If you’ve turned on the radio in the past 50 years, you’ve probably heard Robert Martin.
The musician, who grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles in 1975, has worked with some of the biggest artists on the airwaves.
Paul McCartney? Background. Steve Nicks? Here. Patti LaBelle? Yeah.
“Yeah. It’s totally possible,” said Martin, 73. “It’s funny. There’s a guy I started working with about 15 years ago in Canada, and it happened so many times that he started talking nonsense about music, there are strong chances that Robert knows this person or has played with them or recorded with them.
“Being versatile, it was very easy for me to work as a touring musician. When I moved from Philadelphia to LA, to Philadelphia, I was mainly working in the studio and recording, I was mainly known as a French horn player. And I kept trying to convince them, ‘Hey look, man, I can sing, I can play the keyboard. I can do all these other things. They said, ‘Shut up, play your French.’
“Then I came here and the inroads that I started to make from the start were more in terms of live performances, which led to touring. And I kind of broke into that circle more than in the work circle of the LA session which is again what I was doing in Philadelphia so being versatile and playing a bunch of stuff people could hire me for a tour and not have to hire , like, three other guys.
This versatility led the legendary Frank Zappa to ask Martin to join his touring band in 1981. He fit right in with a frontman who can be described as eclectic.
“That’s me too,” said Martin, who will visit Ardmore Music Hall on June 22 with other members of Frank Zappa’s band for a show dedicated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s music library.
“Really, that’s true of just about everyone that’s ever been in the band. As far as I know, you had to be able to play everything. Not just kind of make-believe, you know, kind of country feel or jazz or even polka or whatever classic you had to do it authentically and change in no time because it happened often, spontaneously, and be able to cover all those things in a way natural, comfortable and authentic. So that was sort of normal for the course.
Other members of the Zappa Band playing at Ardmore are Mike Keneally (25 when he joined Frank Zappa’s band in 1987), guitarist/vocalist Ray White, bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Joe Traver and guitarist Jamie Kime .
The band was so successful as the opening act of King Crimson, they decided to do their own solo tour.
“So, yeah, it’s, it’s just a gas to be able to keep playing this music with these guys,” Martin said. “And, there is still a market. I mean, the fans still love him. And what’s really interesting is doing this kind of stuff, playing these gigs now, all these years later, I had the pretty remarkable experience of meeting fans who came to gigs in the 80s , bringing their children. Very cool. And introduce the next generation to this amazing music.
Martin grew up in a family of musicians. His parents were opera singers, and he attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“Look at this, that’s how (his parents) met,” Martin said. “They had the opposing lead roles in the Philadelphia Cosmopolitan Opera Company’s 1939 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’. My mother was yum-yum. And my father was Nanki-Poo. They were both male and female leads. And they met while doing this show. And on the show, their characters got married, and they got married in real life. So, it’s one of those classic, you know, showbiz stories.
“So I grew up with really, really major advantages in terms of becoming a musician.
“First of all, I wasn’t pushed away by them. They didn’t push me into it. They didn’t take me away from that. They encouraged me to do what I loved to do, which is music from an early age. And on top of that, the influences that I had, from their tastes and then listening to music, the first piece of music that I ever identified in life that I used to ask my mom put on the old RCA Victrola, the big old thing with the crank that played 70 or 78 rpm records.
“The first piece I ever identified was Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. I loved this piece. It was so, to me it was just visual, like crazy. I mean, you would hear that and you could just imagine what was going on just by hearing those sounds. And that was it.
Martin has seen the changes in the music industry over the years.
“We now have the best of both worlds because digital recording drives a record,” Martin said. “On the one hand, you can play it a thousand, 10,000, 100,000 times and there is no deterioration. It’s all zeros and ones. This is not a tape scraping a metal tape head or record head, thus deteriorating the tape a little with each pass. It doesn’t happen anymore. So that disadvantage of analog is gone. And we’ve relearned to mimic the sound of what’s happening in such a precise way that we truly have the best of both worlds.
All of those worlds came together for Martin, who was also a member of The Orleans in the 1970s. The new tour begins June 11.
“When I was on tour in the ’80s, I didn’t just tour with Frank,” Martin said. “Getting that gig with Frank opened doors for me like crazy because from then on I’d be invited to join a tour and join a band because you have a reputation for being able to audition for Zappa People knew you were a bad ass.
“So that’s what allowed me to do a lot of other tours with a lot of other big stars, which I also really enjoyed. I mean, you know, them, the Zappa tour was, I would say, by far the hardest in many ways. But again, as we talked about before, all of these different styles were a lot of fun to do.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
The Zappa Band will perform at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave, Ardmore on June 22. Visit ardmoremusichall.com for ticket information.