BOBBY ROBINSON, who died January 7, 2011, was one of the unsung pioneers of the 20th century American record industry. That sun you see setting in the illustration at left might well represent not only Robinson’s own passing at the age of 93 but that of the entire half-century-long, world-changing epoch of rhythm & blues and rock & roll in which he forged his career. “He outlived the record business,” remarked Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman as we sat with Sire Records’ Seymour Stein in a front pew at the United House of Prayer for All People on West 125th Street, where Robinson’s funeral was held on this bitterly cold January evening.
The grandson of former slaves, Morgan Clyde Robinson (called “Bob” by his entire family including grandchildren) was born 4.16.1917 in Union, South Carolina and later became valedictorian of his (segregated) high school. Obituaries in the NY Daily News and NY Times don’t clearly state when Robinson arrived in New York, which event may have preceded his Army service during World War II. While stationed in Hawaii, Bobby honed his entrepreneurial skills as both the entertainment director of live shows mounted for servicemen on Oahu and as (in his own words) “the biggest loan shark out there.” Following his discharge, Robinson claims to have returned to Harlem with nearly $8,000 in cash. It was an enormous sum in 1945: According to U.S. Census figures, the median annual income for non-White families and individuals was $1,294.
In 1946, Robinson paid $2,500 to buy out a defunct hat store located at 301 West 125th Street, just west of the world-famous Apollo Theater at #253. There he opened Bobby’s Record Shop, later and better known as Bobby’s Happy House. It was the first Black-owned music store on 125th Street — the commercial and symbolic heart of Harlem — and possibly the street’s first Black-owned retail business of any kind (accounts vary on this point).
This modest establishment became Robinson’s base of operations for his freewheeling career as songwriter, record producer, label owner and distributor — one of the very few whose active career spanned the decades from Fifties r&b to Eighties hip-hop. His Wikipedia entry includes a detailed discography, but Gladys Knight & the Pips, Elmore James, Lee Dorsey, King Curtis, Spoonie Gee, and the Treacherous Three (with Kool Moe Dee) are just a few of the artists recorded by Bobby Robinson and released on one of his several imprints including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Red Robin, and Whirlin’ Disc.
“Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown, “Ya-Ya” by Lee Dorsey, “Number Nine Train” by Tarheel Slim, “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, “Rockin’ It” by The Fearless Four, and “Super Rappin'” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five — if you’ve heard any of these songs, then you’ve heard Bobby Robinson at work.
By 1959, when Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became the first major hit for Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Robinson had already made the national r&b charts with multiple releases. One man became a crossover giant who built a recording and publishing empire, produced Hollywood movies and TV specials, and transformed his artists into icons. The other was a guy you could find, most days of the week, holding court in a Harlem storefront.
That guy didn’t move to Hollywood, or buy a chain of radio stations, or become some major label’s Executive V-P of Urban Music — he just kind of hung out. Yet by doing so, Bobby Robinson touched the lives of thousands of people, a couple hundred of whom showed up on this night to pay their respects. (One of the first I encountered was the ethically-challenged Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who was departing as I arrived.)
At some point (in the 1980s? the ’90s?), the Happy House was displaced by a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; Robinson moved his shop around the corner and slightly north on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The store remained open for more than 60 years, gradually functioning more as a clubhouse and community center than active music retailer. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, lived a few blocks away; in a remembrance posted 1.9.2011, he wrote:
“Bobby’s Happy House…had a stream of visitors throughout the day, but nobody ever seemed to buy anything. The display cases were filled with rows of dusty, ancient CDs and cassette tapes. Folks were really coming to see Robinson: tourists from Europe on pilgrimage, neighbors and local characters stopping by between errands, old friends like Paul Winley checking on Bobby. Sometimes, like me, they’d wait for him. Bobby Robinson would usually saunter in mid-day — and what an entrance he would make. At 90, he was always clean, always sharp — usually in a bright-colored suit jacket that contrasted with his long, straight, shock-white hair. He walked slow, turned gradually, and sat tentatively. But when he looked at you, you almost felt zapped. A lot of life and light in those eyes…”
“As much as Bobby Robinson loved Harlem, Harlem loved Bobby Robinson. Even more atrocious than his eviction — just before the bottom fell out during the subprime mortgage crisis — is that the developer who sent him packing has done nothing with the building. [Emphasis added — A.S.] It still stands there, empty, boarded up, across from the Duane Reade and around the corner from the Apollo.”
Robinson’s funeral was a down-home neighborhood affair. Other than Tom Silverman and Seymour Stein, I spotted only a few music business veterans including Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City and DJ Chuck Chillout. I introduced myself to Vincent Davis, who claimed to remember me from 1985 (!) when I wrote the Elektra Records publicity bio for his artist Joeski Love. (Time to kill? Watch the story of “Pee Wee Dance,” Joeski’s hip-hop novelty hit. But I digress…)
If any of the many “name” artists recorded by Bobby Robinson were in attendance, they didn’t get up to speak or otherwise identify themselves. It wasn’t like Doc Pomus‘ funeral, in 1991, where I sat next to Kris Kristofferson and heard songs by Dr. John and Jimmy Scott. Instead, ordinary people — mostly but not exclusively Black, some looking hard-used by life — offered their tributes. Joe Jackson (not Michael’s dad) called the Happy House “a center of communication” and sang “Auld Lang Syne,” which I thought an odd choice. A woman declared “I stand here today with my right mind because of Bobby Robinson”; two others sang spontaneous, impassioned versions of the gospel standards “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Won’t Complain.”
Bobby Dunn hailed the deceased as “one of the greatest producers and songwriters.” (Gunn wrote or co-wrote “You Broke Your Promise,” the B-side of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ first Robinson-produced hit “Letter Full Of Tears.”) Another gentleman offered a litany of the many doo-wop groups on Robinson’s roster (the Velvets, the Kodaks, Earl Lewis & the Channels), prompting Seymour Stein to break into a sotto voce medley of said groups’ greatest hits.
Paul Winley, Robinson’s friend and competitor dating back to the Fifties, noted that “he was the first record shop owner to put a set of speakers outside the store. When James Brown first began to break out with ‘Please Please Please,’ I remember him sitting on one of those speakers outside the Happy House and telling people passing by ‘that’s me, that’s my song!'” We also heard from Robinson’s grandson and nephew, and from Bilal Muhammed (nee Jerome Robinson) whose father was Bobby’s cousin.
The Apostle H.M. Swaringer delivered the closing eulogy. He began with the hymn “My Living Shall Not Be In Vain” and launched into an evocative, free-flowing oration that touched on Robinson’s long relationship with the House of Prayer For All Peoples and the commercial history of 125th Street (the Braddock Hotel, Apollo Theater, etc.) along with a citation from the Book of Job. Bobby Robinson, the preacher noted, “came to the House of Prayer every day. He helped people.”
Amen, Brother Swaringer.
Rest in peace, Bobby Robinson.
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