The Third Birds
- THE ROBINS©1999JCMarion
The Robins were the "third birds" - the third R & B vocal group that became nationally recognized as stars of the emerging music, and like the first two - The Ravens and The Orioles, took their name from our friendly flyers. Longevity has become part of their vocal history - Today more than fifty years from their founding, they remain (in an altered form to be sure), part of the musical heritage of this country, and of the music which they helped to begin.
The genesis of the Robins began in San Francisco soon after the Second World War. They began as a threesome using the name The A-Sharp Trio. In a short time they had become part of the burgeoning R & B scene along Central Avenue in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Soon the trio began performing at The Barrelhouse, a night spot founded by Bardu Ali and Johnny Otis. Otis was responsible for introducing Bobby Nunn, a talented performer and bass singer to the trio who now became a foursome with Tyrone Terrell, Billy Richards, and Roy Richards. Otis originally called the new quartet The Four Bluebirds. Performing for about a year using this name, the group got the opportunity to do a recording session for the up and coming Aladdin label (which had emerged from the Philo label), and at this time became known as The Robins. Aladdin #3031 "Don't Like The Way You're Doin' " and "Come Back Baby" were recorded in the fall of 1949. The label didn't think much of this effort and apparently neither did Johnny Otis because the group followed him to the Savoy label of Newark, New Jersey. So the West Coast group was now recording for an East Coast label.
At the end of the year of 1949, The Four Robins recorded "If I Didn't Love You So" and "If It's So Baby" on Savoy #726. R & B fans from around the country took notice this time. Both sides were heavy favorites with the record breaking into the top ten R & B best sellers and giving listeners the trademark sound of classic late 40s-early 50s vocal harmony. Featuring great lead singing by Bobby Nunn and harmony from the backers through a few tricky chord changes (away from the usual blues progressions), and the wonderful sound of the blues tinged vibes played by Otis, "If I Didn't Love You So" stands as an all time classic in its field.
In 1950 it becomes hard to keep track of the Robins recorded efforts. There is a release on Regent (affiliated with Savoy), sides for Recorded In Hollywood, a record on the Score label that had been on the shelf for a year, two early sides for Modern behind Little Esther also from the year before, and the group did a few sessions for RPM as The Nic Nacs. The Robins were certainly prolific in more ways than one. The Savoy record label decides to showcase its talent by organizing a road show to be called The Savoy Barrelhouse Caravan. The company features the Johnny Otis Orchestra with Little Esther, Mel Walker, Redd Lyte, and The Four Robins (who immediately drop the "Four" from their name). The Caravan begins its tour in Houston Texas and is a big draw especially in Atlanta.
In late February The Robins record "The Turkey Trot" , with part one featuring the group, and part two an Otis instrumental on Savoy #732. As late as April, "If I Didn't Love You So" is still a steady seller. In June two more Savoy recordings by the group are released in quick order - #738 - "Our Romance Is Gone" / "There's No Use Begging", and #752 - "There's Rain In My Eyes" and "I'm Living OK" by The Robins and Johnny Otis Orchestra. The Score recording (#4010) is "Round About Midnight" / "You Sure Look Good To Me" hits the street as does the Modern sides - #715 - "I Got A Guy" / "Thursday Night Blues" and #748 - "Mean Old Gal" / "Good Old Blues" by Little Esther with uncredited backup by The Robins. In October Savoy #762 features "You're Fine But Not My Kind" and "I'm Through". During this period of time in 1950, The Robins also sing backup behind budding superstar Little Esther on Savoy #731 - "Double Crossin' Blues". At the same time The Robins moonlight for the RPM label as The Nic Nacs and record #313 - "I'm Gonna Have A Merry Christmas".
