Howard Roberts Remembered

by Andy Nelson as told to Lawrence Grinnell

I first met Howard Roberts in the early 1960s in Los Angeles. I was a product demonstrator/salesman for the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, representing Gibson. As the local Gibson dealer always had a large turnout for my shows, he not only set up a number of seats on the floor for the visitors, but also brought in bleacher-style seating for the overflow. One of the dealer's salesmen approached me just before I went on and told me "Do you know who's here? Howard Roberts!" Just as he pointed him out, Howard waved back at me. By that time, Howard's playing was well known outside the L.A. area, so I knew his reputation as one hell of a player. Anyhow, I did my show to a standing room only crowd. After the show, Howard waited for the crowds to die down a bit before coming by to chat. I had to head out of town the next day, so I was unable to get together with him at that point in time. He gave me his number and asked me to call him the next time I came to town so we could do something together.

I can't think of a time that I was in the Los Angeles area after that first meeting that I didn't call. We got together on many occasions for things like the National Association of Music Manufacturers (NAMM) convention and other shows, as well as additional shows I did for CMI, representing Gibson and later Epiphone. One particular trip out to Los Angeles, probably around 1962, I called Howard at his home. I told him that I was now handling the Epiphone line and that I wanted to talk to him about perhaps endorsing an artist model, designed and built to his specifications. He was quite agreeable and invited my wife and me to his house. After a few drinks and hors d'oeuvres (his preference, long before it was fashionable, was for raw vegetables such as cauliflower, mushrooms, and broccoli in a homemade cheese and curry sauce), he and his wife took us to a local Japanese sushi bar, followed by a tour of all the great jazz joints in Hollywood. This is where the L.A. jazz scene was centered in those days. He took me to the legendary Donte's. Frank De Rone, a guitar player and singer, was performing that evening. He was very fine and I still wonder why he never made it big. He was that good. Anyhow, back at his house, I talked about the ideas I had, and he talked about his ideas for the ideal guitar, along with an itemized list. I then showed him preliminary drawings of the kind of guitar I had in mind. After incorporating his suggestions into my drawings, I sent them on to Les Propp, then CMI Sales Manager, in Chicago. He then took the drawings to the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan (Gibson had been building Epiphone guitars in Kalamazoo since acquiring the company in 1957--I had recently been tasked by CMI President Maurice Berlin to make the line more profitable). I didn't hear anything more about Howard's guitar for a long time.

Many months later, I saw a memo from CMI, announcing a new Epiphone Howard Roberts model. It was nothing like our drawings, however. Instead, it was more like a Gibson L-4 (16 inches wide, sharp cutaway, carved spruce top) body with an oval sound hole (much like the very oldest Orville Gibson-built guitars), and a Gibson humbucking pickup mounted to the end of the fingerboard. The neck was similar to other mid-line Epiphones--with a notched block inlay on the rosewood fingerboard and the classic Epiphone "tree of life" inlay on the peghead. It was a beautiful instrument in any case, no matter who designed it. I later heard through the grapevine that Ted McCarty, Gibson president, contacted Howard and got him to agree to the changes that became the Epiphone (and later Gibson) Howard Roberts model. The Kalamazoo factory was extremely busy building a large variety of Gibsons and Epiphones. Another unique new model would have created an additional burden. By using the slow selling L-4 as a base, it was easier to modify it and make better use of existing tooling, rather than create a wholly new guitar. The Howard Roberts model was a popular and successful guitar for CMI. It sounded great and played great, too. To this day, jazz players from all over the country tell me that their first guitar or the guitar they aspired to own was a Howard Roberts model Epiphone/Gibson. After U.S. Epiphone production ceased in 1970, the Howard Roberts model guitar simply became a Gibson, though at Howard's request, the carved spruce top was replaced with a more durable carved maple top. He talked about this change and other things in a June 1979 interview in Guitar Player magazine.

At one of our get-togethers, he talked to me about his youth in Phoenix and his friend Howard Haitmeyer, and how he and Howard would practice from early morning until early afternoon, when they would often go to see a movie. After the movie, they'd head back home and practice until it was time to go to work at a local club. The next morning after breakfast, they repeated the cycle. They did this every day, easily practicing 10-12 hours a day, along with a 3-4 hour gig a few times a week. Howard believed that constant practice and dedication to hard work gave him the proficiency he needed in skills like sight reading and just plain musicianship that made it possible for him to be a success in the studios of Los Angeles. While he didn't maintain that breakneck pace in his L.A. days, he still maintained a rigorous practice schedule throughout his life. He told me that Haitmeyer was an amazing player, but once he became proficient in guitar playing, he became bored with it and took up billiards. He scarcely picked up his guitar for weeks at a time unless he played for food or tips, until finally he became one of the finest billiard players in the Phoenix area.

