“Blues Just My Heart”
inArtist Storyon December 22, 2020
When I called him, Robert Lee Coleman’s phone was disconnected. This pandemic year has made hard times harder for many Music Maker partner artists. Losing regular gigs has brought ripple effects, like the inability to keep the phone bill paid and, in Coleman’s case, a car breakdown. Losing one’s car hurts an aging musician like Coleman even more: If you can’t get to the doctor, it’s hard to stay in good health. So Music Maker helped, buying him a used Buick Rainier with 120,000 miles on it.
Providing the tall and thin guitarist, who typically takes the stage wearing fiery red clothes, with a new SUV is the least we music lovers can do for an artist of Coleman’s magnitude, a pioneer in both the soul and funk genres. Coleman played with soul legend Percy Sledge from 1964 to 1969, then joined the JBS, James Brown’s band founded in 1970. Coleman’s guitar fireworks over the years so impressed high-end guitar maker Paul Reed Smith that he gave Coleman the PRS Hollowbody II that he now cherishes.
For Coleman, who lives in rural Georgia close to his hometown of Macon, the new vehicle is a lifeline.
“I’m 75. I cannot walk like I used to,” he says. “When your ride breaks down, it does not matter who you are, it is a bad day. When you lose your car, it is like when you lose your momma.”
Life is even harder during COVID for Coleman, who before the pandemic had regular weekly gigs to help pay the bills.
How Coleman Learned His Trade
Coleman told Living Blues Magazine in a 2018 cover story he got his started learning guitar from his stepfather.
“He was one of the best,” Coleman told Living Blues. “He didn’t ever show me nothing, but every time he picked it up, I’d sit down on the floor and watch him play. He could just sit down with his guitar on the side of the street and draw a crowd and hold them. … I was playing in church when I was about probably 12, 13.”
Coleman backed gospel vocal groups before joining Sledge. Of his time in the JBs under bandleader Fred Wesley, he recalls with pride, “We had a 13-piece band, we sounded like one. We sounded like one instrument.” You can hear Coleman on the landmark Brown albums “Hot Pants” and “Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III.”
Despite the recognition he’s gotten from sideman roles, Coleman sees himself as a songwriter. He even contributed a lyric to the “Hot Pants” album. “I created that lyric and he heard it and liked it. … I came up with that, and he liked it and he kept it. I was listening to the other 12 people and put what I thought should go there and he liked it there. He liked it there, so he gave me credit for it.” Still, he has never received royalty payments for the song.
Coleman still writes regularly. “I can’t write when I want to,” he says. “I write when I feel it. … I write a lot of lyrics, see, and then I can take certain lyrics and put them the way I’m thinking.”
In recent years, he’s supported himself with music, carpentry, and odd jobs. Music Maker has helped him get a passport, tour Europe, play New York’s prestigious GlobalFest and get a writeup from NPR Music about his performance, and release two albums — “One More Mile” (2012) and “What Left” (2018). We also helped Coleman recover his instruments after their theft in 2017, and provided support as he healed from a respiratory illness in 2018.
He doesn’t expect retirement, though, saying, “I think I’m one of the last of my era and my style of playing. I’m going to play until the good Lord calls me home. I’m gonna be playing till I die. I don’t care where I play. I could go back in the woods … blues just my heart.”
— Nick Loss-Eaton