At this time The Robins after a dispute (supposedly over featured billing for shows and appearances) with Otis, leave Savoy and do some sessions for the Recorded In Hollywood label. These sides are released periodically during 1951. RIH #112 is "Race Of A Man" and "Bayou Baby Blues" with lead vocals by Maggie Hathaway. RIH #121 is "A Falling Star" and "When Gabriel Blows His Horn", again with lead vocals by Hathaway. The Robins alone record "School Girl Blues" / "Early Morning Blues" on Recorded In Hollywood #150. None of the records done by The Robins can match the success of "If I Didn't Love You So", however. The year 1952 was a lean one for the group as they didn't have a record label, and their only contribution was a re-release of "I'm Gonna Have A Merry Christmas" which they recorded under the name The Nic Nacs for RPM Records.
In early 1953 things begin to look up for the Robins. They are offered a contract to record for a major record label - RCA Victor, who is looking to break into the expanding field of R & B. The group's first recording for their new label is #5175 - "My Heart's The Biggest Fool" / "A Fool Such As I". In April they record "All Night Baby" / "Oh Why" on #5271. At this time lead singer Bobby Nunn reunites with Little Esther on Federal with "You Took My Love Too Fast". The Robins appear on stage at Gene Norman's Fourth Annual Rhythm & Blues Jubilee at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. In September RCA releases #5434 - "How Would You Know" / "Let's Go To The Dance". The next month #5489 - "Empty Bottles" / "Ten Days In Jail" is released. At the end of the year The group is starring in the show entitled "The Sugar Hill Revue" at The Oasis in L.A. One last release for RCA follows - #5564 - "Don't Stop Now" / "Get It Off Your Mind", and like all the others is a non seller despite good reaction to their stage appearances.
In 1954, a release on the Crown label from an old Modern session - "I Made A Vow" and "Double Crossin Baby" appears on #106 and is quickly forgotten. Gene Norman puts together a show with The Robins, Christine Kitrell, Earl Bostic, and The Flairs to tour California in March. After the tour, the group signs with a fledgling label, Spark Records, started by aspiring songwriters from Baltimore, Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller (already famous for Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog"). The Robins were augmented by the addition of Carl Gardner and Grady Chapman. The first release for this new label became a sensation almost immediately. It was Spark #103 - "Riot In Cell Block #9" / "Wrap It Up". To add to the sound of the tune "Riot", Richard Berry was brought in to do the bass narration (a very similar sound was achieved by Berry's own recording of "The Big Break" for Modern / Flair later that year). The record was a sensation on the West Coast selling more than 100,000 copies in a few weeks. As the popularity of the record grew so did the controversy. The CBS TV and radio networks banned the song from airplay and it was pulled from inclusion on the television show "Jukebox Jury" for not being worthy of maintaining 'community standards' whatever that means. As is the usual case, a little bit of controversy always seems to help in these matters as the record sales increased.
The Robins help open the newly refurbished Savoy Ballroom in L.A. over the July 4th holiday. The group also makes an appearance on a new television show devoted to R & B music on KTTV in Hollywood hosted by Jerry Lawrence. In August hoping to cash in on the fame generated by the group, an old Modern side is recycled on the Crown label - #120 - "Key To My Heart" / "All I Do Is Rock". In mid August The Robins join The Flairs, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Big Jay McNeely & his combo in a show in Burbank. Soon after, The Robins become the first Rhythm & Blues act to be signed by a major film studio. Universal-International pictures plans to film the group in two musical shorts for national distribution. That October The Robins appear at Gene Norman's Blues Jubilee at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. At the end of the year they record their second side for Spark - #107 - "Framed" and "Loop-de-Loop Mambo". For "Framed" Bobby Nunn does his Richard Berry impression from "Riot" and does the hilarious narration concerning the legalistic trials and tribulations of "everyman" to great result and the group gets good mileage out of the gimmick.
