Photograph Copyright © 1999-2004 Karl Bremer
Copyright © 1998 - 2004 Twin Cities Blues News
Donald Robertson, also known as "Hye Pockets," or simply "Pockets," has been a major force in the Minneapolis-St. Paul music scene for many years.
Pockets shared his humor, his history and his knowledge with Twin Cities Blues News (TCBN) recently. Well known among other Twin Cities musicians, Pockets sets a standard which other drummers follow. His past is star-studded with the many local, national and international talents he has worked with over the years.
Currently Pockets can be seen most weekends at Blues Alley in Minneapolis with Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, Mick Massoff, and Mike Pendergast, laying down his infamous driving grooves and keeping it all together.
TCBN: Your nickname is "Hye Pockets." How did you get that name?
Pockets: It came from when I was a little kid. I was 12 or 13 years old and had just started playing and actually it was because they would say, "You're playing in the pocket." And I was taller than my dad and he used to call me "High Pockets." So, that kind of just stuck through the years and it's been that way ever since. It has come to be quite the thing for me. If you say "Hye Pockets" you know who it is, because there's only one.
TCBN: So, why is that you spell your name H-Y-E?
Pockets: When they ask me, I always tell them it is "the ability to maintain a high intensified groove." When they put it in the Websters's Dictionary, that's what it will say.
TCBN: Where are you from?
Pockets: Right here originally. My family is from New Orleans, but I was born and raised here. I've been in and out, but I always come back to Minneapolis.
TCBN: So you started playing drums when you were very young.
Pockets: I played drums in junior high and high school. I played football and in the band at South High. The first professional job I had was on the road with the Coasters and the Drifters when I was 14. I had to get permission from my parents to go.
TCBN: So how did you get the job with the Coasters and Drifters?
Pockets: Actually I was going out on the road with this group called Little K and the Internationals and we were backing up the Coasters and Drifters. We went down through Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona. Came up through Washington -- Spokane -- and back to Minneapolis. It was for the summer. That was my first experience and I learned a lot. Everybody was protective of me.
TCBN: How did you get picked up for this road trip?
Pockets: I was playing in a [horn] band out in Anoka with a friend of mine. This friend of mine was Keno Gibson's cousin. Keno was Little K. So I tried out for that group. Made that group, and he got the job with the Coasters and Drifters.
TCBN: How did you get started playing drums?
Pockets: Well, I just started beating on things. Pots and pans and stuff. I could hear all these different rudiments and things, but I just couldn't figure it out. I just kept beating on things and it would drive my dad and my mother crazy.
After awhile my mother started to encourage me and she bought me a drum set -- one of those little drum sets with paper heads and stuff. It lasted about a day and a half. Then she bought me an old blue sparkle Ludwig set. Man, that set lasted many years until I could afford to get another one. I went through hell and high water with that set. It sounded really good. I had it sounding so good, everybody wanted to play on it. Chick Corea played on it and he loved it. He broke my kick pedal too, in Des Moines, Iowa at a place called So, Your Mother, back when Jimmy Hannon had the Cabooze and he had So, Your Mother in Des Moines. Like the Cabooze, they had a lot of big blues acts come through there. We used to have a lot of people come to sit in with us. Frank Zappa and his band came up once when we were in East Lansing [Michigan]. We played there many times with Luther Allison and we would just rock the house. Chick Corea was playing a concert in Des Moines and he heard that Luther was there and he came into the club. He did a couple of tunes. Then he wanted to play drums. I didn't know he played drums, but I said "Sure." He got on there and did his thing. He was actually very good -- smooth, very smooth. That was about '79 or '80.
TCBN: How long were you with Luther Allison?
Pockets: A total of seven years, off and on.
TCBN: Was that with James Solberg too?
Pockets: Jimmy was in for awhile. It was a typical band with people coming in and out. But the ones that were the main ones in the band, you call call if you needed a break for awhile. Solberg was in it for awhile and his brother, Chuck, was in it for awhile.
TCBN: Did you tour the country with Luther?
Pockets: The country and Europe. We went all over hell. I mean, drive 500 miles, play the gig, pack it up, drive 400 miles, play the gig, pack it up hard core. Tear everything down, get some fast food and keep going. That type of life makes a band really tight and it's worth it. You know for any new band getting going, one nighters is a great way to tighten up your show and to learn by taping everything and then listening to the tapes when you're riding to the next gig.
You're all in the same vehicle and you can talk about stuff.
