jerry's 70s playing.

from Howard Roberts: A Brief Biography by Wolf Marshall
In the sixties Howard was one of the busiest recording artists in the world. He signed a new record deal as a leader with Capitol Records and released an excellent and ecelectic series of albums for the giant label. Landmark recordings of the catalog include Color Him Funky, H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player, Somethings Cookin', Whatever's Fair, Jaunty Jolly, and Goodies. His work featured solid bebop playing on standards and show tunes, blues, gospel, funk, and even rock and pop numbers. As such Howard Roberts was the prototype fusion guitarist. Who else but Howard could make a pop throwaway like "Winchester Cathedral" swing as hard as anything played by Wes Montgomery or Joe Pass? In the studio Roberts became one of the most listened-to guitarists in contemporary music, lending his unique and musical touch to movie soundtracks and TV shows like The Twilight Zone, The Munsters, I Dream Of Jeanie, and The Beverly Hillbillies. He also recorded with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., the Beach Boys, Merle Travis, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny and Cher, the Jackson Five, Rick Nelson, the Supremes, and literally countless other stellar performers on hundreds of session dates. He earned the title of "the fifth Monkee," as he played on virtually everything the group recorded in the 1960s. At that time Howard designed the Epiphone Roberts model guitar and formed the Benson amplifier company. He epitomized the persona of the guitar virtuoso/studio whiz which established the pattern followed by Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather and many others in the ensuing decades. That of living legend, a hot player burning up the studios by day and bringing down the house in jazz clubs by night. Some of this legendary playing thankfully has been captured, preserved and released on CD by V.S.O.P. Records in the Howard Roberts "Magic Band" live sessions from Donte's.

In 1970 Howard became more deeply involved with education. He founded Playback Music Publishing Company to upgrade the state of contemporary guitar literature. Amidst his hectic playing schedule he wrote an innovative series of instruction books such as The Howard Roberts Guitar Book,  Chord Melody, Sight Reading, Super Solos, Super Chops, and Instant Blues. Out of this series grew the Howard Roberts Guitar Seminars of the 1970s and eventually G.I.T. (Guitar Institute of Technology), the world's first vocational school for guitar, now known worldwide as M.I. or Musician's Institute. The material Howard developed in his books and seminars was the basis for the core curriulum at the institute.


  1. Excellent post! I never knew that Garcia admired HR's playing so much, though I can certainly why he did. Some digging around turned up a pdf of one of Robert's guitar books. Don't know if it's still in print, but if anyone wants to preview it, it's at

  2. Howard Roberts - Forever (2012) 2CD

  3. new links, no password, enjoy!