Bobby Robinson, WWII veteran who popularized doo-wop, R&B, and rap music from Harlem

Michael Eli Dokosi May 25, 2020
Robinson in front of his record store, 1977 via Wikimedia Commons

Bobby Robinson began life on a South Carolina farm, however, by 20, it was clear to him he had to move to make his fortune and so to New York he went. By 1942, he had been drafted into the army serving as an entertainment officer during the Second World War.

Upon his return to Harlem in 1946, he became one of the first African-Americans to own a store on 125th Street near the Apollo Theatre. He simply named it Bobby Robinson’s Record Shop. The shop enjoyed success selling blues and jazz hits.

It is to Robinson’s great credit that he helped popularize doo-wop, blues, R&B, soul and rap music. A man of ingenuity, he placed a speaker outside his shop and then blasted out new releases to passers-by. The antic proved successful so much so that he had musicians from across the US heading to his shop as soon as they reached New York.

On the back of his inroads as a record seller, and upon visits from music industry notables such as Leonard Chess (of Chess Records) and Ahmet Ertegun (of Atlantic), Robinson realised he could open his own record label, so in 1951, he launched Robin Records (which later became Red Robin Records), and began recording doo-wop. In 1956, he formed Whirlin’ Disc Records, but after falling out with his business partner he moved on to form Fury Records in 1957.

Harrison’s Kansas City song recorded in 1959, which went on to sell more than three million copies, topping both the R&B and pop charts was a triumph for Robinson, however, parties sued claiming input to the song.

Robinson specialized in recording vocal groups including the Mello-Moods, the Rainbows, the Vocaleers and the Du Droppers. However, he also recorded blues performers such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and had his first major success with “Shake Baby Shake” by Champion Jack Dupree in 1953.

With lawsuits halting operations at his Fury Records, Robinson set up Fire Records and continued his amazing run of success. Another avenue for money making for Robinson was licensing many of his recordings to Guy Stevens’s Sue Records in the UK, which entered the repertoires of bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Who.

Although making hits, Robinson paid little attention to business detail prompting his artists to leave him for bigger, more professional labels and by the end of the 1960s, his influence was waning.

However, by the late 70s, Robinson observed teenagers were now grooving to rap. Another label he formed, Enjoy Label released records by Harlem’s pioneering rappers. In 1979, he recorded Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s first record, “Superrappin’“, an innovative record which was very influential in hip-hop’s early years.

As an independent record producer and songwriter in New York City, Robinson became Harlem’s much loved and local hero. His shop remained open until January 21, 2008.

The man born on April 16, 1917 produced million-selling records by Elmore James, Lee Dorsey, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Wilbert Harrison, The Shirelles, Dave “Baby” Cortez, King Curtis, Spoonie Gee, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, and Treacherous Three.

Robinson chalked up yet another success when he produced Doug E. Fresh’s “Just Having Fun (Do The Beatbox)”, which introduced beatboxing to the record-buying public. He passed on January 7, 2011 at the age of 93.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: May 25, 2020


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