Howard and I shared a number of friends in the L.A. musical community. Among them were Bob Hall and Jack Cookerly. Jack was the music arranger on the then popular TV series 77 Sunset Strip, and a great accordion player to boot. His wife was Alice Hall, another fantastic accordion player, who I knew from my Chicago days. Her only equal, as far as I am concerned, was the great blind player, Leon Sash. Bob Hall was a keyboard player, but was better known as being a highly successful organ salesman. He was also a part-time inventor. With Jack Cookerly, he developed a sound for Lowrey electronic organs called "AOC." This effect allowed the playing of chords with a single key. Bob and Jack also invented an octave divider and other effects for guitars, operated by an external controller. I was absolutely enthralled with the possibilities of this very early, if limited, MIDI-type (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) device. Howard was actively involved in this project, but it was Laurindo Almeda who first recorded with this device, winning a Grammy for his efforts. We called this device the "Chorgar," among ourselves, but eventually they came up with the name "Mystery Guitar." I tried to interest Gibson in this innovation, and got Jack and Bob an appointment with Ted McCarty to pitch their new product. Howard demonstrated the "Mystery Guitar" at the 1962 NAMM Convention, and did a fine job. Sadly, the guitar never went anywhere. The only thing I have of the "Mystery Guitar" is a tape Howard did in the living room of Jack Cookerly's at a party, playing with some special background tapes produced by Nelson Riddle. This tape was never made available commercially, and is something I treasure from my friendship with Howard Roberts.

In 1965, soon after I went to work for CBS/Fender as a manufacturer's representative, handling New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Howard called me from California, offering me a job as a salesman or sales manager (it was so long ago, I can't remember) with the new Benson Amplifier company (Howard was a partner in the company). Sadly, I had to turn him down. My time with Fender was such a fairytale existence, there was no way that I could possibly give up the money and the perks. It's almost embarrassing to think how much money I made with Fender (I wish I had it now!). I apologetically told Howard that I just couldn't "leave all that." Remember, this was the era when rock and roll was coming into its own. Every rock star or would-be rock star (country and western sales were real strong, too) wanted a Fender guitar, bass, or amplifier. Even when the factory worked three full shifts, Fender was unable to keep up with the demand. It was what you might call a "high class problem." How could anyone leave that? Howard understood, and that was the end of it.

Howard Roberts, the man, was a very gentle person, one who took his music and everything else very seriously. I know that he had a sense of humor. He was so serious, though, that it took a long time for him to realize that you were taking the time to actually tell him a joke! With me, though, he was very easygoing. Even though he could be very direct, I never heard Howard say anything bad about anyone else. If he had any negative feelings about anyone, he kept them to himself.

Howard was a marvelous guitar player. He was studious and bright, as well as being a good businessman. He knew how to make good money as a guitarist, making a great business out of it. He was also one of the great teachers, with his monthly column in Guitar Player magazine for many years, and in his involvement in the formation of the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT).

Howard was also a kind and gracious man. After I retired, I visited a NAMM Convention somewhere out west. Howard, my wife Muri, and I got together. We stopped by one of the booths where Muri's son, Jim Graham, was playing some folk and country-based tunes. Muri told Howard "Jim doesn't play the kind of things you play..." when Howard stopped her and told her "Don't you make any apologies for Jim--he's got something to say. He's doing fine, he knows what he is doing, and sounds great."

He told me privately some years ago that doctors had advised him to get out of southern California, because the smog was making him very ill, and that it would only get worse in time. That was one of the main reasons he moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he settled in Seattle, Washington. Howard only went back to California to do club dates, concerts, and some studio work.

Over the years, Howard built up quite a collection of instruments himself, due to the necessity of having a variety of instruments for studio dates. At the time of his death, he had ten very special guitars. Gibson had been very kind in providing him with several versions of the original Howard Roberts model guitar (including a stunning 1970 HR Artist model--blonde with ebony fingerboard, abalone inlays, and gold hardware), as well as several variants of the Howard Roberts Fusion (including the first prototype off the line) and Fusion Lite model over the years. He also owned a gorgeous 1941 Epiphone DeLuxe, originally owned and personally and meticulously restored by the incomparable George Van Eps. Other instruments included a well-used 1953 Fender Telecaster (known as the guitar that "changed the world"), a 1959 Gibson ES-175 (given to Howard by guitar player and famous record producer Jack Marshall) and his original "Black Beauty," a heavily modified late 1930s Gibson (either an L-12 or perhaps an ES-250) that was the boyhood instrument of studio and jazz great, Herb Ellis. One of Howard's personal Benson amplifiers, studio logs (he was a meticulous recordkeeper), and other memorabilia round out the collection. His widow has placed this collection on the market as a set only, for $150,000.

After my semi-retirement and move to southwest Florida, I was pretty much out of the mainstream of the music industry. Regretfully, I did not keep in close touch with Howard, which made it all the more unfortunate when my nephew called me to tell me of Howard's passing. The music world lost an innovator, a teacher, and a world class player. I lost a good friend, one I'll miss deeply.