This week we’re featuring artists from classic Soul Train performances.
Sylvia Robinson (née Vanterpool; May 29, 1935 – September 29, 2011) was an American singer, musician, record producer, and record label executive. Robinson was best known for her work as founder/CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records. Robinson is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre; “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, and “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; which caused her to be dubbed “The Mother of Hip–Hop”. Robinson received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and being the founder of Sugarhill Records at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000. Robinson died of congestive heart failure on September 29, 2011 at age 76.
In 1954, she began teaming up with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker, who then taught her how to play guitar. In 1956, the duo now known as Mickey & Sylvia, recorded the Bo Diddley and Jody Williams-penned rock single, “Love Is Strange,” which topped the R&B charts and reached number eleven on the Billboard pop charts in early 1957. After several more releases including the modestly successful “There Oughta Be a Law”, Mickey & Sylvia split up in 1959 and she later married Joseph Robinson. Sylvia restarted her solo career shortly after her initial split from Baker, first under the name Sylvia Robbins. In 1961, the duo reunited and recorded more songs together for various labels including their own Willow Records distributed by King Records of Cincinnati. They are most noted during this period for singing background on Ike & Tina Turner’s hit single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”. In 1964, frustrated with the music business, Baker moved to Paris.
In 1966, the Robinsons moved to New Jersey where they formed a soul music label, All Platinum Records, the following year, with artist Lezli Valentine, formerly of the Jaynettes, bringing the label its first hit with “I Won’t Do Anything”. In 1968, the duo signed a Washington, D.C. act named The Moments, who immediately found success with “Not on the Outside”. Within a couple of years and with a new lineup, the group scored their biggest hit with “Love on a Two-Way Street”(1970), which Sylvia co-wrote and produced with Bert Keyes and (uncredited) lyrics by Lezli Valentine. Other hits on the label and its subsidiaries, including Stang and Vibration, included Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” (1975), The Moments’ “Sexy Mama” and “Look at Me (I’m in Love)”, and the Whatnauts/Moments collaboration, “Girls”. Robinson co-wrote and produced many of the tracks, although later she was supported by two members of The Moments, Al Goodman and Harry Ray, as well as locally based producers, George Kerr and Nate Edmonds.
In 1972, Robinson sent a demo of a song she had written called “Pillow Talk” to Al Green. When Green passed on it due to his religious beliefs, Robinson decided to record it herself, returning to her own musical career. Billed simply as Sylvia, the record became a major hit, reaching number-one on the R&B chart and crossing over to reach Billboard Hot 100 (#3), while also reaching #14 in the UK at the beginning of 1973. She was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973. “Pillow Talk”‘s subtly orgasmic gasps and moans predated those of “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer. Robinson recorded four solo albums on the Vibration subsidiary and had other R&B hits including “Sweet Stuff” and “Pussy Cat”. “Pillow Talk” was a soulful medium dance number.
Sugar Hill Records
In the 1970s, the Robinsons founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem, an affluent African American neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid-1900s. The song “Rapper’s Delight”(1979), performed by The Sugar Hill Gang, brought rap into the public music arena and revolutionized the music industry by introducing rap, scratch, and breakdance. Later acts signed to Sugar Hill Records included all-female rap/funk group The Sequence, featuring a teenage Angie Stone (recording as “Angie B”), who had a million-selling hit in early 1980 with “Funk U Up”. Sugar Hill folded in 1985, due to changes in the music industry, the competition of other hip-hop labels, such as Profile and Def Jam and also financial pressures. Robinson, who had by now divorced Joe Robinson, continued her efforts as a music executive, forming Bon Ami Records in 1987. The label was noted for signing the act The New Style, who later left and found success as Naughty by Nature.
Robinson was married to businessman Joseph Robinson Sr. (1932–2000) from May 1959 until his death in 2000. Together they had three children, sons Joseph “Joey” Robinson Jr. (1962–2015),[2 Leland Robinson (b. 1965 or 1966) and Rhondo “Scutchie” Robinson (1970–2014). Robinson owned a bar in Harlem, New York named “Joey’s Place” after her husband in the 1960s. Robinson also owned another New York bar and nightclub named the Blue Morocco during the mid–1960s.
Death and future biopic
Robinson died on the morning of September 29, 2011, aged 76, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey from congestive heart failure. On August 19, 2014, The Hollywood Reporter reported that producer Paula Wagner had acquired the rights to the life story of Sylvia Robinson, the influential rap pioneer and producer known as the “Mother of Hip-Hop.” Wagner acquired the rights from Robinson’s son, Joey Robinson (now deceased), who was scheduled to executive produce and serve as a consultant on the project along with rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel. Music executive Robert Kraft will co-produce the film along with Stephanie Allain. The film will cover Sylvia Robinson’s four-decade career in the music business, her turbulent love life and the mark she made on popular culture at a defining moment in the evolution of hip-hop.
In a statement, Wagner says Robinson’s life story has all the elements of a great film, “It is not only the story of female empowerment at a time when the world of music was male-dominated, but it’s also a story of the origin of hip-hop and how this woman’s determination, immense talent and savvy business sense fostered an entire musical movement.” Joey Robinson said of his mother and father, Sugar Hill Records co-founders, and of the upcoming film, “This movie is going to show how my parents were able to remain independent, keep control of their publishing and master recordings and how they later dealt with the major record labels and mob associates. Sugar Hill paved the way for a new genre of music that the industry had no knowledge of back in 1979. You will see the struggles of what Sugar Hill went through to keep hip-hop music alive when the industry wanted to bury it.”On October 21, 2015, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Warner Bros. had picked up the untitled Sylvia Robinson story, and that Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez – the writers on the hit Fox TV show, Empire – had been tapped to tell the story of Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill Records