I was surfing the web on this lazy Sunday afternoon and wondered how an old acquaintance from my California days, Roby Duke, was doing.
In the years since 1979, when we first met at a Calvary Chapel event (not sure where or when), Roby would become a well known Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artist. He would even go beyond the walls of the church in the decades following by adding his distinctive voice to Hollywood mega-hit movies like “Titanic” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
I guess he saw something special in me, a wet-behind-the-ears 18 or 19-year-old (he would have been a mere 22 at the time). Maybe it was my guitar playing or singing, or maybe my budding songwriting chops. He would introduce me to some of his friends, and we spent several hours in his tiny apartment in Orange County—sharing our newest songs, and singing and jamming on our acoustics.
Since I’d come to know the Lord in 1975, after attending several Saturday night concerts at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, I was beyond flattered when, a few years later, Roby would show interest in my talent. I can’t remember exactly how we met, but I was well aware of his immense talent ever since he showed up on the Calvary scene from Mississippi. He was one of those guys who, soon after arriving in L.A., was invited to play on the Calvary Chapel circuit, all over southern California—his bluesy vocal smoothness was jaw-droppingly awesome. He would become well known in CCM circles across America, and highly respected after his first record, Not the Same, was released in 1980. His music defied the typical Christian sound that was being churned out at the time—his music continued to buck the trends throughout his career.
Roby would speak with me in his molasses-like, slow-and-sweet southern drawl, reminiscent of my own Tennessee roots, running deep on both sides of my family. His demeanor and laid-back style made me feel at home. (My childhood—though being raised in the suburban sprawl of the L.A. bedroom community of Orange County—was smothered in southern accents and southern-style food; our dinner table was frequently filled with southern delights when mom and grandma crafted huge feasts for my extended family, especially during the holidays).
I remember going out to dinner once with Roby and his friends Harry Browning and Laury Boone. I couldn’t get over that I was sharing the table with the sister of Debbie Boone, who’s song “You Light Up My Life” shot up the pop charts a few years earlier. I felt special, honored and overwhelmed at the time. In only a year I would relocate to Columbus, Ohio, to begin a life as a full-time musician on the road.
As I came upon the news today that Roby passed away from a sudden heart attack on the day after Christmas in 2007, I was shocked and saddened. We never got together again after I moved away. I wish I could call him, or write to convey my appreciation somehow; I’m so sorry that it’s too late now.
He was a big guy back in 1979, but in more recent photos he seemed to have lost several pounds. Now that I’m coming into my mid-fifties, it’s not unusual for guys like me, with extra weight around the middle, to discover they have heart problems. My own bout with high blood pressure has encouraged me to make several life-style changes. I don’t know what led to Roby’s heart attack at 51, but I don’t want to go early—too many cool things are going on in life for me these days!
I’m grateful to Roby and others who spent time with me and encouraged me to do what I’ve continued to do even today. Life is so incredibly full of serendipitous moments—many of which we pass right on by. What would my life have been like if I had not met Roby Duke? I guess I’ll never know.
Here’s a video of the final performance that Roby did at Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks, California, two days before his death. As you can see, Roby was one incredibly gifted white boy with the soul of a Delta blues singer!