The Robins start off the year of 1955 by playing a well received show at L.A.'s 5-4 Ballroom with T-Bone Walker and Floyd Dixon & his combo. Going for their third successive hit record for Spark, The Robins record "Whadya Want" and "If Teardrops Were Kisses" on #110. The record is released in mid February and receives heavy airplay in New York by Alan Freed, with "Whadya Want" a bouncy boogie shuffle with a distinctive scat chorus with a repeating "oink oink" phrase that really caught the ear. The flip side proved that the group could still handle a ballad, and the tune contains a marvelous ascending chime effect to open and close the song. Coming off the success of "Whadya Want" the group shifts gears but again and records their unique treatment of Cole Porters "I Love Paris" for Spark #113. As the record gained popularity another controversy was unfolding away from the public's knowledge. Chapelle Music, the holder of the copyright to "I Love Paris" embarked on a legal campaign to force The Robins rendition of the song off the public airwaves by claiming that the Spark recording ridiculed the meaning and intent of the song thus demeaning the value of the copyright. Some timid outlets fell for the threat and agreed to this form of censorship, but many others did not.(I have always felt that racism played no small part in this act, much as the attempt to stifle The Platters version of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" a few years later by members of the estate of Jerome Kern-unlike the enthusiastic response to The Drifters version of "White Christmas" by its composer Irving Berlin).
The next release for Spark - #116 : "The Hatchet Man" / "I Must Be Dreaming" was the first in a while by the group to fail to gain good sales and airplay. The Robins play Las Vegas during the month of July. In August the newest Spark release by The Robins is out. It is #122 - "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Just Like A Fool". Meanwhile the people at Atlantic have been sitting up and taking notice of The Robins and the Leiber-Stoller combine as a writing and producing team. In late September the deal is made. Atlantic buys the Spark release and will immediately issue the sides on its new Atco subsidiary label on release #6059. The power of Atlantic helps the tune to break into the top ten R & B and make the national pop charts as well. Atlantic intends to reissue previously recorded sides for Spark on the Atco label. Leiber and Stoller will come to Atlantic to begin production work, talent search responsibilities and writing. Because of this upheaval, among other reasons, the group disbands just as "Smokey Joe's Cafe" begins to break out across the country. The Atlantic people are undeterred and plan to build a new vocal unit around Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn, which they do by adding Billy Guy and Leon Hughes who become The Coasters and go on to great success with Leiber and Stoller at Atco.
The remaining performers, Billy and Roy Richards, Grady Chapman, and H.B. Barnum of The Dootones, then signed with Gene Norman's Whippet label in L.A. They open 1956 by being part of a big show touring the West Coast. Included are Shirley & Lee, LaVern Baker, Oscar McLollie, and The El Dorados. In early March The Robins first release on Whippet is #200 - "Cherry Lips" and "Out Of The Picture". The 'A' side "Cherry Lips" does well for the group becoming a top ten record in Boston and Kansas City and making the national R & B charts. The next release for Whippet #201 comes in June - "Hurt Me" a ballad is coupled with "Merry Go Rock", but the side does not chart and the group decides to go in the direction of a more mainstream pop music sound. In July they play a number of dates in and around L.A. with Joe Houston & his combo. In October The Robins embark on a national tour as part of the Top Ten R & B Revue. The new direction the group is taking is apparent in their next release, Whippet #203 which couples two pop standards "That Old Black Magic" and "Since I Fell For You".
The remaining sides for the Whippet label did not chart as the move to a more pop oriented sound fails. There are four more releases during 1957 and 1958 - #206 - "All Of A Sudden My Heart Sings" / "A Fool In Love"; #208 - "Every Night" / "Where's The Fire"; #211 - "In Your Dreams" / "Keep Your Mind On Me"; and #212 - "Snowball" / "You Wanted Fun". In 1959 and 1960 there were mostly forgettable records for the Knight, Arvee, Gone, and Lavender labels until in 1960 The Robins called it a career.
They had lasted for 13 years from their formation in 1947, with the Richards Brothers there for the entire ride. They were the first of the West Coast vocal groups and had a hand in the formation of the music subsequently known as rock and roll. The early association with Johnny Otis led to a number of landmark recordings, and the Spark records were a direct link to the long popularity of Leiber and Stoller and The Coasters as a main cog in the rock music machine. And it has been fun correcting people regarding the long running Broadway show celebrating the music of Leiber and Stoller "Smokey Joe's Cafe" - It is a record by The ROBINS that gave the show its title, not The Coasters. Close but no cigar ! It is The Robins, the fabulous "third birds" that we salute.
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