Ten Shots with Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues

By Georgetown Fats
November 2012

Though oftentimes my furrowed and balding brow seems deeper than the love for music buried deep in my soul due to non-musical issues, music is not something I will ever be able to shake. This is due to the countless personal opportunities afforded to me through music, and my own personal experiences of the majority of musicians often being the first to step forward with their talents and sweat equity to “take care of their own.”

This was how I was introduced to Philip Pemberton a mere few months into his beginnings with Roomful of Blues.

In order to assist some of the previous Boston Blues Challenge winners with their fundraising efforts, I leaned on some of local music professionals currently enjoying some well earned success. Not only was Pemberton one of the first people to step forward and offer assistance far greater than I could have imagined, but he has continued to be a ready resource whenever he could be of service.

From his initial genuine response for assistance, I have found it hard not to appreciate the continued upward trajectory of Pemberton’s musical career and from some of the odd and often sophomoric levels of discussions in our e-mail chains, I knew I needed to have Ten Shots with Philip Pemberton.

Georgetown Fats - So give me the low-down here, how does a highly regarded vocalist hook up with A Roomful of Blues? While I know this isn’t a new gig for you, I am interested in hearing just how you heard of the opening in the band, and how the audition process went.

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues – well ... I was kickin’ around the scene like most folks ... played some big gigs ... made some good friends ... toured a bit. But I could never break through to that next level ... Took 4 years off from playing out of frustration with the biz when my girlfriend, now my wife, finally said, you need to get out of the house ... started a soul band with Brad Faucher, and needed a replacement keyboard player for a gig ... our regular, Bruce Bears was out on tour with Duke Robillard ... Travis Colby (Roomful) was the replacement for the night.

He wound up asking me to play Soul music for his wedding, and all of Roomful was there...

When Dave Howard was stepping down, I got the call to try out.

Just went down to Chris Vachon's house/studio, recorded over 5-6 tracks that they removed the vocal from, and guess I won out.

Georgetown Fats - What is the most daunting part of your current gig with Roomful of Blues? Would it be having a working knowledge of the 40+ year Roomful songbook, or something else entirely?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues – Well ... I think I started in the right way ... I spent 4 months sitting in with the band, getting to know the guys and the material before I took over the reins ...so that wasn't daunting ... we don't do all the songs from the 20+ albums.

The daunting part is keeping my business going while I'm away. Little bit of juggling of schedules ... but I make it work ... the other thing that makes it hard is leaving my 5 year old daughter, 2 year old son and my wife when we hit the road ... but once again, it's just what Daddy does ... they seem to get it. It makes the time with them more special. Plus we live in the age of Skype so it's not too bad.

Georgetown Fats - You have recently been on tour with Roomful over in Scandinavia, how is it playing to a non-English speaking audience?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - There are some rabid fans over there ... it was amazing. This year we've been to Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and most recently to Norway where James Cotton was our special guest. Folks in Europe seem to make more of an effort than most of us Americans to learn a few languages ... most folks I ran into actually spoke English.

The crowds as a whole seem to LOVE American music ... they also have a vast knowledge of the recording, songs, bands ... It was a little weird for me to get asked questions about production, etc...

Lots of love from the folks over there ... very appreciated ... after MANY years playing anonymously in clubs ... (I am) looking forward to playing in Poland in October.

Georgetown Fats - How do you find the energy to keep Roomful of Blues, your own solo music schedule, backing James Cotton on some of his tour, a family life and a family business a float?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - I've gotten used to running on very little sleep. I also have learned to focus in short little bursts. When I'm with the band, I'm WITH the band ... trying to make sure I'm prepared ... When I'm with my family, I'm fully there ... try to take away all the distractions that can take away from that. (It is) just a matter of scheduling ... during the day, my family knows I am working ... even if Daddy is home, I'm on the computer or giving bids for work, or setting up jobs. I try to keep my Facebook till late at night when everyone is in bed ... same with sending emails.

I schedule a time once a week to talk with the booking agent at Blue Mountain Artists, etc. There is NEVER enough time to do everything.

I set priorities and try to stick to the most important.

Georgetown Fats - And about your solo work, is there any news you would care to share about any pending future projects either with or without Roomful of Blues?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues – Well, on the recording front, Roomful is going to start pre production on the next CD; we're looking at an early 2013 release hopefully.

(We are) currently writing for it. Next year is the band’s 45th anniversary, so should be a big’un ... most likely on Alligator Records again.

I have just sang a few songs with Deb Landolt (Long Tall Deb & the Drifter Kings) and look forward to hearing the finished product all over the radio --great stuff; Sean Carney on guitar, couple of BIG guests too, that I'm not sure I can divulge and (it has) got the Roomful horns on a track as well.

Also working on some ideas for a soul album I want to record. If all goes right, I'll be doing that in early 2013, with Ron Levy and a big old who’s who of special guests. Until it's ready, I am not gonna say who, but trust me, it'll blow back your hair!

Georgetown Fats - How has it been playing shows with James Cotton? Have you had the opportunity to pick his brain or hear any great stories you could share?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - He is truly amazing, and fully deserving of the title "Living Legend." We played with him in Helena, Arkansas, and I didn't feel like I did the job I wanted to do ... was a little intimidated I think. This time around, we played at Notodden Festival in Norway. My buddy Doug Woolverton (trumpet, Roomful) and I spent a little more time hanging with him than last time, and he was down-to-earth ... had a few good discussions.

The only good story I have is, after playing the King Biscuit Festival with him, I was coming off stage ... we were rushing to get out the way, as Buddy Guy was coming on ... a very nice English gentleman shook my hand and said "sounded great man...good job..." I shook his hand, said thanks, and quickly made my way backstage to get a towel and a ice cold beer ... just needed to catch my breath...

