RETURN ENGAGEMENT • Bobby Balderrama

He Rode the Wave to the Top of the Pop Charts In 1966 with ’96 Tears’. Now Robert Lee Scores a Fresh #1 Spot on the Jazz Charts with ‘Any Moment’

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, , National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 927   By: Robert E Martin

17th March, 2022     0

Guitarist Robert Lee Balderrama has led a musical life many have dreamed of but few have achieved. As a fresh-faced teenager back in 1966 he went soaring to the top of national Billboard Magazine charts with an era-defining hit called 96 Tears with this band Question Mark & the Mysterians, which Rolling Stone Magazine included in their list of the Top 500 Rock Songs of All Time; and 56 years later he is now riding the top of the charts with his ‘Smooth-Jazz’ hit Any Moment, which recently hit the #1 spot on Billboard’s Jazz Charts.

A devout fan of jazz guitar greats such as Wes Montgomery, George Benson and the Latin-infused rock style of Carlos Santana, the stylistic alchemy that occurs on his new hit single Any Moment is the result formed from an alliance with multi-faceted songwriters & producers Mike Rogers & Gary Lefkowith - collectively known as Le Sonic - who have created this modern jazz hit based upon a hypnotic cocktail of weaving melodic exchanges, interplay, and timing.

Recently I sat down for an in-depth interview with Bobby to discuss his decade long journey into the world of Jazz, the evolution of his sound and phrasing, and what lays ahead for what up until now - and despite a few serious health challenges - has proven to be a remarkably rewarding and storybook career made by following his Muse and trusting his passion.

REVIEW: Back in 2011 you released your first recordings with The Robert Lee Revue, so it’s been a little over a decade since you started stepping away from Blues and Garage Rock and jumping into the world of Jazz.  When you look back at the work you’ve created over the past ten years and how each release has charted higher and gained more attention, how do you see the evolution of your sound in terms of the traction it’s receiving?

Balderrama:  When I started getting into jazz I was a huge George Benson fan, so I wanted to adopt a similar mode and keep the music smooth, because I really love that Smooth Jazz guitar feel, so my first albums were more like that.  When I did the first album, Frankie Rodriguez (keyboardist with Question Mark & the Mysterians) wrote all the music and helped put all the songs together to best showcase my guitar work.  We did a few regional gigs and then played Times Square in New York City, which was pretty exciting. 

With our second album we were becoming more familiar with the genre and our role within it, so as we got more familiarized with the sound we wanted to shape, additional attention followed when we gained some marginal chart success with our follow-up single Estrella. Before getting into Jazz I tried pursuing more of an R&B and Blues format with producer Chad Cunningham, but the Blues are a really hard market to crack.

REVIEW: Do you think the success you had with Estrella came from honing your sound more?

Balderrama: I think it’s because Frankie is a really good pianist and was writing all these great tunes. People think of him as a 3-chord kind of musician because of our work with Question Mark, but even back then we called him the ‘Academic’ in the band. Consequently, our second smooth jazz album got a little smoother and easier to listen to; and I felt we were going in the right direction. We came up with the song Happy Go Lucky that featured some extremely smooth yet slow guitar playing. While I learned a lot watching Benson, his style is more R&B and mine was slower and more delineated I think, so we charted up to #27 nationally on Media Base with that song.

Fortunately, Cunningham was helping me promote that single and through him I met his good friend Gary Lefkowith, who worked for Sony Records.  He really liked my playing. Because he pushed Happy Go Lucky, the song went to No. 27 and while it wasn’t a big hit, it got my music out there.  Shortly after that, Chad got busy promoting the regional rock band Finding Clyde, and told me if he made it with them he would be able to help move my music even more, but they broke up and Chad lost interest, but we’re still good friends.

What brings us to our current success, is that Lefkowith got in touch with me and asked if I could help him write a song, which I gladly agreed to do. He has his own label and still works for Sony, so we got together to collaborate on Any Moment. A month later when I heard the final mix of the song I was blown away by the quality of it, plus the master musicians he hired to fill out the texture of the song. One guy he hired was Jim Hynes who plays trumpet. In fact if you watch CBS Morning News you’ll hear his lick on the opening intro each morning.

REVIEW: The production team that Mike Rogers & Gary Lefkowith have termed ‘Le Sonic’ both went to the Berklee School of Music and I understand that Mike plays drums and percussion and Gary also plays guitar and sings, but can you tell me more about them and some of the other artists that you worked with on the track?

Balderrama: Mike engineered and helped produce Dee-Lite’s Mega Hit Groove Is in the Heart back in the day and also worked with major artists like Sinead O’Connor, Graham Nash and They Might be Giants. He is also a very good guitar player, but he told me that he loved my particular style and wanted to showcase and promote my work, so I’m very flattered. The vocalist on Any Moment is Dennis Collins who has worked with Roberta Flack, David Bowie, Billy Joe, George Benson, and Bob Dylan. And Gary is an amazing promoter, who in addition to being a musician has worked by Mick Jagger, PINK, and Fleetwood Mac.

REVIEW: To reach Number 1 on Billboard’s Jazz Charts is such a great accomplishment - especially at this stage of your life.  What was your initial reaction when you heard the news?

Balderrama: I’m just so excited right now and looking forward to going to some Jazz Festivals this summer with Gary and working with the Le Sonic team.  But apart from that, I’m also working with the Robert Lee Revue to get a ‘Greatest Hits’ album released. Apart from our two albums we have released a few singles like Estrella along with a Latin Jazz single, so all those songs will be on the new collection. Gary also said I could include Any Moment on the new collection.  I’ve been practicing guitar daily to get in shape for the summer and am hoping to do a few gigs with both the Revue and Le Sonic. Honestly, I find my situation similar to that of Larry McCray, who is fortunate to be working with Joe Bonamassa now while he also works with his own band.

REVIEW: And what about the Mysterians - are those days over and do you ever hear from Question Mark?

Balderrama; Well, last year I promoted a Concert for the Homeless, which is very important to me, and Question Mark said he was going to do it, but then he cancelled at the last minute because of the virus. I’m not sure where he’s at and don’t talk to him much. I want to do gigs and we’re always open to it, but I’ll leave it to him.  Right now I’m going to follow my dream of doing smooth jazz. While healing from a recent heart valve procedure, I’ve been practicing two to three hours a day because I want to really be at the top of my form when I get out on the road.

One thing we’re going to do with the Robert Lee Revue is add a vocalist, because it makes the show more engaging than doing strictly instrumentals, so I’ve approached James Bradley about joining us as a vocalist. He’s a great singer and a good entertainer, so I’m thinking we can do the first half of our show featuring the instrumentals and then bring James out for the second half.  When Carlos Santana goes out he always plays with two singers and I think that’s a good approach.

I’ve also been talking to CNN right now because I am committed to staging a serious Concert for the Homeless this summer in Bay City or Saginaw, and would like to do another In Ann Arbor or Detroit for wider exposure.  I believe in providing housing for the homeless so they can become working citizens again and promised the Lord I would help on this front as much as I could.  Thankfully, my prostrate cancer is now five years in remission and I’m feeling great.  Life is good and I’m looking forward to getting out in front of live audiences again!

Bobby Balderrama and The Robert Lee Revue will be guest performers for the Jazz portion of this year’s 36th Annual REVIEW Music Awards on May 15th.  You can also check out ‘Any Moment’ online at any of your favorite musical download sites.

Click here to see the video for Any Moment.

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