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I work out my anger, happiness, love, sorrow, everything — I shoots all of it right out through that guitar. -- "Ice Man" Robinson

Blue-collar blues - Riler "Ice Man" Robinson

by Steven Sharp

Riler "Ice Man" Robinson, pictured outside of the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, May 1993. (Photos by Steve Sharp)

Riler "Ice Man" Robinson is one of Chicago's few remaining downhome bluesmen. Yet, with even some of the city's weakest frontmen receiving recording deals these days, Robinson inexplicably remains unrecorded and labors in relative obscurity.

"I don't know why," Robinson says dejectedly one night following a remarkable, hard-edged set at Lilly's on Chicago's North Side. And if Robinson himself finds it hard to believe that he's been so ignored, his fans, as well as some blues critics and scholars seem even more amazed.

Robinson was born in Winona, Miss., 64 years ago, one of 14 children. He spent his youth picking cotton and corn, and his young adulthood laboring in the chemical plants of Marks, Mississippi. He escaped that existence in the mid-1950s when he and his wife moved to Chicago. They found a marginally better life in the North where Robinson took a job in a soap factory and later, a meat packing plant. The latter job he held until only a few years ago.

The meat packing job, which he described in 1992 as being quite grueling, required Ice Man to, in his words, "lug beef — like quarters of beef, chuck some ribs, load boxes, hang meat, cut meat and all that kinda stuff." The hard work left Ice Man with the physique of an National Football League running back, and in his mid-sixties, Robinson today still looks as if he could tangle with the toughest of 20-year-olds.

Ice Man is a quiet person, and he can, at times, come across as seeming gruff or cold, hence his nickname. His suspicious manner is easy to understand, however. He was never formally educated and was forced, literally, to slug his way through life without being able to read or write.

"I been workin' steady ever since I was eight-and-a-half years-old," Robinson says. "When I was comin' up, my old man didn't believe in school. He kept me at home to work all that time, so I got so far behind in my grades that I just dropped out and just did work. I just stopped tryin' to go, 'cause I didn't get to go but three days out of a year no way. And every time I'd go, I had to fight because of it — because kids would be laughin' at me for how far behind I was. So I just dropped out and did the best I could."

Robinson was 13 years-old when he learned to play blues guitar from a man who was in his 50s and also played the fiddle. The two worked house parties together, with Robinson accompanying the fiddler on guitar.

Ice Man

"He really introduced the blues to me," Robinson said. "He helped me get the feeling and all that kinda stuff. The feeling was already there, he just learned me a lot of things that I didn't know and was trying to learn and I played along behind him."

Robinson's first idol was Lightnin' Hopkins. Then, after he became more experienced and into music, Robinson became enamored of legends including John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor. The latter two in this group of musicians are the most readily identifiable in Robinson's slashing, slide-oriented barroom boogie sound. However, he also has a fondness for the smooth soulfulness of Little Milton and Bobby Bland, and makes numbers by those masters a part of his nightly repertoire. Today, Robinson says he's finding pleasure in delivering his slide in E natural. "It don't scrinch as much on the strings," he says.

After coming to Chicago in the '50s, Robinson continued to learn the finer points of blues guitar by hanging out at Pepper's Lounge. He said he learned his timing and much of his chording ability at Pepper's. He played his first club gig in Chicago in 1961, but his career picked up steam in 1972, when he began performing at the Maxwell Street Market. His partners over the years have included John Embry, John Henry Davis and L.V. Banks. Robinson currently plays family parties and barbeques, and at Rosa's, Lilly's and B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted.

"I try to do it the best I can and I've tried to tighten up on my playin' ever since I been retired," he says. "I'd like to be a little bit more busy in the music business. I got recordin' plans, but nobody to help me carry 'em out, so I'm stuck with that too. If I get down to it, I could make an album. But, like I told you, my education is short and I don't do no writin', so I gotta try to remember everything I put together, so that makes it kinda hard."

These days, in addition to playing blues, Robinson spends much of his time caring for his ailing wife. She suffers from diabetes.

"She's got arthritis and she's crippled and she's got sugar (diabetes) and she can't do nothin' for herself," Robinson says. The blues for Robinson, allows him a respite from the pain that he finds in his life even as a fairly new retiree.

"I work out my anger, happiness, love, sorrow, everything — I shoots all of it right out through that guitar," Robinson told National Geographic Explorer in a 1994 television special on the migration of blacks from the South to the North.

Ice Man Robinson's challenges in life continue, yet he faces them with the same staunch determination he brought to his back-breaking, daily, blue collar jobs. It likely won't be long before he catches the ears of the record company talent scouts. As one of the Chicago's deepest bluesmen, Robinson deserves at least that.


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