Since Bobby Lyle started playing professionally in Twin Cities clubs at age 16, he's crossed paths with many musical greats.
He jammed with Jimi Hendrix, toured with George Benson, Ronnie Laws and Sly & the Family Stone, served as music director for Al Jarreau, Anita Baker and Bette Midler, and released 15 jazz albums under his own name.
To celebrate his 75th birthday, Lyle will return to his hometown this weekend to perform two different shows at Crooners — a solo piano concert and a gig with his organ trio.
"I don't feel like 75 at all," Lyle said. "It illustrates how quickly the years can go by. If you divide your life into quarters — 20 or 25 years at a pop — and this is the final quarter, then I'd better get cracking and crank out some more stuff."
Born in Memphis, Lyle and his family moved to Minneapolis when he was 1. At 16, he got paid for playing in a trio at a private club above Road Buddy's BBQ in St. Paul. He graduated to Big Al's in Minneapolis, gigging in a local combo downstairs while nationally known jazz stars like Jimmy Smith, Ahmad Jamal and Lou Donaldson performed upstairs.
"All this was going on before I was 21. Club owners made an exception for me; they told me they'd better not catch me drinking," Lyle said. "That honed my musical skills and my general entertaining skills."
In the late 1960s, he toured in Young Holt Unlimited, best known for the hit instrumental "Soulful Strut." Since moving to Los Angeles in 1974, Lyle has built a long résumé in jazz, rock and soul.
Calling last week from his home in Houston, Lyle discussed everything from his days at Minneapolis Central High and Macalester College to seeing the young Prince rehearse in a basement. Oh, then there was the band he almost formed with Hendrix and two other Minneapolis musicians, not to mention a new contemporary jazz album, "Digital Flow," that he's recording with Stanley Clarke, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Najee and others as well as a solo piano project.
On his hometown:
"Minneapolis was all important. It was my formative and staging grounds," Lyle said. "I wish I had a private jazz education person working with me."
In the summers, an uncle came to visit from Memphis, bringing the latest jazz LPs, exposing young Lyle to Art Tatum, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner and others.
"I basically had to get [jazz education] by ear off the records or when people like Herbie Hancock or Gene Harris came through town, I was fortunate that they would sit me down, and they showed me a few things."
On Central High and Mac:
He played clarinet in the high school band but wanted to switch to saxophone after hearing records by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. The band director said no, so Lyle quit band, focused on piano and became the accompanist for the Central choir. That's where he did his first arrangement, of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song." At a recent gig at Crooners, one of his old classmates gave him a CD of the choir performing that tune.
At Macalester, Lyle worked with Donald Betts, who "straightened out my fingers and taught me technical things." Paying gigs beckoned, so Lyle quit college after two years.
On Jimi Hendrix:
When the guitar great was between bands in 1970, a promoter/manager talked up a Minneapolis rhythm section of Lyle, bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Bill Lordan. With Hendrix wanting to incorporate some jazz elements in his music, the Minnesotans jammed with him in a New York studio.
Lyle recalls helping Hendrix tune but the guitarist took the standard notes a half-step down. "I'd never seen a guitar player do that," the keyboardist said. "He said he just liked the funkier sound, a little darker sound."
Lyle said the Minnesotans were all set to become Hendrix's next band. "But Jimi said, 'Pump your brakes. I gotta go to Europe and take care of some things over there.' As fate would have it, he never returned from Europe."
On meeting Prince:
His friend Dan Pothier, a KQRS DJ who was dating Morris Day's mother, kept bugging Lyle to go see Day's teenage band rehearse.
"Just to shut him up, I agreed to go listen to them down in somebody's basement," Lyle said. "We stood in the corner and listened to Morris, Prince and them play. It was remarkable what they had together. They had their own sound. I said to them: 'You kids are not doing covers. You're doing your own tunes. They sound great. They're catchy and energetic. People are going to love this. Keep doing the original material.' The rest is history."
On Sly Stone:
"He was a funky guy," said Lyle, who spent a year touring with Sly in the mid-'70s. "He had a natural penchant for putting together funky grooves. He had a knack for layering those guitar parts to create the maximum funk effect. And they loved jazz. Sometimes we'd get to jamming on jazz tunes."
On Bette Midler:
Lyle remembers the Divine Miss M as a perfectionist dedicated to her craft, a taskmaster who had extensive pre-tour rehearsals.
"I've got a lot of respect for her, her work ethic and the care she put into every aspect of her show — from the wardrobe to the choreography to the actual music," Lyle said. "There are few entertainers who can cover all the bases that she did. Singing, dancing, telling shady jokes. She was like a variety show that traveled around."
On his recording career:
Lyle recorded three albums with Capitol, seven with Atlantic, a few more on assorted smaller labels, including his own imprint.
"When times get tight, everyone gets more creative and entrepreneurial," he said about the current state of the record business. "A lot of guys are starting their own labels, we help each other out with a trade: I'll play on yours if you play on mine."
His fans demand more music, Lyle says, and he has much more to say musically.
"I don't think people have a fear of death. I think they have a fear of not accomplishing what they set out to do in life."
On moving to Houston:
Romance with a special-education teacher prompted him to move to Houston 19 years ago.
"Even after that relationship broke up, I loved the city so much I'm still here. I've worked my way into the community and done benefits and teaching."
On jazz education:
"When I'm not performing or recording, my passion is to prepare young people to be credible, future jazz players," said Lyle, who planned to conduct a clinic at Minneapolis North High School this week. "I get such fulfillment out of that. All the information we have, we need to pass it along."
He has several private students in Houston. One, James Francies, released an album on Blue Note last year and is currently touring with guitarist Pat Metheny.