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August 2001

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Freddie Roulette
Back in Chicago
Hi Horse Records

Freddie RouletteIt would be hard for even the most diehard blues fans to come up with over two or three lap steel blues guitarists. Hop Wilson and L. C. Robinson spring to mind, and Sonny Rhodes has continued the tradition. However, beginning in the 1960s, Freddie Roulette rose to prominence with several appearances on various albums. He accompanied Luther Allison on his first recordings for Delmark (two great sides on the Sweet Home Chicago anthology), Earl Hooker (notably Two Bugs and a Roach on Arhoolie), and Charlie Musselwhite (Tennessee Woman), and was showcased on the Blue Thumb album Chicago Blues Stars. His sound was different from the other lap steel blues players, sometimes taking on an almost ethereal quality, then diving off into uncharted territory with a looping solo where all you could do as a listener was hang on for dear life. His sound, which mixed blues, country & western, and even Hawaiian music, was instantly recognizable once you heard him, and he always left you breathless, begging for more.

Unfortunately, Roulette has never recorded on a consistent basis and did virtually nothing for over 20 years, opting to help raise his family and manage an apartment complex in California, with an occasional live appearance or album appearance thrown in. In 1997, he resurfaced with Back In Chicago, Jammin' With Willie Kent and the Gents (Hi Horse Records), and it was like he had never been away. 

This CD has a relaxed feel, like an actual jam session, with Kent and the Gents, plus Chico Banks on guitar, providing steady, unobtrusive support, and it's clearly Roulette's show. There are ten tracks, all mostly familiar covers except for two Roulette originals (the title cut and the instrumental, "Freddie's Funk"). The Albert King influence is obvious, both in song selection ("Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," "You're Gonna Need Me," and a ten and a half minute version of "Laundromat Blues," which includes a lengthy dialogue between Fred and his guitar) and in Roulette's gruff vocals. 

Though he's never sung much previously, Roulette acquits himself pretty well here, but vocally, he won't make you forget the original versions of these songs. It's his mastery of the lap steel that brings you back for additional listening. His unique fretwork (the version of "Sleepwalk" is simply beautiful) leaves you waiting excitedly for what he's going to bring to each of the other songs, and you won't be disappointed by any of them. 

Roulette hasn't released anything since this excellent CD, but hopefully it won't be another 20 years before we hear from him again. In the meantime, this CD is highly recommended, and will leave you begging for more. 

--- Graham Clarke

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