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Robinson, Sylvia

Sylvia Robinson

Singer, record label executive

Entrepreneur Sylvia Robinson didn't create hip-hop music, but she may have done more than any single individual to carve out a space for it in the musical marketplace. It was Robinson's Sugar Hill label that first put hip-hop music on records, and in 1979 she brought together the musicians who created the piece that gave hip-hop music its name, the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Robinson actually played bass on that recording, and years earlier she had made a name as a performer herself: "Love Is Strange," which Robinson and guitarist Mickey Baker recorded as Mickey & Sylvia, was a familiar pop hit of the late 1950s, and Robinson's own "Pillow Talk" helped kick off the disco era in 1973.

Robinson was born Sylvia Vanderpool on March 6, 1936, in New York City. By the time she enrolled at Washington Irving High School she was already singing music in the new rhythm-and-blues genre, and she attracted the attention of a Columbia Records staffer. She made her first record when she was 14, backed by the veteran jazz trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page, and through the early 1950s she recorded, sometimes as Little Sylvia, for a variety of small labels including Savoy and Cat. Robinson then met session guitarist Mickey (McHouston) Baker, one of the key instrumentalists of early rhythm-and-blues, and the two began working together musically as Mickey & Sylvia.

In 1956 Mickey & Sylvia were signed to RCA and released "Love Is Strange," a catchy song with a humorous seduction dialogue between the two vocalists. Written by rock-and-roll guitarist Bo Diddley but credited to his wife, Ethel Smith, the song came to Mickey & Sylvia via Diddley's lead guitarist Jody Williams (who played lead guitar on their recording) after the Chess label rejected Diddley's own plans to recording the song. "Love Is Strange" was a hit on both rhythm-and-blues and pop charts, and artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to the zany country family group the Maddox Brothers & Rose later covered the song.

Mickey & Sylvia lasted until 1961, creating other moderate hits such as "There Ought to Be a Law" and "Baby You're So Fine." They also backed the rising R&B duo of Ike & Tina Tuner on 1961's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine." Nothing on the level of "Love Is Strange" surfaced, however, and in 1962 Baker departed for France to begin a career as an expatriate blues musician. Two years later Sylvia married Joseph Robinson, a real estate agent. He gave up his career to become her manager, but retained his salesman's attitude, telling interviewers, according to the London Independent, that "music is music; what I try to do is to get it played and sell it."

The Robinsons settled in Englewood, New Jersey, and opened their new All Platinum record label in 1967 or 1968. With their own in-house recording studio, Soul Sound Studios, they were well positioned to take advantage of the growing soul market. The label did well enough to launch several subsidiaries, including Stang and Turbo, and several All Platinum releases, including the chart-topping Moments' smash "Love on a Two-Way Street" (1970), became major hits. Sylvia Robinson co-wrote that ballad with Bert Keyes.

Perhaps All Platinum's most successful release, however, featured Sylvia Robinson herself on vocals. The steamy "Pillow Talk" (1973), released on the Vibration imprint with Robinson once again billed simply as Sylvia, anticipated the sensuality of the disco era, with Sylvia's breathy seductive vocals and her assertion that "it takes two to tangle." The song was awarded a gold record (for sales of 500,000 copies), and it remained a standard presence on compilations of 1970s music for years afterward. Robinson recorded a new album, Sylvia, in 1976.

By the end of the decade, the hits had dried up, leaving All Platinum in dire financial straits. The company had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when Robinson was taken for her birthday to the New York club Harlem World in 1979. "I was sitting there and saw children out on the floor dancing, and this guy was talking over the records. Anything he said made them go crazy," Robinson recalled to Steve Jones of USA Today. What Robinson was witnessing was an early stage of the rap phenomenon, with a DJ improvising rhymes over instrumental mixes of dance recordings and perhaps manipulating the recordings themselves inventively. "All of a sudden, a voice said to me, 'If you put a concept like that on wax, you'll be out of all the trouble you're in," Robinson told Jones.

That summer Robinson encountered the new music once again. In an Englewood pizzeria she heard Henry Jackson, known as Big Bank Hank, rapping over the music playing on the restaurant's sound system. Robinson asked him if he wanted to record. "He was the manager of the store, but he left the parlor with his apron on," Robinson told Noam S. Cohen of the New York Times. "There was flour all over." Jackson was quickly teamed with two other local rappers, high school student Master Gee and flower salesman Wonder Mike, and the Sugarhill Gang was born. The group was named for the Robinsons' new label, Sugar Hill, which in turn was named for an elegant section of New York's Harlem neighborhood. The label was partly bankrolled by former Roulette Records owner Morris Levy, a cutthroat veteran of the New York recording scene.

In Robinson's studio, the Sugarhill Gang recorded the hip-hop genre's debut 12-inch single, "Rapper's Delight." That 15-minute record, which gave hip-hop its name (those syllables appeared repeatedly in nonsense rhymes near the song's beginning), proved wildly successful, at one point selling 96,000 copies in a single day on the way to an estimated sales total of eight million. The instrumental backing track of the record was based on Chic's dance hit "Good Times," but the sampling impulse preceded the technical development of the concept: the "Good Times" music was performed by live musicians, with Sylvia Robinson herself playing bass. Within a few months of the release of "Rapper's Delight" in October of 1979, the Sugarhill Gang was opening for the high-flying funk band Funkadelic and appearing in Europe, and Robinson was keeping watch over a 24-hour-a-day production schedule at Sugar Hill.

The Sugarhill Gang followed up "Rapper's Delight" with several more successful singles, including "8th Wonder," and Robinson and her husband signed several more talented rappers to their new label. These included the all-female South Carolina-born trio the Sequence, with a member calling herself "Angie B," who later went on to R&B stardom under the name Angie Stone. Other artists in the Sugar Hill stable included Funky 4+1, Spoonie Gee and, most important, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose brutally realistic "The Message" and pioneering sampling-and-scratching essay "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" gained wide popular and critical attention.

For Sugar Hill's youthful artists, Robinson played the role of mentor. "Even beyond the records, she groomed us as an act," Grandmaster Flash rapper Melle Mel told Steve Jones. Sugar Hill notched another success with the emergence of the Washington, D.C.-based band Trouble Funk, but by the mid-1980s the label faced heavy competition. A distribution deal with the large MCA label dissolved in an acrimonious lawsuit, and Robinson's long run of hitmaking was over. Rights to the Sugar Hill catalog were sold to the Rhino label in 1995.

Robinson faced other problems in her later years. In 1999 she launched a lawsuit against Blaze magazine, contending that the publication had unfairly accused her of cheating Sugar Hill artists out of their proper royalties. Joseph Robinson died in the year 2000, and she was reportedly devastated by a fire that leveled the historic Sugar Hill studios in 2002. But The Vibe History of Hip-Hop and other accounts of hip-hop's early days were beginning to take note of her pioneering role, rooted in decades of involvement with the African-American popular musical scene.

For the Record …

Born Sylvia Vanderpool on March 6, 1936, in New York, NY; married Joseph Robinson; children: Leland and Joseph Jr. Education: Attended Washington Irving High School, New York.

Recorded as part of duo Mickey & Sylvia, 1956-62; with Joseph Robinson, founded All Platinum label, c. 1967; recorded hit "Pillow Talk," 1973; with Robinson, founded Sugar Hill label and pioneered the idea of recording rap music, 1979; sold Sugar Hill rights to Rhino label, 1995.

Addresses: Home—Englewood, NJ.

Selected discography

Pillow Talk, Vibration, 1973.

Sylvia, Vibration, 1976.

(With Mickey Baker, as Mickey & Sylvia) Love Is Strange: A Golden Classics Edition, Collectables, 1997.

Pillow Talk: The Sensuous Sounds of Sylvia, Rhino, 1996.

Sources

Books

Light, Alan, editor, The Vibe History of Hip Hop, Three Rivers, 1995.

Periodicals

Daily News (New York, NY), March 4, 1999, p. 15.

Independent (London, England), November 20, 2000, p. 6; August 29, 2003, p. 17.

New York Times, June 15, 1997, section 13NJ, p. 4.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), October 12, 2002, p. A1; October 15, 2002, p. A3; November 29, 2004, p. A1.

USA Today, February 11, 1997, p. D6.

Online

"Sylvia Robinson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 21, 2005).

"Sylvia Robinson," Soulwalking, http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Sylvia%20Robinson.html (May 21, 2005).

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