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.”
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: January 12, 2011
New York Times
Friday, January 14, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
In just 3 weeks, the number one selling choir of all time, The Mighty Mississippi Mass Choir returns with the release of their highly anticipated ninth recording, “…Then Sings My Soul”
(2 Disc Set - Available in stores and online February 1, 2011) (Also available on DVD)
With the infusion of 100 new members, the 250 voice aggregation is as strong and vibrant as the day they first began.
The Mississippi Mass Choir debut single, “God Made Me” is currently in the Top 20 on Billboard & Mediabase Gospel charts and climbing. With just one listen you will know that although still true to its roots, this tree has branched out. The single was penned by Jules Bartholomew who has written such hits for Hezekiah Walker and LFC as “Faithful Is Our God,” “Calling My Name” and “ God Favored Me.” The featured lead soloist is a 2nd generation Mississippi Mass Choir member, the anointed Benjamin (Benji) Cone III; The son of legendary Rev. Benjamin Cone, Jr.
Founded in May 1988 by the late Frank Williams and his friend David R. Curry Jr., the group has won or been nominated for every major music award - Grammy, Stellar, Dove, Soul Train, NARM Best Sellers Award, Billboard Magazine Outstanding Achievement Award, as well as the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Success came quickly with their first three recordings reaching the number one position on the Billboard Top Forty Gospel Chart. Two recordings reached the number two position, with the subsequent recordings all reaching the top ten. They are dubbed by many as “The World’s Greatest Choir.”
After celebrating 20 years of music ministry, the choir’s main focus remains lifting up the name of Jesus.
Check www.malaco.com for availability.