by Genea L. Webb
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Robert Randolph has been on a crusade to bring the gospel rhythms of the pedal steel guitar to the world. So, together with co-producer John McDermott, Randolph has helped The Slide Brothers, the greatest living steel guitar band, to release its debut album, “Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers” in mid February on Concord Records.
The Slide Brothers perform on stage at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival (Courier Photo by Gail Manker)
“I was born with these guys,” explained Randolph who has had the most commercial success in the pedal guitar arena. “I look to them the same way I look to Blues greats like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Aubrey Ghent and Henry Nelson, Aubrey’s dad and the Campbell brothers, they all shaped this sacred Steel tradition inside the churches but they weren’t allowed to leave the church until now.”
Randolph first set the music world on its ear in 2000 when he played his first club dates in New York, introducing to many and presenting to some the sacred steel guitar. He started playing the instrument in Orange, New Jersey in the House of God church, an African-American Pentecostal denomination that has been implementing steel guitar in services since the 1930’s.
“By co-producing and presenting the new album from The Slide Brothers, I’m hoping the story can finally be told,” Randolph said. “For 80 years, this music has been hidden inside the churches and these older guys were not allowed to play anything else. Now we’re all hanging out with the Allman brothers, Buddy Guy and B.B. King and can use Gospel and mainstream music to tell our story.”
Like Randolph, each member of The Slide Brothers was brought up in the Church of the Living God where they worshipped and performed. They were an ad hoc family, traveling and learning from the other dominions in their communities in cities like Nashville and Chicago.
Cooke was born into a musical family in Cleveland in 1944 and went on to become one of the premier country steel guitarists and labeled as the “B.B. King of gospel steel guitar.” He is known by many as the most influential living steel guitar master within the sacred steel tradition.
“When I first started 57 years ago in 1955, there were older guys who played the slide guitar and the church only had three instruments and the slide guitar was one of them,” Cooke said. “I started playing it at age 11 or 12 at the church. The pastor gave me a regular guitar and I couldn’t put my fingers on it so I got a kitchen knife and began to play it. I played it in church and even thought I was terrible, they stuck by me.”
He is glad that Randolph wanted to bring the music he knows so well to the masses.
“You don’t find many young guys like Robert who reach back and help the older guys,” said Cooke. Other members of the group are Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent. “Robert is a fifth generation steel guitarist and he went back and got us. It is like a second chance in life with this album.”
“Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers” brings together some of the greatest vocalists and musicians in the music industry today including powerhouse Shemekia Copeland and Jimmy Carter from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Instrumentalists included Jimi Hendrix bassist Billy Cox.
“It has been a long vision of ours to be able to do this,” said Chuck Campbell who like Cooke began playing the slide guitar at the age of 12. “Robert was able to pull together the top steel players from different generations. It is truly an honor to be a part of an album that brings together so many wonderful people. Instead of us meeting at a church convention, we were able to get everyone together in a recording studio to play secular songs and religious songs with the same conviction. We feel blessed that we have finally been able to do this.”
The Slide Brothers are performing at various festivals throughout the country to promote the record and educate audiences about the steel guitar.
“We give people some gospel as well as some blues,” Cooke said. “We want people who have never heard the slide guitar to get a taste of blues and gospel. We want people to see that they can be down and out but they can be uplifted by our music. We come from a gospel background and we try to bring a message to the music.”
The Slide Brothers were recently featured musicians on the “Experience Hendrix Tour,” wining new fans across the nation with their renditions of Hendrix hits such as “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady.”
“My goal is to open the door for people in the same way that musical doors have been opened for me,” Randolph said. “I want to take this musical history and make it relevant to give people a better idea of who we are and where this tradition came from. I think that even though I am a young guy who was born into the era of Hip-Hop and contemporary gospel, I can help bridge the cultural gap between people who are 75 years old and kids who are 15 years old by reaching back into this history of music.”
The Slide Brothers performed at Hartwood Acres at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival July 19.
“This is so much fun! It’s a joy to present our music to people. Robert has given us new life. There are a lot of guys who do sliding on their regular guitars,” Cooke said. “It’s growing and it’s causing a lot of interest with people who wouldn’t normally be into it. It makes us feel good that people turn out because they want to hear what we sound like.”