(it ) wasn't until the next day, in the Memphis airport, while checking my Facebook, that I saw a picture a friend had sent me ... the caption was "...Here's a picture of Robert Plant watching you and Cotton last night” - very glad I didn't know it was him, and he was watching, I wouldn't have been able to sing. *laughs*

(It) Turns out that a lot of folks are huge fans of his and they show up often. In Norway, Paul Rodgers’ guitarist told me that Paul is a huge Cotton fan, and was going to try to run over to see him ... not sure if he did or not.

But James is all class, and chops to spare ... amazing. It's an honor for me to sing occasionally for him.

(It) Was a big honor for me when in Helena, he leaned over to me on stage, in the middle of a song and said, "You're BAD." I assume he meant bad in the "good" way. *laughs*

Georgetown Fats - On Roomful of Blues’ 2011 release Hook, Line & Sinker, all 12 tracks are critically acclaimed cover songs, when are we going to hear some new original material with Roomful of Blues?

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - There are 5-6 writers in this line-up ... the thought is to do a mostly original CD this time around. With the last CD, we were trying to get a CD out with my voice on it, and the new players ... for that jump you get with a new release ... radio promo, articles etc.; once again, maybe early 2013.

Georgetown Fats - How about some of your influences; I am curious to learn what bands or vocalists gave you that “it” moment which gave you the inspiration to be a professional musician.

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - Otis Redding, LIVE ... definitely ... the moment I knew I wanted to be on stage for sure was when Queen played "Radio Gaga" at Live Aid ... watch that video ... horrible song ... but amazing crowd reaction ... that was a big AHA!!! for me. Like most suburban guys, I grew up listening to rock...but when Paul Rodgers came out with Muddy Water's Blues album, that was my intro to the blues. It led to the obvious question, "who is Muddy Waters?" ... it's been a series of bad career choices, and great music ever since ...

Georgetown Fats - Are there any tales from the road you care to share? Names can be changed to protect the guilty, but I am either looking for something that makes the lay-fan understand that playing music professionally is actual “work,” or a humorous road tale? In a pinch, ratting out a roadie or another band member would be perfectly acceptable.

Philip Pemberton of Roomful of Blues - It's been a long trail of alcohol, cocaine, groupies, and all night orgies ... hahaha...the reality is really pretty mundane ... It's a lot of truck stops, bad food, beaten but not broken '83 MCI tour bus with a never-ending urine smell that penetrates your SOUL.

There's a lot of waiting around for things to happen. (Not to mention) folks with their IPhones searching for a Starbucks in the middle of Idaho.

Then you drive some more, and more, and more ... do you realize how big this country is ... pretty damn big ... But when you're in front of a crowd who is there to see YOU, it makes up for it all. When this band is ON, there is no one who can touch it. I'm very proud of the boys ... proud to be included too. I think a Roomful show will blow your hair back with the scary talent that I get to share a stage with. But of course I'm biased.

Now, I do have a few stories, but I'll have to whisper them to you in a darkened room, cuz they'll make you blush ... hahaha ... save them for the “tell all.”

Georgetown Fats - It is a recycled question, but it always manages to get great responses. What do you plan on putting in your contract rider once you’ve ‘made it?

Philip Pemberton - ONCE I've made it ... I thought I had ... you mean there's more? Probably massages ... JUST Massages ... after 10 hours on a bus, or 20 hours on the way to Norway (6 alone in the Munich airport), ya just kinda need a back and neck rub. That's about it, I'm not high maintenance.

Georgetown Fats - If I were to crack into your car CD player, what disk would I find that would surprise the hell out of me?

Philip Pemberton – Well, I listen to a lot of stuff, not sure it would stun ya, but I have alot of Positive Thinking stuff on audio ... keeps my spirits up ... keeps me focused ... goal-oriented stuff.

As regards music, I listen to a lot of Solomon Burke (Nashville, Don't give up on me), OV Wright, Howard Tate, the newest Ron Levy albums, Bill Wither's Live at Carnegie Hall ... Probably the weirdest thing is Nusrat Fateh Alii Khan, amazing Pakistani singer ... Sheila Chandra (she's on Peter Gabriel’s label) ... I have some friends who used to run a World Music Magazine ... turned me on to a lot of stuff I probably never would have listened to otherwise. Passion album by Peter Gabriel ... awesome instrumental soundtrack.

Georgetown Fats - What is a tell-tale indicator for you in a live situation when you know the audience “gets it?”

Philip Pemberton – Hmmmm ... more of a feeling. You can feel the energy from the crowd ... sometimes, if the crowd is just closed off, there is nothing you can do to "GET" them.

We don't have that problem usually ... but every once in awhile ... ugh.

You can see it in their faces too ... and usually they are dancing a few songs in ... so that's an easy indicator.

Georgetown Fats - If you had your choice, WHICH legend would you like to perform with Roomful of Blues or which band would you like sit in with for a few tunes?

Philip Pemberton - Buddy Guy ... BB King ... the obvious ... maybe Van Morrison ... a lot of the guys I would have liked to have played with have passed unfortunately ... Hubert Sumlin was one that I would’ve loved to sing with.

One legendary guy I look forward to doing more shows with is Ron Levy. Not only do I think he's a genius as a musician and as a producer, but I also consider him one of my closest friends. (There are) not many people that my kids call “uncle”... he is one of the few ... looking forward to all that happens ... its gonna be some GOOOOD music.

I know it sounds a little kiss ass, but I don't care ... I am proudest to play with all the guys in Roomful of Blues. They are ALL world class musicians. There are some nights playing when I step out of myself, and think, "what the hell am I doing up here with these guys?" feeling completely inadequate ... they are just so good. I'm lucky.

Would you like to keep track of Philip or Roomful of Blues? Bookmark these sites:



<- back to Features