Independent label entrepreneur Bobby Robinson, whose career spanned the worlds of ’50s R&B and first-generation ’70s rap, died Jan. 7 in New York. He was 93, according to a blog post by Dan Charnas, author of rap history “The Big Payback.”
Robinson served in the Army during World War II, and opened his Harlem record store — known variously over the years as Bobby Robinson’s Record Shop and Bobby’s Happy House — near the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem in 1946.
Robinson established his first label, Robin Records, in 1951 and later set up the Fire, Fury and Enjoy imprints. One of his earliest hits was one-man band Wilbert Harrison’s No. 1 1959 hit “Kansas City”; he was forced to settle a suit over the recording lodged by Savoy Records’ Herman Lubinsky, who claimed he had a contract with Harrison.
During the ’60s, he also recorded hits by such R&B and blues notables as Bobby Marchan (“There Is Something on Your Mind”), Lee Dorsey (“Ya Ya”), Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford (“I Need Your Loving”), Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Mojo Hand”), Elmore James (“The Sky Is Crying”), King Curtis (“Soul Twist”) and a young Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Every Beat of My Heart,” “Letter Full of Tears”).
Robinson was forced to surrender rights to his masters after taking out loans from Morris Levy, the ruthless owner of Roulette Records, and the Fire/Fury catalog was sold to Bell Records, Arista Records’ precursor imprint, in 1965.
Robinson, who worked as an independent producer and distributor in the late ’60s, kept his ear to the ground, and began releasing early rap and hip-hop singles on Enjoy in the late ’70s; his acts included the Funky Four + 1 More, the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee and his nephew Spoonie Gee (Gabriel Jackson).
An era in Harlem musical history passed when Robinson was evicted from his record store on Jan. 21, 2008, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Survivors include a daughter and granddaughter.