Rob Sabino gets ready to play with Chic when the group performed at the Golden One Center in July. Courtesy photo


Church music director is so ‘Chic’

By From page A1 | September 06, 2017

Robert Sabino spent the disco years as keyboardist for the mega-hit band Chic, going on to write for and perform with a long list of music’s biggest stars, including Peter Frampton, Steve Winwood and Madonna. Sabino has 27 gold or platinum records that he could boast about on his résumé, but the man who has been Holy Trinity parish’s music director since 2008 says the gig he has today is his most rewarding.

Raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sabino, 64, explained his early penchant for music. During a recent interview, the self-taught pianist recalled, “I started playing for a living when I was in seventh grade.”

After attending a Jesuit high school and studying music in college, “Once I hit the road I never looked back,” Sabino said of his nearly two decades on the road.

He first played keys and wrote music for the Connecticut-based Simms Brothers Band, which played throughout the northeast and at popular 1970’s Manhattan nightclubs. “Queen heard us play and we ended up using their producer,” Sabino recalled. The Simms Bros. would go on to score a deal with Elektra Records and opened for Peter Frampton on an East Coast tour in 1979.

In the meantime, Sabino met Nile Rodgers, who was still in the Big Apple Band with bassist Bernard Edwards, but the two were brainstorming what would become of the disco/funk band Chic. “Nile was looking for someone who knew rock and R&B,” Sabino recalled of how he met Rodgers.

Sabino still remembers when Rodgers told him, “You’re our guy,” remaining supportive of Sabino when he continued to write music for the Simms Bros.

“I had a lot more energy then,” Sabino laughed of his busy schedule of writing during the day and then performing and recording each night.

Chic recorded some of the best-known hits of the Disco Era, including “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” but during the disco backlash that followed, Sabino recalled how Rodgers tried to keep the band relevant. “(Nile) is a really talented musician,” Sabino said, yet industry insiders had typecast them as a disco band only.

“They’d say, ‘You’re too big,’” Sabino recalled of the group’s plan to rebrand themselves.

They soon branched out to help other acts. Rodgers discovered Sister Sledge and acted as the group’s producer, with Sabino playing on tracks including “We Are Family.” More hits would follow, including Sabino playing keyboard and synthesizer on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album.

He also recorded and toured with artists including, but not limited to, Bryan Adams, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Kim Carnes, Rosanne Cash, Herbie Hancock, Debbie Harry, Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band, Mick Jagger, Johnny Mathis, Teddy Pendergrass, Diana Ross, John Sebastian, Nick Seeger and Carly Simon.

By 1992, a 39-year-old Sabino would meet his future wife, Debra, while backstage. He was performing with Todd Rundgren in Northern California and her brother-in-law was Rundgren’s bassist.

“I told her I thought we’d get married,” Sabino said, recalling how even he was shocked by his candor at the time. “I knew right then that I didn’t want to spend my days on the road anymore.”

He relocated from the East Coast to the Sierra foothills to start the second chapter of his life with Debra, and she was the conduit to get him working first at St. Joseph’s parish in Auburn, where he served as music director. His Catholic faith had always been a central part of his life, so it was a full-circle opportunity to work in the church, Sabino explained.

Today he and Debra live in Cameron Park and have five children. She is an Episcopalian minister at The Church of our Saviour in Placerville and he has been the music director at Holy Trinity Parish in El Dorado Hills since 2008, after staff conducted a nationwide search to fill the position.

He oversees all of the adult and children’s music programs and said there’s one benefit that he gets today that he didn’t experience as a traveling musician. “On the road I played rock ‘n’ roll, but in church there are more styles,” he said. “I can play early, classical and modern Christian music, for instance. I get more variety.”

Another plus? “And I get to be with kids,” Sabino said. “It keeps me young … It’s completely invigorating when you teach something that’s important to you.”

“Rob has a deeply rooted joy and a hospitality that draws people into a sense of belonging, whether it’s in the choir, band, parish staff or community,” said Holy Trinity’s director of religious education Susie Hahn. “And that joy, coupled with his laughter, is contagious.”

“We knew we were getting a superb musician with Rob, but what we didn’t realize is what an unbelievably joyful minister of the Gospel we were getting,” said Holy Trinity’s director of stewardship and church administrator David Lopez. “Rob has a way of making everyone feel important and good about themselves.  Whenever parishioners talk about Mr. Sabino, there’s a smile on their faces — smiles that he has put there.”

Sabino said he still has goals he’s working toward at Holy Trinity. “I’d like to expand the church band and violin programs,” he said.

He also said he is proud that all Holy Trinity School children “get a chance to lead worship,” alternating school classes during Tuesday morning Masses. “That’s a great gift,” he added.

He is often reminded of the first chapter of his life. In July Sabino took the stage at the Golden One Center to play with Chic. “It was the last time I played a big stadium since Live Aid in 1985,” he said of the experience. “It was just great.”

He has also taught a rock history class at UC Davis for the past 12 years, once even bringing in friend Peter Frampton as a surprise guest lecturer.

Still, no matter where Sabino has worked, sharing his love for music is the common denominator and the thing that enthralls him most. “There have been two times when the hair on my arms went up that I remember,” he said. “The first time was when I was playing with Simon & Garfunkel in Tel Aviv. It was when I looked out and saw so many different people singing.

“The second time was the first Christmas I was music director at St. Joseph’s,” he continued. “On Christmas Eve when the whole congregation started to sing, I thought, ‘I was meant to do this.’”

Julie Samrick

Discussion | 1 comment

  • Brain PerrySeptember 12, 2017 - 7:10 am

    Rob is a great mysician, a swell friend, and an excellent human being.



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