Robert Ward: a guitar legend back from obscurity | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Robert Ward: a guitar legend back from obscurity

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"Rediscoveries" are rare in blues and R & B these days. About the closest thing recently was the rehabilitation of Memphis soul legend James Carr, the man who recorded the original "Dark End of the Street" in 1966 and seemed marked for stardom until mental illness derailed him a few years later. After decades of torment this frail, elderly-looking man in his late 40s received a hero's welcome this year from European fans who still revere southern soul artists as much as they do Chicago bluesmen.

Then there's veteran saxophonist Noble "Thin Man" Watts, whose recent work on King Snake and Alligator has been somewhat overenthusiastically promoted as the return of another living legend. But strictly speaking, neither Watts nor Carr was a "rediscovery" in the usual sense: monumental artists ignored by popular culture and abandoned by the recording industry, then brought back to electrify new generations.

Now guitarist Robert Ward, known primarily for a handful of obscure sides from the early 60s and for his 70s-era session work at Motown, has reemerged on the Black Top label. In Ward we may at last have the genuine article: he's a versatile guitarist with a distinctive sound who lent his imaginative stylings to several pop revolutions only to suddenly disappear into total obscurity. Born in Georgia, Ward spent his childhood absorbing gospel, blues, and early rock and roll and cut a few sides in Atlanta with a local group called the Brassettes before moving to southern Ohio. About 1960 he formed his own band, the Ohio Untouchables, and started to develop a substantial local reputation. The Untouchables were eventually discovered by budding record impresario Berry Gordy.

Ward and the Untouchables signed a contract with Gordy and went on to accompany a gospel-based Detroit group called the Falcons, featuring vocalist Wilson Pickett, on the original recording of "I Found a Love" on Lu Pine in 1962. That song, seminal in the development of modern soul music, was based on a tune Ward claims as his own, "Forgive Me Darling," which had been a regional hit for the Untouchables.

Ward left the Untouchables soon after in a dispute over finances. The band persevered without him through the next decade, finally winning fame and fortune in the 70s as the Ohio Players. Ward, meanwhile, continued touring and doing session work with Pickett and various others, eventually joining Gordy's stable of studio musicians at Motown.

Ward proved as adept at Motown's trailblazing pop-oriented R & B as he'd been with the raw, gospel-drenched emotionalism of the Untouchables and the Falcons. He worked extensively in the studio and toured in the early 70s with both the Temptations and Undisputed Truth. His tenure at Motown lasted until the middle of the decade. Then his wife died and he returned to Georgia to raise his children and maintain the family farm.

If he had done nothing more than write the prototype for "I Found a Love," his place in R & B history would have been secure. But as collectors and historians have begun to delve deeper into the roots of R & B, it has become obvious that Ward's haunting, vibrato-laden chording and passionate leads on those early sides were years ahead of their time.

Archivists and record producers tried to seek him out, but he seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. Soon the usual rumors--"he's retired to the church," "he's in jail," "he's dead"--began to circulate. The ghostly tremolo that had characterized Ward's style heightened his legend as a mysterious figure disappeared into darkness.

About two years ago Ward decided it was time to step out again. The story goes that he simply called Black Top producer Hammond Scott from out of nowhere (probably from Dry Branch, Georgia, where he makes his home) and said, "I hear you've been looking for me." Scott quickly arranged a recording session in New Orleans. The resulting LP, Fear No Evil, has received widespread acclaim as a successful melding of vintage R & B passion and contemporary flash. On it Ward reprises a few of his old trademark numbers with uncanny accuracy, and he adapts himself effortlessly to the New Orleans funkiness provided by the horns and rhythm section.

Ward is obviously exhilarated about his revitalized career, but he's also been handed a heavy burden. The advance publicity on him has been mercilessly extravagant; to read the press releases, he's a risen-from-the-ashes combination of Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix. No one can live up to standards like that; if Ward is anything less than superhuman, he may be considered a failure.

That would be a shame, because his musical abilities are undiminished. His legendary melodic and harmonic eccentricities still shine, and if allowed to regain his stride he may again become a dominant force on the blues scene. I say "blues scene" because there's precious little space in contemporary mainstream R & B for an artist as individualistic as Ward. His blues aren't the lush, horn-filled variety they play at nightclubs like East of the Ryan, but a tough, primal-sounding blend of Chicago and Memphis. His soul outings are heavy on vintage 60s- and 70s-style choppy funk, embellished a bit with electronics but perhaps too straight-ahead and melodic to capture the imagination of today's hip-hop-hardened young listeners.

