Bobby Robinson, Harlem Music Impresario, Dies at 93

By DOUGLAS MARTIN  NY Times  1/12/11

Bobby Robinson liked to recall how it all began: with him, a World War II veteran, sitting on a fire hydrant in front of a hat shop in Harlem in 1946. Hundreds of people (potential customers?) walked by.

His inspiration was to use all his savings to buy the shop and turn it into a record store that, as Bobby’s Happy House, became a treasured Harlem institution for a half century. The store spawned a remarkable recording business that helped launch artists from rhythm and blues giants like Gladys Knight and the Pips to the rap stars Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Mr. Robinson died on Friday at the age of 93 in Manhattan, his family said. He had been one of the first blacks to own a shop on 125th Street, the fabled Main Street of Harlem, and his was one of the last old-time stores to battle the neighborhood’s relentless gentrification, albeit unsuccessfully.

Old-timers remember James Brown’s limo parked outside, and people breaking into a happy strut as they responded to the music tumbling onto the street. Mr. Robinson, known for his style that in later years included a cascade of white hair, did not sing or play music himself, but he produced, sold, found, promoted and simply lived it.

He was very good at spotting opportunities. The musicians who visited his store as they strolled from the Apollo to a nearby steakhouse inspired him to start his own record labels. He had many, sometimes with partners and often with colorful names like Fury and Enjoy. He recorded early works by Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and the Scarlets, later The Five Satins.

Mr. Robinson’s musicians were admitted to the rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip-hop halls of fame.

His instincts were keen. In 1959, he paid $40 for an extra 15 minutes of recording time so that Wilbert Harrison could record one more song. The result, “Kansas City,” was a No. 1 hit.

“I record things that touch me,” Mr. Robinson said. “And I try to record them pure, 100 percent, no water added.”

Morgan Clyde Robinson, a grandson of slaves, was born in Union, S.C., on April 16, 1917, and as a teenager walked six miles to high school, where he was valedictorian. The Black Music Research Journal in 2003 told how he fell in love with the blues: he and other townspeople gathered outside a jailhouse window to listen to a talented singer. The incarcerated bluesman let down a pail for contributions.

During World War II, Mr. Robinson was a corporal stationed in Hawaii in charge of hiring entertainment, from big bands to a one-footed tap dancer. He amassed $8,000 in savings by offering sailors and soldiers another service: “I was the biggest loan shark there,” he told The New York Times in 2003.

Mr. Robinson headed for Harlem, where he had no problem paying $2,500 cash for the hat store — hats not included. “I said to myself I will open a small record store and if that fails, no one can say I didn’t try,” he told The New York Amsterdam News in 2001.

He hedged his bet by buying four electric shoe-shining machines. These were in the front of the store, the records in the back.

Shoe-shining was soon unnecessary. An early doo-wop group he recorded, the Vocaleers, who harmonized on 142nd Street, rivaled Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays as Harlem folk heroes, the music historian Philip Groia wrote.

Mr. Robinson got to know the powers of the music business. Ahmet Ertegun, the renowned head of Atlantic Records, stopped by to chat about trends. “He’s a major personage in Harlem,” Mr. Ertegun said of Mr. Robinson in 2003.

When Alan Freed, the D.J. who championed the new music, first broadcast in New York in 1954, Mr. Robinson helped answer phones.

Happy House acquired its euphonious name in 1956 in honor of a doo-wop song Mr. Robinson wrote for Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords titled “I’m So Happy,” a hit in the Northeast. (Lewis Lymon was the younger brother of Frankie Lymon, best known for a song with the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”)

In the 1970s Mr. Robinson became one of the first label owners to record rap music, presenting artists like Doug E. Fresh and Spoonie Gee. In the early 1990s he moved his store from 301 West 125th Street around the corner to Frederick Douglass Boulevard to make way for a KFC franchise. He was evicted in 2008 in favor of an office building.

Mr. Robinson is survived by his daughter, Cheryl Benjamin; his sister, Minnie Stewart; two grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.

Another legacy is the catchy stage name of Gladys Knight and the Pips. When meeting the group, Mr. Robinson asked, “What the hell’s a Pip?”

The answer, The Times reported, was that the family ensemble was named for a cousin who used to sneak them into nightclubs.

“I said, ‘Gladys is the singer, so you better put her name out front,’ ” Mr. Robinson remembered. “They went for it, otherwise Gladys Knight would’ve been just another Pip.”

Advertisements

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: