Even in the jazz genre, which is full of musicians who show legendary devotion to their art, the story of tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson stands out. His full-time career as a musician essentially began when he was 51 years old. Pursuing his career in his adopted country of England, Robinson gained recognition as an elegant, lyrical exponent of the styles of the 1950s golden age of jazz saxophone. In the words of a writer for the All About Jazz website, "Spike Robinson was the last of a breed—an unassuming, unpretentious, gentle and amicable traveling tenor troubadour who had his share of demons but basically no other aim than to play his horn and give pleasure through a melodic gift that could never be taught."
Spike Robinson was born Henry Berthold Robinson on January 16, 1930, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He showed musical ability early, starting out on the clarinet and the now-unfamiliar C-melody saxophone. He had a strict but effective teacher who would let a one-dollar lesson stretch out to three hours, sometimes hitting Robinson on the knuckles with a flyswatter when he made a mistake. Robinson's skills developed quickly, and he considered a career as a classical clarinetist. On the jazz side, he memorized the solos of clarinetist Benny Goodman. He was already earning money in his early teens by playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and he honed his skills on alto and baritone saxophones in his high school band. By his mid-teens, with World War II in full swing, he was finding plenty of club work. "You could work all night long," he was quoted as saying in London's Daily Telegraph. "I'd paint on a moustache and wear a hat, to look older than I was, so I could get into dives."
In 1947 Robinson headed for Chicago but found the jazz scene in decline, the few available jobs snatched up by musicians returning from military service. After a brief homeless period during which he survived by eating candy bars and sleeping in all-night theaters, he joined the United States Navy himself. It proved to be a good musical decision. Robinson was posted to England, serving in a Navy detachment assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Several ensembles of military musicians were organized to play at official functions, and better still, those functions were few and far between. "Admiral Connolly was a lovely old man," Robinson recalled (as quoted in the London Independent). "He'd get horribly seasick any time he put his foot aboard a ship, even in dock. So he flew everywhere. And we flew everywhere, just a day ahead of him. We got all around Europe and North Africa. We were only gone at most four days a month and the rest of the time we did nothing."
With plenty of time on his hands, Robinson immersed himself in London's modern jazz scene, which was then in its infancy. He heard the radical innovations of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker coming from across the Atlantic and, realizing the futility of trying to duplicate them, settled on the tenor sax instead. Robinson appeared with London's Jazz Club Eleven as its only American member, and recorded with British jazz percussionist Victor Feldman and other local players. He pushed his luck too far, however, when he appeared at the widely publicized Swing Sessions held at the London Palladium and directed by bandleader Ted Heath. Since Robinson wasn't a member of the local musicians' union, that union filed a complaint with U.S. military authorities, and Robinson spent the rest of his tour of duty in Naples, Italy.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1952, Robinson was disturbed by the increase in drug use among musicians and frightened when he heard that some of his friends had been killed or sidelined by substance abuse. Newly married and soon the father of two, he decided to begin a career as an engineer. Financing studies at the Colorado College of Engineering by working variously as a roofer, life insurance salesman, and gas station attendant, he landed a job with the Chrysler Corporation and moved to Detroit to earn a master's degree in engineering at the University of Detroit, at Chrysler's expense. When he could, he continued to perform at parties, using an $80 Martin tenor saxophone he had bought secondhand. He continued to use the instrument until it was stolen from his car in Britain in 1998.
Robinson worked as a missile engineer at Cape Canaveral in Florida and later as a manager for the Honeywell Corporation in Denver, all the while trying to find room for music in his life. In 1964 he opened a jazz club near Boulder, Colorado, calling it Spike Robinson's Terrace Inn, but it failed badly and left him in debt for several years. He continued to perform around Denver, but touring was out of the question. In 1980 he recorded a new album with Victor Feldman.
Finally, in 1981, he decided it was now or never. Flying to Los Angeles, he hired musicians and released the album Spike Robinson Plays Harry Warren, entirely at his own expense. The album didn't set the world on fire, but it gained airplay on jazz radio shows and put Robinson's lyrical style in the ears of club bookers once more. After a few more years of trying to combine work and music, Robinson took early retirement, and at age 55 became a full-time jazz player for the first time. He never became a star, but neither did he have any regrets. "Maybe I'm on some railroad station in north Germany," he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph. "I've missed the train. I'm cold and wet and I've got a hangover. I'm sorry for myself. And then I remember that I could be in a quality-control meeting at Honeywell, and suddenly I feel a whole lot better."
A serious Anglophile who loved the often-mysterious-to-Americans game of cricket, Robinson moved to England permanently in 1989. He threw himself into a hectic round of touring in England, Spain, and France, but his new career was almost sidelined right at the start. He collapsed in Bordeaux, France, after a bout with meningitis, and suffered complications that led to tuberculosis of the brain. It was assumed that he would never play again, but he was cared for by his British agent, Susan May, and recovered. The two later married. On a trip to New York he fell and broke two ribs, suffering lung damage. Reprieved for a second time from the threat of death, Robinson remained busy for the rest of his life.
For most of the 1990s he recorded two albums a year, many of them for the Scotland-based Hep label. With a sound that resembled that of Stan Getz and other saxophone giants, yet had a distinctive elegance of its own, Robinson found plenty of work. Scott Yanow of All Music Guide called him "just about the last major tenor stylist who played in the Four Brothers' cool-toned style popularized by Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn," and to many listeners he was a true jazz survivor. His final recording, The CTS Session, was made in 1998 but not released until 2005, after his death. He also returned home to Kenosha in 1998. On October 29, 2001, Robinson died at his home in Writtle, in England's Essex county.
For the Record …
Born Henry Berthold Robinson on January 16, 1930, in Kenosha, WI; died October 29, 2001, in Writtle, Essex, United Kingdom; married twice; second wife's name, Susan May; two children from first marriage. Education: Attended Colorado College of Engineering; University of Detroit, master's degree in engineering, late 1950s.
Began performing in teens; performed in England while in U.S. Navy, 1948-52; worked as roof repairman, gas station attendant, and insurance salesman while studying engineering; worked as engineer for Chrysler Corp., Highland Park, MI, and in Cape Canaveral, FL; operated Spike Robinson's Terrace Inn, near Boulder, CO, 1964; Honeywell Corp., Denver, CO, manager, 1970s; recorded Spike Robinson Plays Harry Warren, 1981; played jazz full-time, mostly in UK, mid-1980s-2001.
Spike Robinson Plays Harry Warren, Musicraft; reissued, Hep, 1981.
At Chester's, vols. 1 and 2, Hep, 1984.
London Reprise, Capri, 1984.
In Town, Hep, 1986.
Henry B. Meets Alvin G.: Once in a Wild, Capri, 1988.
Just a Bit o' Blues, vols. 1 and 2, Capri, 1988.
Three for the Road, Hep, 1989.
Stairway to the Stars, Hep, 1990.
Reminiscin', Capri, 1991.
Real Corker, Capri, 1991.
Nice Work, Capri, 1995.
Gershwin Collection, Hep, 1995.
Tenor Madness, Castle, 1997.
The CTS Session, Hep, 2005 (recorded 1998).
Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, England), April 9, 1999, p. 52.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), November 2, 2001.
Independent (London, England), October 31, 2001, p. 6.
New York Times, November 5, 2001, p. F7.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), November 6, 2001, p. 16.
"The CTS Session," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=23673 (October 2, 2007).
"Spike Robinson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 2, 2007).
—James M. Manheim
"Robinson, Spike." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-spike
"Robinson, Spike." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/robinson-spike
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