My first time in Europe with him [Luther] was in 1977 in France and we did 52 one nighters. Fifty-two of those bad boys. I mean, we went up, down, crossways, sideways. We went from north to south to east to west and everywhere in between. All in that one country.
TCBN: How were the crowds?
Pockets: Really good. I mean back then this type of blues was growing. They had been used to big band blues, but the four-piece powerhouse type of blues, they weren't used to it and they were just eating it alive. Everywhere we went the places were packed. We played concert halls and they were just packed. We were the biggest thing in those towns and we got treated like kings. It was the in thing to come and see the blues. It was quite an experience.
TCBN: Back when you were 14, after you toured with the Coasters and Drifters, what did you do back in Minneapolis?
Hye Pockets Robertson in 1971
From 1971 Antares publicity photo. Copyright © 1971, 2004 Sonny Boy Lee
Pockets: I played around Minneapolis with Little K and after awhile I broke off with Little K [and the Internationals] and got [in] a group called Antares, which was a three-piece. It was Joe Sherohman [on bass], myself and Damon ("Sonny Boy") Lee on guitar.
From 1971 Antares publicity photo
Copyright © 1971, 2004 Sonny Boy Lee
It was a definite blues band, a Jimi Hendrix type of deal. We played at Papa Joe's on the north side. It used to be on Broadway at about Fourth. We played there for a year straight as the house band six nights a week. It started slow, but by the fourth month that place was jammin'. I mean we had guys comin' down to check it out because the stuff that we were doing, everybody was trying to do like they'd heard on the records and we were doing it, and taking it a little bit higher. I remember one night the Del Counts came and sat right in front and stayed the whole night. Damon used to set his guitar on fire and stuff like that. We played there right up to when they demolished the place. It was great. We could work a straight job and do that every night. It was hard to get up in the morning, but it was good.
After Antares, we backed Big Walter (Smith). Damon brought Big Walter here from Oklahoma. He played with us a long time at Papa Joe's. From that we ventured out and backed Walter. I don't know how many bands I played in with Walter. I can't even remember all the band names, before True Blue. We played all over. Walter is a determined man and I have a lot of respect for him from all the stuff that we went through, virtually growing up in this area and playing in this area, and breaking more barriers in the clubs and stuff. We just forged ahead and now it's like they know who we are and there's a certain amount of respect that goes with that from that time we put in through the years. I was playing with Walter when I left and went on the road with Luther Allison.
TCBN: How did you hook up with Luther?
Pockets: He was at the Cabooze one night and I just happened to be there. I didn't know he was there or anything. I just came down there to hang out. He said on the microphone that he was looked for a drummer. Joe Sherohman was in there and they literally picked me up and put me on stage to play. So I played and after I got through playing, right then he said, "That's it, you're the one," and I said, "Okay, cool."
TCBN: So you auditioned at Luther's gig and got hired on the spot.
Pockets: On the spot -- his drummer had to go somewhere and Luther was going to take a week off and get another drummer, and he just happened to start mentioning it. It changed my life big time. I learned a lot about the business with Luther. The ins and outs, how to run a show, how to avoid the carrot.
TCBN: The carrot?
Pockets: The carrot. A lot of people are going to dangle a lot of carrots in front of you and you've got to look through that stuff and see what they're really talking about. If you get to the meat of it and they start doing the backstroke, something's wrong. Luther was leery of big time record companies and he was good at keeping control of his own thing. I wouldn't trade that experience for nothing.
I got a chance to play with a lot of people [like the] Rolling Stones. My favorite time was in '80 or '81 with Memphis Slim. Right before he died he did a thing at the Arts Palace in Montreal. He usually played solo, but he wanted a drummer to come in and play with him on this particular thing. There was Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, us, Big Mama Thornton and Memphis Slim. He was a real classy man and real classy player. He asked me to sit in and play with him. The place was packed to the gills. Legends I'd heard about and read about, and I was playing with these guys. He told me, "Whatever you do, you keep playing." Through the years the blues has stuck with me. With Luther things were always happening real fast. He was growing and we were in demand. We went from one country to another, from France to Germany, and all over the place. Countries were like cities, we were moving so much. Change the money, the language changed, but we were only a hundred miles down the road. Coming in, rocking the house and gettin' up and going. We were doing concert halls with two 45-minute sets, hour at the most. We were done by 10:30 every night. We toured constantly for four years. We'd be in Europe for three months and back here [the States] for two months, and then back to Europe, then Canada. We did a lot of road work with Luther. That's why he was on top. That's how he got there.
