Robinson’s Mission: A Family Tradition
By Bryan Powell
For “Frankie Lee” Robinson, bandleader of Frankie’s Blues Mission, the supple mix of blues, R&B and soul music that comprises Sleepin’ Dog is the product of a lifelong musical passion. It’s also a continuation of a family tradition.
Growing up in the area of Jesup, a small town in southeast Georgia, Robinson recalls that his dad worked primarily in education, but also managed bands. As a child, young Frankie Lee, “the principal’s kid,” tagged along when his dad was working in local R&B clubs. Robinson also had an uncle who played guitar, and an aunt who was a classically trained singer.
Recordings were also part of the soundtrack of Robinson’s youth: The music his dad played at home ranged from T-Bone Walker’s blues to the gospel of Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Late at night, after everyone was asleep, young Robinson tuned in to WLAC, a powerful Nashville station that played the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King and B.B. King. Robinson played saxophone for a time in those days, practicing tirelessly, but perhaps without too much success: His dad took the sax away “to get it fixed,” Robinson recalls, and he never saw it again.
But fate, as it often does, stepped in: The family relocated to Pennsylvania when Robinson was about 12, moving into an apartment where someone had fortuitously left an old Kay acoustic guitar. He began to learn to play, and the hook was set. “I still have that guitar,” Robinson says. By age 17, now in Atlanta, he was guitar taking lessons and was interested in playing blues and R&B. Upon seeing B.B. King perform at the Great Southeast Music Hall, he was sure of it: “I said, ‘I want to do what he’s doing. I want to sound like that.”
For more than two decades, Robinson has performed as a bandleader, vocalist and songwriter, gigging tirelessly around metro Atlanta and beyond. His previous band incarnations include Frankie Lee and the Solid Senders and Native Sons. He formed Frankie’s Blues Mission since 2000. The current lineup, including bassist Kermit J. “Max” Maxwell and drummer Al Largo – two musicians themselves steeped in blues, R&B and jazz – has been intact for four years. “Time to record”, Robinson thought.
“It’s time to let people know that Frankie’s Blues Mission is a band that pays attention to the blues tradition, but is not chained by it,” Robinson explains. “We use it as a foundation and branch off into a whole lot of other areas, wherever the spirit takes us.”
With Robinson and bassist Maxwell as the group’s principal songwriters, Sleepin’ Dog features seven originals that showcase the band’s versatility. “So Lonely Since You Gone” is a soulful, heartbroken lament set to a mid-tempo, funky R&B groove. The minor-keyed “Lyin’ Thinkin’,” with its have/have-not lyrics, is the “socially conscious” tune of the set, Robinson notes. The title track, with a guest harmonica spot from Vince Alexander, is an upbeat shuffle in which Robinson becomes a de facto six-string horn section.
The originals include three instrumentals: “McDaniel Street,” with guest keyboards from Martin Kearnes, is spacious and jazzy. “Soul Shuffle” is a Stax Records tribute. The Robinson-penned “Blues for C.K.,” perhaps the most intriguing of the three, evokes something between an Elmore James 78 and a classic organ trio vibe, as Robinson dials in an atypical (and irresistible) dirty guitar tone.
The cover material includes Robinson’s nods to B.B. King on the slow blues “Five Long Years,” an Eddie Boyd tune associated with King, as well as B.B.’s “Woke Up This Morning,” in which the band opens in a syncopated mambo groove but soon shifts gears into a raucous swing, never to return. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking” is a genuine rumba. The inclusion of “When a Guitar Plays the Blues” honors its author, Georgia musician Roy Lee Johnson, with whom Robinson studied for two years.
Consider Sleepin’ Dog a calling card, an introduction to what’s possible from an artist who’s spent a lifetime with the music he loves. And wouldn’t it be fitting if, somewhere, Robinson’s dad, who passed away in 1975, is just groovin’ to it, smiling.
-- Bryan Powell
Bryan Powell is a writer and musician based in Lawrenceville, Ga. He has covered blues, jazz and other music styles for Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Blues Access, Acoustic Guitar, the MusicHound Record Guides, and others.
“Frankie Lee” Robinson — Guitar, Vocals
– Native to South Georgia, He has 20 plus years experience performing regionally with and sharing the stage with blues and gospel performers such as Roy Bookbinder, Robert Lee Coleman, Detroit Junior, “Chicago” Bob Nelson, Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, Chick Willis and many others. Frankie has participated in The Augusta Blues Festival, Chick Willis’ Mid-Georgia Blues Festival and The Atlanta Montreux Festival. As part of the Blues Mission, He held down second house band duties at Blind Willie’s in Atlanta for two years. Robinson was a member of the Athens-based blues quartet, The Georgia Healers for two years and also contributes his talents regularly to charitable efforts such as Atlanta Northside Tavern’s “Chicken Raid” festivals and other efforts to benefit organizations such as the American Cancer Society. Frankie, an authentic and soulful blues player, draws from many influences. Guitarists such as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Roy Lee Johnson, B.B. King, Magic Sam, “Pops” Staples, Charlie Christian, Freddie King, Albert King, Kenny Burrell and T-bone Walker have left their mark on his performances. He walks the walk and talks the talk.
Kermit J. “Max” Maxwell – Bass Guitar
– “Max” has been performing with Atlanta jazz, Blues, gospel and roots music bands for over 10 years. This Atlanta native anchors the Blues Mission with his powerful and authentic rhythmic style on electric and upright bass. Artists such as Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter and Willie Dixon have played a major influence on Maxwell. “Max” has performed and shared the stage with local bands such as the Atlanta Mandolin Society, the Colin Ford Trio, The John Schenlling Quintet and other jazz, blues and gospel groups.
Al Largo – Drums
– Hailing from New York City and since moved to the Atlanta area, This 25 year veteran former Marietta City Fireman currently performs blues, jazz and R&B in the region. With 20 plus years experience under his belt, Al is the steady heartbeat of the Blues Mission. Largo’s influences are many, ranging from classical to rock. He has been drumming since the tender age of 14 and also played the kettledrums. Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and Mickey Hart influence Al’s drumming style, among others.