Obituary: Don D. Robey, R&B Pioneer, Dead at 71

HOUSTON — DON D. Robey, a leading figure in rhythm & blues and gospel recordings in the Fifties and Sixties, died early Monday, June 16th, in Houston, following a sudden heart attack. He was 71 and is survived by his wife and seven children.

He headed one of the first black-owned operations in the music business. An independent, Robey built a recording and publishing empire from scratch that, through his Duke, Peacock, Songbird and Backbeat labels, was instrumental in exposing R&B and gospel to a broader listening audience. His Songbird label was also well known for its extensive catalog, including acts like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Robey was already a successful Houston area promoter and owned a string of black nightclubs when he stumbled into recording in late 1949. He had booked Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown into his Bronze Peacock Club on the recommendation of T-Bone Walker, but needed a record to hype his appearance. Brown, at the time under contract to Alladin Records, didn’t have a current release so Robey took him to a local studio, made his own record and issued it on the label named in honor of his nightclub. The following year another Robey production, ‘Our Father’, by the original Five Blind Boys, memorable for its bloodcurdling scream, became popular. Robey was on his way.

In 1952 he acquired Duke, a Memphis-based company. With it came the meat of his rhythm & blues in the persons of balladeer Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Johnny Otis and a gravel-voiced young singer who had formed the longest and tightest relationship with Robey — Bobby “Blue” Bland. In an era when “R&B music was felt to be degrading and not to be heard by respectable people,” as Robey told Arnold Shaw in the book The World of Soul, Robey carefully cultivated an uptown, high-roller image for his artists — typified by flashy clothing, gold-capped teeth and prominent displays of jewelry — to match their urbane Big Band sound.

Although Duke/Peacock earned only six gold records for sales, its impact was felt in many facets of popular music, where it continues to influence a wide range of performers. Robey is credited with discovering Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who cut the original version of ‘Hound Dog’ for Peacock. The song later sold over six million copies for Elvis Presley. Presley also covered Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ early in his career. For a brief period in the mid-Fifties Robey also had Little Richard signed to Peacock as a member of the Tempo Toppers, selling moderately with ‘Ain’t That Good News?’ and ‘Rice, Red Beans and Cabbage Greens’.

He ran his business with an iron fist and controversy followed Robey throughout his career. Evelyn Johnson, his closest business associate who had been with him “from the very first day,” conceded Robey was “like a volcano. He just erupted. Sometimes he moved first and thought later.” Walter Andrus, who engineered many of the Parker and Bland sessions in Houston, said, “He was just like a character out of Guys and Dolls. You had to see him to believe him. He’d have a bunch of heavy guys around him all the time, carrying pistols and that kind of stuff, like a czar of the Negro underworld.”

Robey wrote few, if any, of the songs credited to him in his publishing firms and is said to have exerted strong control over his artists. Robey was nearby when Johnny Ace, following a Christmas Eve show in Houston’s City Auditorium in 1954, walked backstage and reputedly blew his brains out in a game of Russian roulette.

Following the trend of major companies absorbing the independents, Robey sold his record and publishing interests to ABC/Dunhill in May 1973 for a reported one million dollars. The transaction reflected sagging sales and was partly a result of expenses incurred from lengthy court litigations with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. The final decision was made in Chess’s favor. Robey continued working for ABC as a consultant prior to his death.

© Joe Nick PatoskiRolling Stone, 31 July 1975

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