NEW YORK – Bobby Robinson, a fixture of Harlem’s 125th Street for six decades who died last week at 93, was remembered tonight by U.S. Representative Charles Rangel and about 100 mourners in a church one block away from Robinson’s legendary record shop.
“Harlem lost a real piece of its history when we lost our Bobby,” Rangel said before presenting Robinson’s family with the text of an entry honoring Robinson that he will place into the congressional record.
Robinson influenced two eras of American music. He began as the producer of early R&B artists in the 1950s and 60s like Elmore James, King Curtis, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. One of his best-known productions was the 1959 song “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison. Robinson experienced something of a renaissance as a record man in the early 1980s when he became one of the first record entrepreneurs to record a new form of music from the streets of New York called rap. Robinson signed the now-classic hip-hop artists Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, the Funky Four Plus One, the Treacherous Three, and Robinson’s nephew, Spoonie Gee.
But in Harlem, Robinson was best known as the owner of the record shop he ran continuously since 1946, when he became the first African-American to open a storefront on 125th Street. What began as “Bobby’s Record Shop” and then “Bobby’s Records and Tapes” eventually became “Bobby’s Happy House,” shifted just around the corner from its original location. The shop, visited by residents and tourists alike, closed in 2008 when Robinson was evicted by a developer who has yet to demolish or improve the property.
Morgan Clyde “Bobby” Robinson, the grandson of slaves, was born in Union, South Carolina on April 16, 1917. After graduated from high school at the top of his class, Robinson migrated to New York City in his 20s and was soon thereafter drafted into the U.S. Army. Stationed in Hawaii during World War II, Robinson made money on the side by loaning money to his fellow servicemen. But he found his calling when he began arranging music entertainment for the troops. Upon his discharge, Robinson bought a hat store on 125th Street and converted it into a record shop.
From his base on Black America’s main street, Robinson was able to tap into the growing R&B and doo-wop scene, founding a succession of labels such as Fire, Whirlin’ Disc, and Enjoy. He was valued by his peers in the music business and cherished by music aficionados. After his record producing career tapered off, Robinson continued to hold court daily in his record shop. Even as music sales of cassette tapes and CDs waned in the Internet age, “Bobby’s Happy House” received a steady stream of visitors coming to see Robinson and gape at the many pictures of celebrities adorning the walls: Robinson with Al Sharpton and James Brown, with Jackie Wilson, with Al Green, with Motown founder Berry Gordy.
These pictures played on a continuous loop at Harlem’s House of Prayer as Rangel addressed the crowd.
“He epitomized Harlem,” said Rangel, whose office was one block from Robinson’s shop. “I used to see so many tourists come to 125th Street looking at Harlem. But once they saw Bobby, once they listened to him, once they were intoxicated by the music, they knew they didn’t have to go any further because he represented so much of all of us.”
“All my life has been spent on 125th Street,” Rangel continued. “And every time I saw Bobby, he had a smile and a story.”
Robinson is survived by his daughter Cheryl Benjamin, his sister Minnie Stewart, two grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, four nieces and seven nephews. His body will be interred in his birthplace of Union, S.C.