TCBN: How was the money back then?
Pockets: It started out at $250 to $300 per show and got up to between $500 and $600 per night in American money -- that's per man per night.
I was sponsored by Yamaha. Just about every gig there was a new Yamaha kit there in the plastic cymbals too. They'd put them up and take them down. All I had to do was bring my sticks.
TCBN: So, how did that all end for you?
Pockets: In '84 it was like things got really bad. Luther was drinking a lot. We were all drinking, but it was to excess. The show was getting really bad and I just couldn't do it any more if it was just going to continue going down like that. Alcohol was getting the best of it. So, I left and came back to Minneapolis and played around here with Lynwood Slim. Then we formed the R Section with Jimi [Smith] and Mick Massoff on bass and Dennis Lundeen on saxophone. That was around '85, '86, '87. We went to Germany and won best album of the year over there. We cut an album over there called Not for Sale and Columbia wanted to pick it up, and then some other record companies wanted to pick it up, then it just died out. Things just took too long. But we played around here for awhile and it was a tight group.
TCBN: What did you do after that?
Pockets: Then I joined Big Walter (Smith) and the Groove Merchants for awhile, and then I was with Down Right Tight for awhile. After that I got into the Rhythm Doctors with Paul Mayasich, Jimi Smith and John Wright. That was really good, innovative a lot of material, all four people clicked. We could sit down at a sound check and make up a song instantly, and a good song and play it that night. It had really high potential of being a national or international act [if] things had been a little bit cooler cooler heads and [we had] weathered the storm a little bit more. I mean you gotta weather the storm, hang out, stick with it and stuff comes to you. We had the Malpractice CD out and we had another one ready. That new one today could have four or five hits on it. The thing with Dave [Famous Dave's BBQ & Blues\Big John Dickerson and Blue Chamber] came along and people got caught up in that, but it was a big mistake to quit the Rhythm Doctors, even if we did something else too. You live and you learn.
TCBN: So you were with the Blue Chamber for a year or so, and now you're back with Jimi Smith and Mick Massoff, and with Mike Pendergast.
Pockets: That's the old R Section thing [Jimi and Mick] and it's doing good. Jimi "Prime Time" Smith and the Prime Time Players is what we've been calling it, but I think we might change it to list the members after Jimi. I think this has real potential to do something in the blues field. Jimi is a young man and he's got a lot of fire in him. We're not trying to take it out of the realm of blues. It's real. We're working on a couple of CD projects with original material now.
We are playing the real shuffle the way it's supposed to be played, not cut it in half like a lot of people nowadays. They look for shortcuts playing the shuffle -- they'll just do the one hit. I call it the lazy man's shuffle. You gotta have a left hand to do the shuffle the way it's supposed to be done, the way it was schooled in the old days. A lot of cats don't do the shuffle right. When I first started I couldn't do the shuffle for nothing in the world. I learned by playing a lot of shuffles and listening, especially to the older stuff and seeing how it all connected, and then taking that and moving it up, changing some things around so that it's a powerful shuffle. After the one [the hit on the downbeat] you gotta hit that upbeat on that shuffle, otherwise it's just gonna lay there.
TCBN: You've been playing blues pretty much your whole life.
Pockets: Pretty much blues and soul music my whole life. I like other things, but I've been categorized as a blues player. Which is okay for me. I mean, that's what I do. At this stage of my life I think I do it pretty damn good. I'm 45 years old and I've been doing this for 30 some years. I play what's inside me. It's like emotions. I play what I feel on a particular song. I never tried to copy anybody. I've got my own style and it's a combination of a lot of different things.
TCBN: What type of equipment do you play?
Pockets: I play Yamaha. They're durable, their technology is right up there. The wood they have is really good. The drums don't lose tuning like others do. I got to pick out my own wood on the drums I'm using right now. I haven't seen anything that could sway me from them yet. Yamaha for me is the best. I usually use a traditional five-piece set. The cymbals I use are Zildjian. The snare I use is a '50s Ludwig. It's like the one I had when I was a kid. I learned to do things with it. I can doctor it up to get it to sound the way I want it to sound like lettuce breaking, CRACK! Or, for the old style blues I can get that fat sound.
TCBN: How do you get it to sound that way?
Pockets: It's a secret.
TCBN: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
Pockets: Just keep listening. Don't be afraid to say what you feel. And, if the music we play draws out an emotion, let it come out. Don't hold it back. Music is all about emotion. If you feel it, acknowledge it.
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