Sylvia Robinson, the R&B and disco performer who became “the mother of hip-hop” with her label Sugar Hill Records, died Sept. 29 in a Secaucus, N.J., hospital. She was 75 and reportedly suffered from congestive heart failure.
Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York, she recorded her first single for Savoy Records in 1951. She was courted by hustler Joe Robinson, who became her manager in the mid-’50s, and the pair married in 1964.
At Robinson’s suggestion, Sylvia began recording with her guitar teacher, Mickey Baker. In 1956, Mickey & Sylvia’s reworking of Bo Diddley’s “Love Is Strange” became a No. 1 R&B hit and No. 11 pop success. The duo parted ways when Baker moved to France in the early ’60s.
Over the years, Sylvia wrote, arranged and produced hits for Joe Jones, Ike & Tina Turner, the Moments and Shirley & Company. She also recorded hits of her own: “Pillow Talk,” a lubricious number she had unsuccessfully demoed for Al Green, leaped to No. 1 on the R&B chart (and No. 3 on the pop list) in 1973. Over the next decade, she would cut 11 more R&B chart singles.
By the late ’70s, the Robinsons’ label All Platinum — which for a time controlled the Chess Records catalog — was in serious financial trouble. In 1979 the couple started another imprint, Sugar Hill Records, with money borrowed from Roulette Records’ notorious owner Morris Levy. Sylvia took principal control of its talent.
Sugar Hill became a crucible of early rap. Its breakout hit was the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), followed in swift succession by wildly popular 12-inch singles by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Melle Mel, the Treacherous Three, Funky Four Plus One and the West Street Mob (whose members includes the Robinsons’ son, Joey).
Sugar Hill’s reign in rap ended after a distribution deal with MCA Records — brokered by reputed mobster Salvatore Pisello — collapsed in the late ’80s. Rhino Records bought the company’s catalog in 1995. Joe Robinson died in 2000.
Robinson is survived by three sons, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.