Sugar Chile Robinson; the piano prodigy who first earned a White House invite but ditched music for school

Michael Eli Dokosi Feb 19, 2020 at 01:00pm

February 19, 2020 at 01:00 pm | Entertainment

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

February 19, 2020 at 01:00 pm | Entertainment

Sugar Chile Robinson via Wikimedia/musicmaker.org

Some find fame and fortune early on sustaining the momentum and die wealthy and esteemed. Others find both late yet leave their mark. Frank Isaac Robinson’s tale is a rather curious one. He found fame early in life but the going was tough.

Born on December 28, 1938, Sugar Chile Robinson as he was widely known proved to be a child prodigy emerging as a self-taught piano player at a year and half old.

The jazz pianist and singer played for President Truman in 1946 at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, becoming the first African-American to be invited to the presidential home at a mere age of seven.

He was one of the first African-American child stars to be a household name. While still a kid, he had a record, billboard chart, sports and a gig with the Count Basie Orchestra as well as movie appearances even when African-Americans were few on the big screen.

He began touring major theaters, setting box office records in Detroit and California. In 1949 he was given special permission to join the American Federation of Musicians and record his first releases on Capitol Records, “Numbers Boogie” and “Caldonia”, both reaching the Billboard R&B chart.

In 1950, he toured and appeared on television with Count Basie and in a short film ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet. The following year, he toured the UK, appearing at the London Palladium.

However, by the 1950s, Robinson returned to school and his fame faded. He stopped recording in 1952.

Later he said: “I wanted to go to school… I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop, and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma.”

Sugar Chile Robinson via musicmaker.org

Having given up his musical career entirely, he focused on his academic studies earning a degree in history from Olivet College and one in psychology from the Detroit Institute of Technology. In the 1960s, he worked for WGPR-TV, and also helped set up small record labels in Detroit and opened a recording studio.

The Detroit, Michigan native’s legacy is enduring but his decision to drop music came at a great cost.

The blues singer in 2016 got invited to the White House by former president Barack Obama to be part of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after 70 years.

On how tough life got, his small apartment shared with a niece had no beds and a piano. They had been sleeping on blow up beds for the past five years after a household fire destroyed his belongings.

Sugar Chile Robinson circa 1950.jpg
Sugar Chile Robinson circa 1950

In 2017, Music Maker Relief Foundation came to the star’s aid putting him on the monthly sustenance program, sending beds and a piano to his residence while resolving the eviction action he faced.

Questions abound bordering on royalties and if he made good money from his music or if he squandered the wealth he made? There’s also talk of how he failed to keep a balance rejecting music for so long yet the college degree he so craved for not securing him a better life. Whatever the outcome, Frank Isaac Robinson in 2016 was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame.

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