From playing with the first rock and roll band that landed an ongoing gig in Las Vegas, to setting off stink bombs in the lobby of a Midwest hotel as a member of The Brian Setzer Orchestra, multi-instrumentalist Don Roberts has probably seen it all. I spoke to Don over the telephone from his home in Los Angeles and what follows is his story. No names have been changed so the innocent will not be protected!
Los Angeles born and raised, Don Roberts started his musical journey by taking clarinet lessons at the age of 8. Don's interest in the saxophone prompted him to start studying that instrument in the seventh grade. One of his major influences at that time was Little Richard's tenor sax player, the incomparable Lee Allen. In addition to being knocked out by Allen, Don credits his music teacher-saxophonist Don Raffell, John Coltrane and StanGetz as also being major inspirations. The years prior to his high school graduation and subsequent stint in the US Army were easily some of the most exciting years in American musical history and Don's enthusiasm when discussing that period (1956-1962) is quite evident. While a freshman at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles, Don joined the regionally popular surf band, The Vulcanes. Playing tenor saxophone with TheVulcanes assured that Don's high school years would be anything but typical.
In 10th grade the band signed a contract with Capitol Records. After his sophomore year, Don left Notre Dame High and enrolled in Van Nuys High School. In addition to counting Don among it's graduates Marilyn Monroe was also a student at Van Nuys. It was at this point while he was a high school junior that Don started touring with the Vulcanes, who at this time, thanks to exposure on "The Bob Eubanks Show", had become very popular indeed. The band even made it to the silver screen by appearing in the film, "I'll Take Sweden" which starred Bob Hope and Tuesday Weld. That's certainly a rather impressive series of accomplishments to have under your belt while still in high school and not yet 18 years old! In 1962 The Vulcanes were assured a place in rock history by becoming the first rock and roll band to get a job working on the strip in Las Vegas. The band played two weeks at the Stardust Hotel. Incredibly, rock was not
welcome in Vegas at that point and Don notes that you needed a sheriff's card to play there and that the road into town was dotted with large billboards reminding people that if they were caught with illegal substances in their possession that they would be facing life in prison. The musicians who played Vegas at that time were also told that if they were arrested and convicted for anything that they would never play there again. The rules that a rock band playing Las Vegas were forced to abide by in 1962 were nothing compared to the discipline that Don was forced to deal with when, during a Salt Lake City gig, with The Vulcanes, he was informed that Uncle Sam needed sax players. Don was drafted into the US Army in 1964 and began a two year residency in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Over the course of the next two years he was not only a member of the US Army band but also formed his own band called The Knockouts who were very popular with the troops.
After his stint in the service Don was in his early twenties and free to find work where he could put his, by now, considerable talents to good use. In addition to his ability to play every member of the saxophone family (alto, tenor, baritone), Don also continued studying his first instrument, the clarinet, and along the way became quite accomplished at playing the various members of the flute family. Don's reputation as a dependable, multi-instrumentalist created alot of work for him both in the Los Angeles area and in Las Vegas.
During the mid 60's Don did a mountain of session work and played with several bands but it was a tour with the horn-driven pop band Chicago in 1969 that signaled the beginning a career in music that would become much more high profile as the years went on. After a short stint with legendary big band leader Harry James, Don began a gig with the very successful duo, Loggins and Messina. He toured and recorded 4 albums with the pair including their final LP, Native Sons which was released in 1976 and along with their previous efforts went gold.
Concurrent to working with Loggins and Messina, Don landed the gig that any musician would kill for. For 5 tours Don found himself a member of Elvis Presley's band. He played baritone saxophone with the King from 1973 until 1976. Don's memories of those Elvis tours are clearly very special to him and he still laughs while recalling how Elvis would try to crack up the band by making faces at them during the shows. A very poignant story that Don shared was one that involved Elvis's love for gospel music. From time to time Elvis would have his backup singers (JD Summers and The Stamps Quartet) perform agospel number during his set. Elvis would actually sit down on a chair in the wings and listen to the song and on more than one occasion was actually moved to tears by the live performance of what Don believes was definitely Elvis's favorite style of music.
After the breakup of Loggins and Messina in 1976 and after his final tour with Elvis, Don signed on to what would become his longest musical collaboration. The Manhattan Transfer were a 4-part vocal harmony group and within the context of their musical style (swing, jazz, doo-wop and pop) Don would really be able to spread his musical wings and as their soloist, really show his stuff. Perhaps the best known recording that the Manhattan Transfer released was the 1981 top ten hit "Boy From New York City". Although a major American hit, that song doesn't really do that group's musical legacy justice. It should be pointed out that in addition to being a member of The Manhattan Transfer throughout 1976-1991 Don also kept himself busy by performing with the Los Angeles blues band, The Bombers. He also played on the self-titled debut album by Christopher Cross. Although Don downplayed the Christopher Cross connection, I should point out that that album went platinum and won five Grammy Awards.
By 1991 Don felt that he had spent enough time with the Manhattan Transferand quit the band to continue playing around LA doing sessions and live work. It wasn't long after this that he got a call from a musical colleague letting him know that Brian Setzer was auditioning horn players for a new musical project called The Brian Setzer Orchestra, a wild concept in which an electric guitarist would front a big band. Don auditioned for Brian and eventually became the BSO's baritone sax player. He is the only current member of the BSO who (along with Brian of course) actually played the band's very first show. He's literally been in the band since day one. I asked Don to tell me about the first few BSO shows and wondered if he ever imagined that things would explode for the band the way they have in the last year. Don distinctively recalls that prior to the first BSO gig nobody knew what to expect and that (as has often been related by Brian himself) very few tickets were sold. Don points out that it took only a few live shows for the word to spread about this unusual band, and that within a very short period of time people were lined up around the block waiting to get into the BSO gigs. When I asked Don to recall a defining moment when he knew that the BSO were well on their way to turning people on to this exciting new sound, Don sites a gig in Canada, at the Montreal Jazz Festival in the summer of 1995 as being very memorable. He recalls that after the band left the stage the audience went wild for at least 15 minutes. That reaction made it clear to Don that the best was yet to come. He also mentioned that during the recording of the second BSO CD, "Guitar Slinger" it was clear to him that Brian had nailed what he'd set out to do and was only going to get better with each new release. In this short biography on the life of Don Roberts I think I have properly filled the reader in on Don's musical history but I really have not given you a picture of what Don is like as a person. I've had the pleasure of spending time with Don on several occasions and I must say that you'd be hard pressed to find a more engaging person (even if you weren't buying the drinks!). Don has a dry wit and a very relaxed manner that gives you the impression that you've always known him. He's incredibly generous with his time and generally reminds you of an uncle who visits during the holidays and spends most of his time playing with the kids. In a way, Don reminds me of a big kid and the best way to support that statement would be to share the following story: During a BSO American tour a couple of years ago, the band were staying in a hotel in the Midwest that turned out to be less than accomodating in that there was no hot water, the rooms were dirty and the service was less than stellar. While they were checking out, someone in the band got wind that Don had a stink bomb in his possession. Without much prompting, revenge was taken and the band's buses were out of town long before the hotel lobby could be considered "stink-free". As the BSO prepare to embark on their second tour of Europe within the space of 7 months, one can only hope that the hotels will be sufficient!
From the Vulcanes to the BSO, hope you enjoyed the Don Roberts story.
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