Ward's recent appearance at FitzGerald's was a tantalizing glimpse at a major talent just beginning to reassert itself. He seemed somewhat tentative in his song selection and, at least at the beginning, in his playing. His band couldn't seem to decide whether to push him or let him call the shots, and they ended up doing neither.

But as the evening progressed, Ward became more assertive. He has a knack of inserting jazzy chords into his most basic patterns, creating an arresting fusion of sophistication and funk. He brings a harsh, bluesy edge to his soul stylings, and there's often a hint of tension in the air, as if he's straining at the song's harmonic boundaries, threatening to escape into dissonance.

That blues tinge becomes more pronounced when he takes a solo. He snakes up and down the fretboard, exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of the melody line, punctuating everything with wide-fingered chords. After all those years at Motown, Ward seems to think instinctively in terms of hooks--most of his solos at FitzGerald's were grounded by a phrase or pattern to which he regularly returned.

Ward can build an entire solo on chords, but they're not the fleet, swinging chords of a Wes Montgomery. His harmonic framework is often Eastern-sounding, with an exotic, exploratory urgency reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix; he combines good-natured soul minstrelsy with a tinge of ecstatic purple haze. As always, his fusion of down-home roots and pop stylings is effortless and seductive.

At FitzGerald's, Ward was strangely hesitant toward the beginning of the evening to dig into his own repertoire--he even avoided selections from his current LP until quite late in the show. That conservatism cramped his style a little, but even on standards his individuality came through. His rendition of Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" was so bluesy that I initially mistook it for Otis Rush's "All Your Love." A primitivism pulled the tune, covered by pop and jazz artists for so many years, back to street level.

It was on originals like the instrumental "Dry Spell," though, that Ward's gifts truly shone. He negotiated the quirky, quick-changing arrangement with ease, filling the spaces between his leads with chords and an eccentric lurching solo that made it sound as if Ward was tangled up in rhythmic and harmonic knots. But he returned to the beat just in time, those big chords pulling everything back like an anchor. Then without blinking he jumped off the rhythm again for another solo.

Through it all he maintained a low-key, take-care-of-business attitude that hinted at the musical craftsmanship lurking behind the playful audacity of his improvisations. Ward's solos, fleet and freely constructed as they were, were built entirely within the logic dictated by the chord changes. He sometimes scattered notes so tightly within a song's harmonic framework that they almost became chords--an effortless aural pointillism. Ward has a musical sense, however, that tells him when not to venture too far out. On "Fear No Evil," a straight-ahead soul shouter in the Ohio Untouchables tradition, he wrapped his leads tightly around the melody line, propelling everything as always with his strategic chording. He sometimes approached the "wall of sound" dominance of a Guitar Slim, but without the relentless overamplification. That tension between anarchy and direction that characterizes Ward's best playing was especially evident here.

Yet the very qualities that make Ward special--his unique ability to fuse styles and influences, to skirt the boundaries of chaos and then pull himself back, to combine his impeccably developed talent for accompaniment with the creativity of a leader--lent a curious directionlessness to his show. It wasn't just the stylistic jumps, but a sense that he is still feeling his way back, acclimating himself to a bandleader's role after years of being a sideman.

Part of the problem was pacing. Rather than letting the band warm up, Ward played from the start. He'd get the room jumping with his own fiery explorations, then sit back and let bassist Bobby Rock run through a couple of contemporary blues standards. Rock ambled through the room at one point, singing Bobby Bland's "Members Only" without a microphone--virtually inaudible for most of the song.

Lulls like that aren't fatal at a low-key, neighborhood venue like FitzGerald's, but if Ward wants to make it back to the big time he deserves, he'll have to get a tighter grip on his show. He'd do well to go back to his experience with the Temptations, adopt their tightly choreographed professionalism, and infuse it with the down-home informality that makes his current performances so endearing. The rediscovery of Robert Ward is a major event in contemporary R & B; it remains to be seen whether he will do full justice to his legend and his talent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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