UNION COUNTY — Like many young African-American men of their generation DJ “Motown” Bobby Robinson’s father and namesake uncle left the South to seek opportunities and, after arriving in Harlem in New York City in 1949, began successful lifelong careers in the music industry.
Robinson tells the story of his family’s multi-generational involvement with the music industry in “Me, Dad, and Uncle Bobby.” The book, which Robinson said he hopes will be published in spring of 2018, tells the story of his father and uncle’s careers in the music industry and the many music legends they met and worked with during the course of their careers. It was the start of the Robinson family’s multi-generational involvement in the music industry with Robinson himself following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps and, like them, having the opportunity to meet and work with a number of music legends of the 20th century.
“My dad was Danny Robinson, but I was named for my uncle Bobby,” Robinson said. “His son had died and so they named me after him.”
Robinson said his father and uncle were both residents of Meansville Road where they grew up working on a farm and had to walk to school in Union. He said their walks to Union could be difficult and that sometimes the problems they encountered would cause them to miss their first class of the morning.
“When they’d be walking there’d be cars coming by and people would throw things at them and they’d have to lay down in a ditch,” Robinson said. “They’d walk to Sims, at the time it was on Cohen Street. When it would rain they’d have to take off their clothes at school and dry them in the boiler room. They’d put their clothes on the boiler to dry. They’d miss their first class on those days.”
Deciding like so many ambitious young African-American men of their era to seek opportunity outside the segregated South, Robinson’s father and uncle left Union County in 1949 and made their way to Harlem. Soon after arriving, Robinson said his father and uncle’s entrepreneurial spirit lead them to open their own business which, while not initially related to the music industry, would soon set them on their path to successful careers in it.
“They were one block from the Apollo Theater,” Robinson said of the location of his father and uncle’s business. “It was originally a hat store and they bought it for $2,000 and Uncle Bobby turned it into a shoeshine shop.
“There were not many black record shops in those days and so guys with different record labels would come by like an ice cream truck and sell out of the trunks of their cars,” he said. “They’d put a turntable in their car and play their records so people would buy them.”
Watching this go on on the street outside his shoeshine shop gave Robinson’s uncle an idea.
“My Uncle Bobby said (to them) ‘Why don’t you sell them in here’ and he turned it (the shoeshine shop) into a record shop,” Robinson said. “He got 10 percent of everything they sold.”
The shoeshine shop was soon a thing of the past as Robinson said his uncle turned it into “Bobby’s Record Shop.”
Its close proximity to the Apollo Theater made Bobby’s Record Shop a popular place for personal appearances by the performers at the theater.
“Every act that was at the Apollo like Otis Redding and especially James Brown would come by and sign autographs,” Robinson said.
While having a successful record store was wonderful, Robinson said it was not enough for his uncle who moved into producing records, a decision that got him and Robinson’s father even more deeply involved in the music industry.
“Later on he got into producing,” Robinson said. “His first big record was ‘Kansas City’ with Wilbert Harrison. Then he wrote a song for Percy Sledge called ‘Warm and Tender Love.’ Then he was the first to record Gladys Knight and the Pips before they went to Motown.”
Robinson said in 1972, through his Enjoy label, his uncle recorded Grand Master Flash and Kool Moe D.
“He got into Hip Hop with that,” Robinson said.
Over the years Robinson said his father and uncle’s decision to get more deeply involved in the music industry would enable them to meet other music legends such as Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. Another legend whose career intersected with theirs would be Jimi Hendrix who Robinson said was very different in appearance from his later days of international fame.
“Jimi Hendrix was in my Uncle Bobby’s band, ‘King Curtis and the Kingpins,’ Robinson said. “Hendrix was one of the guitar players. He didn’t have a big Afro in those days. He wore a suit and tie and played with Wilson Pickett on ‘Mustang Sally.’”
While his uncle may have taken the lead on their efforts, Robinson said his father was always with him. He said that when he was 5 or 6, his father began taking him with them as they went about their jobs and this not only lead to his getting to meet many of these music legends, but also to his getting involved in the music industry himself. His adult involvement in the music industry would also result in Robinson meeting a number of music legends, though sometimes at strange times of the day.
“I started out as a drummer then I worked at a studio called Bell Sounds Studio,” Robinson said. “One day my boss says there’s an artist coming in to record at 4 a.m. with his band. It turned out to be Duke Ellington and his orchestra.”
Robinson left Bell Sounds and went to work for Buddha Records and then, later, for Casablanca Records, working as a promoter for both labels.
“I took records to radio stations, put up posters, and sometimes when the artist would come into town I’d take him to the stores to sign autographs,” Robinson said. “I worked for Casablanca Records helping promote Donna Summer and her first song, ‘Love To Love You Baby.’ I also helped to promote ‘Kiss’ and Lou Reed and one of Johnny Carson’s comedy albums.”
Robinson next worked for Arista Records, again as a promoter, where he helped promote Ray Parker Jr. and GQ.
Not long after that, however, Robinson got out of the music business.
“I got out of the business because there were a lot of things I didn’t like,” Robinson said. “It was just too much pressure. It was not a nine to five job. It just wore me out.”
Robinson’s decision to leave the music business lead to him getting a job in the computer center at Columbia University where he met his wife. Four years after they got married, Robinson and his wife move back to the South. Today, while he is no longer involved in the music industry like he was when he was a drummer and, later, a promoter, Robinson is still involved with music. There’s of course his book, which he said he was inspired by and urged to write by DJ Big. He also works as a DJ performing locally at Shady’s for Curtis Smith and loves living in Union County.
“I’m so glad to be living back home,” Robinson said. “Union is one of the most safest places with the most beautiful people you could meet.”
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.