Bobby Robinson, a songwriter and entrepreneur who mastered sound production
The phrase “black-owned business” carries a taboo stigma in today’s society. In the past, there was honor, pride, and independence associated with black businesses. This is mostly because the past was a segregated environment where African Americans had to thrive on their own. Resources were created among blacks then shared, traded, and dispersed to blacks.
Today we have become much more commercialized as a society. This means options for commerce are so broad that we can enjoy being selective. This includes having skepticism of some businesses and or products on the market. So much so, that black businesses have developed an underlying stigma in terms of consumerism.
Let’s reflect on a time when the thriving of black businesses was for the benefit of everyone. Bobby Robinson owned the first black-owned business on Harlem’s famed 125th Street. He was also an independent songwriter and record producer who is the source of many hits.
Bobby began his life in April of 1917 on a farm in Union, South Carolina. He left the farm life at the age of 20 in search of industrial work in New York. Once in New York, he worked in the city’s fashion district for about five years.
In 1942 Bobby was drafted into the U.S. Army as an entertainment officer. He went on to serve four years in World War II. He returned from the war in 1946 to open “Bobby’s Record Shop”. Selling jazz and blues records down the street from the Apollo Theater turned out to be a huge success.
Let’s make music
Bobby would put a speaker outside of the shop to play the sounds of new grooves. The music could be heard by those passing by and the shop was known to carry all the new releases. The store’s environment along with Bobby’s positive presence attracted customers and other musicians.
Musicians traveling through New York began making frequent stops at Robinson’s store. Record producers and executives were also known for stopping by to seek Bobby’s advice. After assisting others in the music business he started his journey of making records as well.
He went on to start a label calling it Red Robin Records (Originally Robin Records). A couple of years later in 1953, he produced “Shake Baby Shake” by Champion Jack Dupree. Bobby started off producing doo-wop in the ’50s and this was the labels first song to have major success.
Robinson went on to establish other record labels throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s. He used some of them as vehicles for other genres of music such as rock and roll or rhythm and blues. In 1959 he produced the single “Kansas City” which sold more than 3 million copies. It topped both the R&B and pop charts. Unfortunately, he was sued by multiple parties afterward which resulted in him starting yet another label.
You can’t stop a train
Robinson had a unique and particular recording style. He recorded his artists with a quality of raw purity that sounded as if they were performing live. In the 1970s he applied his production talent to hip hop. Some of the first hip hop records were stapled with his involvement.
Throughout every endeavor, he continued to keep his record store open. It remained as one of the original businesses in Harlem, even outlasting some chain store competitors. His presence in hip hop also planted valuable seeds.
Bobby Robinson is survived by his daughter who assisted him in running his record store newly named “Bobby’s Happy House”. The store officially closed around 2007. Robinson lived to be 93 years old passing away in 2011.
The imprint he left is present in the history books and in the music business. His contributions benefit many both past and present. Bobby’s touch spreads from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Doug E. Fresh. In order for great music to reach us it music be produced.
We owe it to talented pioneers like Bobby Robinson who’s passion was great enough to share. Even if it was something as a small as a speaker outside, he was determined to share that sound. Through music, he was able to share, support, and give back to others as well as his community. A little bit goes a long way and we should all keep that in mind when carrying the torch forward.
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