About The Artist
Phillip Roberts, nicknamed Doc, spent most of his adult life in Madison County, Kentucky (south of Lexington) where he farmed for a living and sometimes served as a jailer and county farm superintendent. His real claim to fame came from being regarded as one of the truly great old-time fiddlers of his generation. Although he eschewed full-time musical professionalism, Doc left a legacy of recordings for Gennett and the American Record Corporation that display his excellent skills.
In addition, he played mandolin in support of the vocal duets of his guitar accompanist Asa Martin and son James Roberts on their discs with artist credit to Martin & Roberts.
Growing up near Richmond, Kentucky, he first learned to play fiddle at the age of seven and spent the next two decades perfecting his skills. Roberts' style was somewhat atypical as he learned tunes and techniques that came from black fiddlers as well as white ones.
Researching old newspaper articles found a reporting of a fiddler's contest in the town of Berea, KY in 1919. The chronicler of the event wrote it in a bit of a humorous angle. Mr. John F. Smith wrote that the people of Berea were given the 'greatest treat they have had in many moons - the Old Fiddlers' Contest. It was held to benefit the folks of Berea and the local school. That is, the money would go to the school, the fun to the folks in attendance.
"Fifteen royal fiddlers, the pick o' the covey, were in the ring. They were culled from the whole tribe of worshipers of the horse hair, from Pine Mountain and Hell-for-Sartain to Joe's Lick and Pilot Knob. ... No one except those whose musical sense had been revolutionized by a course in a conservatory could have failed to see the fun.
In May of 1920, another Old Fiddlers' Contest was held at the State Normal in Richmond, KY. The contest included an eighy year old youngster who the judges gave their approval to. Doc Roberts won first prize in the "Old Fiddle" category. Doc came in second to Leo Bertain on the "mandolin" category.
Dock Roberts (as his name was sometimes spelled) was awarded a $20 first prize in an old-time fiddler's contest held in Stanford, KY in March of 1926.
Among the African-American ones, some of whom recorded sparingly, were Owen Walker and both Jim and John Booker. About 1924, a local man named Dennis Taylor began to look about for talented musicians he could take to Richmond, Indiana, among them Roberts, the Bookers, a guitarist Edgar Boaz, and balladeer Welby Toomey.
Doc soon learned that he could make his own arrangements and eliminate Taylor who had taken the lion's share of the profits. Some of the musicians Doc recruited were Dick Parman, Ted Chesnut, and Green Bailey as well as Asa Martin and James Roberts, some of whom recorded for Paramount as well as Gennett.
With Starr Piano Company (parent corporation of Gennett) experiencing financial problems, the Roberts' and Martin switched to the American Record Corporation (Melotone, Perfect, etc.) with the fiddle tunes released as the Fiddling Roberts Trio. The Martin & Roberts vocal discs continued as well through 1934. Many of the Roberts tunes bore such atypical titles as "Brick Yard Joe," "Old Buzzard," and "Shipping Sport."
Although he might go to major cities to cut recordings, Roberts did not otherwise care for any aspect of urban life. He once spent a week at WLS Chicago complaining that the noise on the streets kept him awake all night.
For a few months in 1932 and 1933 he and James went to Council Bluffs, Iowa and did programs for Georgie Porgie Breakfast Foods on a three-radio station hookup (Des Moines, Davenport, and Omaha).
Other than that, he preferred to play at local dances close to home and make an occasional radio appearance in Lexington or Louisville.
His son James went on to a longer career in music, usually under the name of James Carson (see separate entry).
When interest revived in early day country recording artists both Martin and the elder Roberts were "re-discovered. Doc played a few times at Berea College (at least one with Asa and James). But with declining health, he soon stopped even that. In the late 1970s, long play albums of some of his tunes came out respectively on Davis Unlimited and County. In 1999, the Austrian label document released three compact discs containing most of his classic fiddle tunes.
In 2007, as part of its ongoing effort to promote and celebrate the music legacy of Starr Piano Company and its subsidiary, Gennett Records, the Foundation inaugurated the Gennett Records Walk of Fame to honor those who recorded for Gennett Records and whose work contributed significantly to American history. In 2014, Asa Martin and Doc Roberts were added to the Walk of Fame.
Credits & Sources
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