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Freddie Roulette, who brought lap steel guitar into blues and funk, dies at 83


Freddie Roulette, a musician who helped bring the lap steel guitar — an instrument long associated with Hawaiian music — into blues, rock and funk to dazzling effect, died Dec. 24 at his home in Vallejo, Calif. He was 83.

The cause was complications from dementia, said his daughter, Nicole Roulette.

While many blues guitarists play slide on a standard Spanish guitar, Mr. Roulette created an impressive array of sounds with a Hawaiian steel guitar played on his lap. Sweeping the bar rapidly across the fretboard, he could conjure up a storm or make his instrument gurgle like water coming down a brook. Other times, he made it talk — literally — as it spoke his name, Freddie.

“Some of his stretched-out, sliding licks would have been appropriate in Hawaiian music, a jazz band or a ’50s science-fiction movie,” Roger Levesque wrote in a 2000 concert review for the Edmonton Journal.

Beyond the aural gimmicks, Mr. Roulette was a stylist with a strong melodic sense and considered himself a traditional bluesman but not a purist.

“I’m not from the Delta,” he told the Contra Costa Times in 2006. “I play inner-city blues, which is very close to R&B and funk. Also, I like Beatles stuff, all the rock-and-roll stuff. I have such a broad perspective in music — it’s unusual in a steel guitar player. Most people wouldn’t think of that.”

Indeed, while Mr. Roulette made his name as a Chicago bluesman with guitarist Earl Hooker and pianist Big Moose Walker, he was just as comfortable among rock players. He recorded with guitarists Harvey Mandel of the band Canned Heat and David Lindley from Jackson Browne’s group and, on his own gigs, demonstrated versatility with jazz standards and pop songs.

Frederick Martin Roulette was born in Evanston, Ill., near Chicago, on May 3, 1939. His mother worked as a beautician, and his father was a post office custodian. In junior high, he became fascinated with a classmate’s steel guitar. His mother purchased a beginner’s steel and set him up with a teacher.

“I was playing 1950s pop music,” he once said. “I was a kid — I used to play hokey songs, but it wasn’t the hokiness of the songs, it was all the chord progressions that I was practicing. I learned to play pop music before I played blues. I was ahead of most of the blues musicians because I was coming from a different direction.”

Mr. Roulette hitchhiked to Chicago’s South Side to sit in at blues clubs and, by his early 20s, established himself as a sideman. He performed on several rare but highly sought-after singles by little-known singers such as Grover Pruitt, J.L. Smith and Bo Dudley — not to be confused with Bo Diddley — but then was drafted and stationed for three years in Kentucky with the Army.

Returning to Chicago in 1965, he worked with guitarist Earl Hooker, cousin of blues singer John Lee Hooker. Though Hooker’s all-star band included pianist Pinetop Perkins and harp player Carey Bell, it was best known for its two slide guitars — Hooker on standard and Mr. Roulette on lap steel. Sometimes Mr. Roulette played chord accompaniments to Hooker on the steel. Other times the two guitarists echoed each other in call and response.

He joined harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite’s band, appearing on the albums “Tennessee Woman” (1969), “Memphis Tennessee” (1970) and one that spotlighted the members of his band, “Coming Home” (1970), credited to Chicago Bluestars. Travels with Musselwhite brought Mr. Roulette to the Bay Area.

In 1973, guitarist Harvey Mandel produced Mr. Roulette’s debut solo album, “Sweet Funky Steel.” Over the next two decades, Mr. Roulette performed with other musicians in the Bay Area, while also managing an apartment. He appeared on several Mandel recordings including the 1994 album “The Psychedelic Guitar Circus,” a collaboration with guitarists Steve Kimock and Henry Kaiser.

Mr. Roulette cut his second solo album in 1997 when Baltimore producer Larry Hoffman brought him back to the Windy City — and the blues — with “Back in Chicago: Jammin’ with Willie Kent and the Gents.” The disc, which Living Blues magazine awarded Best Blues Album that year, featured his first vocal recordings and showed his debt to blues singer Albert King. The following year, he recorded “Spirit of Steel” with the Holmes Brothers.

A detailed list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In later years, Mr. Roulette struggled with dementia but received assistance from Bay Area musician friends.

“He lost his car with a double neck steel guitar in it,” said Toni Silva, a singer who worked with him. “He parked it and couldn’t find it. So his friends would drive him to [his regular gig at] the Saloon in San Francisco. He played there until pre-pandemic.”

In 2015, Mr. Roulette’s house burned down. While running in to rouse a sleeping friend, Mr. Roulette left his instrument on the front porch — and returned to find it stolen. Silva and her husband, guitarist Pete Skedan, shared a house with Mr. Roulette and later helped find a full-time caretaker for him.

“They wanted to send him to a memory care facility but up north,” Silva said. “But he could still remember how to play music. That was all he had, and we didn’t want to take that away from him.”

Recalling their time together in the studio, Hoffman said, “He was always seemed to be somewhere else, but he always found where he was with his axe.”

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