Thursday, September 25, 2014

INTERVIEW: Hargus 'Pig' Robbins on Bob Dylan and Blonde On Blonde



Country Western Hall Of Fame musician Hargus 'Pig' Robbins talks with TV STORE ONLINE about recording with Patsy Cline, Charlie Rich and playing piano on Bob Dylan's 1966 masterpiece Blonde On Blonde.

You've heard 'Pig' Robbins play the piano.  There is no question about it.   As a Hall of Fame musician, Robbins has played with the likes of George Jones, Ween, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Neil Young, The Everly Brothers, Ray Charles and Kenny Rogers.   In addition, Robbins had his own music career too, recording music in the late '50s under the name 'Mel Robbins' before releasing a handful of studio albums in the '60s and '70s.  Having had a highly prolific career since starting out on the piano at age seven-learning to play by ear-one must forgive Robbin's memory of the day-by-day events during the recording of Dylan's Blonde On Blonde.

Columbia Music Row Studios in Nashville, TN (2013) where Dylan
and a assembly of studio musicians recorded 
Blonde On Blonde in Feb. of 1966
TV STORE ONLINE:  Before we start talking about Bob Dylan I was hoping that I could get you to talk about your 1959 single 'Save it' that you recorded under the name "Mel Robbins" for Argo Records?

ROBBINS:   Well, that quite a long time ago and I was very hungry.  It was a rockabilly record I did that ended up at Argo which was owned in some way by Leonard Chess of Chess Records fame.   I wrote the song with Mary Biggs, and Mary and I and her husband had been writing songs together.   I don't think that the record ever did anything in the States but it was a fairly big hit over in England at the time it was released.

TV STORE ONLINE:   No doubt you've heard the cover of Save It was done in the early '80s by the band The Cramps?

ROBBINS: 
No, I haven't actually.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Why did you decide to record the song under the name Mel Robbins and not under your given name?

ROBBINS:  I wish I could tell you...(Laughing)    Probably because no-one would remember the name Hargus...(Laughing)


TV STORE ONLINE:  I'm such a huge admirer of another record you played on-one that was recorded in the mid '70s- Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors...

ROBBINS:  Right, well, Charlie was a hell of a piano player himself.   Getting the opportunity for me to play with Charlie really gave me a pucker.  If you catch my drift.    I was nervous as hell.   He was standing right behind me at the microphone while I was there playing the piano on that title song.  It was something else.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you only play on Behind Closed Doors or did you play on some of the other cuts on that LP?  Did you play on 'The Most Beautiful Girl" or "Peace On You"?

ROBBINS:
  I played on The Most Beautiful Girl and 'Very Special Love Song' on another one of his albums.   I played on 'On My Knees', and 'Rollin' With The Flow' as well...I did a whole bunch of sessions with Charlie.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You worked with Patsy Cline as well as a session player...What did you record with her?

ROBBINS: I played piano on 'I Fall To Pieces' with Patsy.   I was also on 'If You Got Leavin' On Your Mind.'  

TV STORE ONLINE:   So what can you tell me about working with Bob Dylan on Blonde On Blonde (Columbia; 1965)?   I'm dying to hear your stories....

ROBBINS:
  Well, it was so long ago that I don't remember everything that happened there.  What sticks out in my mind...I'm primarily a country player.  Back in the mid '60s, country songs were 2 minutes and 30 seconds long, if you had a song that was over 3 minutes-that was a long song.  When Dylan came into the studio with a 7 or 12 minute song-it completely blew my mind.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You were a seasoned studio musician in Nashville by the mid '60s...
[Producer] Jerry Kennedy at a point exclaimed you as the "backbone of Nashville'....

ROBBINS:  I'd been around a while...I had been working for about 8 years by then.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Where you familiar with Dylan's music by that time?  Had you met him prior to working with him on Blonde on Blonde?

ROBBINS:  A little.  There had been some Country & Western artists that had covered a few of his songs.  Flatt & Scruggs had covered him.   I had heard his name around but I hadn't met him prior to him coming into the studio.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What was your first impressions of Dylan when you met him?

ROBBINS:  I thought he was an oddity.   The studio would book sessions for him for 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. at night.  Back then, there were four studio sessions that you would work on any day.  Usually you'd go in at 10 a.m. and work till 1 p.m., then take a break, then go from 2 p.m.-5 p.m., 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and then 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.   We were all used to being there on time and you'd show up and you'd get started.    Any of the country boys that would come in would be ready to start recording, but with Dylan...he would come in at 10 p.m., and say, "Alright boys...I need to finish this song, or I need to start writing this song tonight..."   So, instead of playing we'd end up walking around the hallway of the studio or we'd play a game of cards until Dylan was ready to record.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  You were the only piano player on the Nashville sessions for Blonde On Blonde correct?

ROBBINS:  That's right, but Al Kooper was there in Nashville to play the organ with us.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I've read that [Blonde On Blonde Producer] Bob Johnson made a decision to remove the studio baffles during the sessions for Blonde On Blonde so that specific instruments would leak into the recording of others, which, in turn, produced the sound that the record has today?

ROBBINS:
You know I have a vague memory of that know.   I don't recall specifically at what point that would have been done, and I can only tell you that I played on "Rainy Day Women" and a few others on Blonde On Blonde...

TV STORE ONLINE:  What can you tell me about the recording of Rainy Day Women 12 & 35?

ROBBINS:  That's the only song I can remember recording in detail with Dylan! (Laughing)   I remember it because it was a commercial hit on the radio.  Dylan had wanted the sound to be similar to that of a Salvation Army Band on that.   I can't even remember all of the musicians that played on that with us now.   Dylan had instructed us to start to hooting and hollering during the recording as well..

TV STORE ONLINE:  There is a genuine feeling of that on the record...Especially when Dylan starts to laugh in the middle of his vocal...It doesn't sound produced or rehearsed...

ROBBINS:  It wasn't.  Everyone was cutting up on that.   None of us on that were used to doing that sort of thing in the studio.   It was really fun.

TV STORE ONLINE:  And certain substances were traveling around the studio that night during the recording of Rainy Day Women 12 & 35?

ROBBINS:  (Laughing)  Well....I would say so, yes.

TV STORE ONLINE:   So everybody was getting stoned!

ROBBINS:  Well, let's just say that everybody was feelin' good! (Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think that by recording Blonde On Blonde in Nashville, Dylan helped to change how the music business looked at Nashville as a hub?

ROBBINS:  I sure do.  It changed everything because after Dylan came there others followed.  Simon & Garfunkel came to record. Leonard Cohen.  Peter, Paul & Mary came.  There were so many others that followed.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think that Nashville had an influence on Dylan and Blonde and Blonde?

ROBBINS:  I think so.  I'd say that our mark is certainly on that album.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Is it surprising to you that after 50 years people are still asking you about your work on Blonde On Blonde with Bob Dylan?

ROBBINS:  I am.  I don't know why it's so captivating to people like yourself, I don't know if its because of how people grew up in that era and listened to the music, but I'm certainly pleased to have been a part of it.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung