B i o g r a p h y
You may not be familiar with Dana Robbins’ name, but odds are you’re already well-acquainted with her unique, bright yet smoky saxophone sound. The Nashville-by-way-of-Ann-Arbor (with a ten-year stop in Los Angeles) Robbins has been a featured player for superstars including Barry Manilow, Roger Daltrey, Frank Zappa, and can currently be heard in both blues legend Delbert McClinton’s and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s touring bands. With the release of her new, self-titled, album, listeners will finally be able to put a name, a face and a voice to her sound. Just click on the album’s first track, the sly, tart “Say It Again,” and you’ll understand why Music City insiders consider her an instrumental MVP, a first-call when you’re looking for a sax player.
“This album is a chance to present myself as a strong and passionate musician,” Dana explains. It’s style that allows her to be both melodic and aggressive, able to nail both the up-for-anything electricity of “Swinging Alley” and the slinky, smoky, 2AM soul of “Make It A Double.”
It’s not like she had a choice. The saxophone has been her obsession since the fifth grade. When it came time for her to join the school band, she was sent to the auditorium, where all the instruments—strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion—were set up and students could walk around and decide what to play. “I immediately gravitated to the saxophone,” she says. This was one grade-school romance that took hold. “To this day, I get so emotional when pick up my horn. I have such a connection to it, still.”
It’s a connection that musicians as varied as British blues legend John Mayall and Barry Manilow wanted to tap into. And touring with such high-calibre talent was a master class in sustaining a career in music. “They’re superstars because they set their musical bar high and they expect you to meet it.” When you’re touring with a musicians like Delbert, Dana says “you have to be ready to bring it.”
But Dana has too much talent to remain a side-woman; it wasn’t long before she was ready to take the spotlight. “It’s my comfort zone,” she says. “I love being out front and playing.” So So Good, her 2010 debut, was a jazzy, R&B collection; the new album was going to be a rootsier, more down-home affair, one that reflected the broad range of her influences, from the classic bop of Cannonball Adderly, the gritty soul of Maceo Parker and King Curtis, to the more modern style of Michael Brecker.
To accomplish this, she turned to the musicians she felt most comfortable with—the other members of Delbert McClinton’s band: Michael Joyce on bass; SESAC award-winning guitarist Rob McNelley; Kevin McKendree on keyboards. She even tapped Tom Hambridge, the band’s drummer, and Grammy Award-winning producer for Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Susan Tedsechi, to produce the album. “He’s at the top of his game,” she says, “I couldn’t imagine anyone else. I trust him 100%.”
With all the elements in place, they set up shop at Nashville’s Ronnie’s Place for two days of recording. Hambridge chose the legendary studio—Roy Orbison's home in the ‘70s, followed by Ronnie Milsap in the ‘80s—because of what he described as its “good Mojo.” Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and Johnny Cash are just a few of the folks that recorded there. He especially loved the warm, classic sound produced by the vintage Neve console and being able to use the grand piano that Milsap played his hits. Finally, it’s a room he’s used often, and knew it would provide the perfect, comfortable space for Dana and the band.
Their comfort, and that indefinable “good Mojo,” can be felt in the deep in the pocket swing of King Curtis’ “Soul Twist” and the greased lightning funk of Buddy Miles’ classic “Them Changes.” They match Delbert’s yearning on “The Hardest Part’s” bluesy pledge of love and his noirish growl on the heavy-lidded gimlet-eyed lament “Pullin’ The Strings.” With Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie) crooning, they swoon with the best of them on the embraceable “Bless Your Heart.” Hall is also at the mic for the high stepping New Orleans celebration of “Party on the Ocean,” inspired by the McClinton-organized Sandy Beach Cruises, where Dana is a popular attraction, and where she met many of the fans who contributed to the album’s Kickstarter campaign.
And then there’s “Right As Rain,” a swelling, oceanic love song that is also Dana’s first recorded lead vocal. “I had plenty of encouragement, she explains, but “it was like diving off the high board...I just hoped I would land safely.”
After one listen, it should be obvious she stuck the landing. And that there’s is no limit to how high she can climb or level of stardom she can achieve. Soon everybody will know Dana Robbins’ name.