Los Angeles vocal group the Robins are best remembered today as the forerunner of the Coasters, though their own record of hits was substantial in its own right. What's more, their history is a lot more complicated than most fans of the Coasters are aware, and can be divided into two key phases. The Robins' roots go back to Alameda High School in San Francisco, in 1945. That year, tenor Terrell Leonard (aka Ty Terrell) joined with baritone siblings Billy Richards and Roy Richards to form what was known originally as the A-Sharp Trio, doing repertoire that showed the distinct influence of the Golden Gate Quartet, the Nat King Cole Trio, and the Delta Rhythm Boys, among other established harmony groups of the period. They moved to Los Angeles and found lots of work in the area around Watts, but their first break came when they placed second in a competition at the Barrelhouse Club, owned by bandleader Johnny Otis, who hired them to perform on weekends. It was at the Barrelhouse Club that they crossed paths with bass/baritone Bobby Nunn, who did odd jobs around the place in between singing, waiting for his break. That moment came when Otis thought to turn the trio into a quartet, and see if they couldn't cut in on some of the audience that was coalescing around the rival group the Ravens.
Terrell, the Richards brothers, and Nunn thus initially became the Four Bluebirds (a name chosen by Otis) and cut one side under that name (backed by an Otis side), entitled "My Baby Done Told Me," for the Excelsior label early in 1949. The quartet discarded the Bluebirds name soon after, and at its second recording session -- this time for Aladdin Records -- in May of 1949, the group was known as the Robins. The first Robins single, "Around About Midnight" b/w "You Sure Look Good To Me", appeared in June of 1949. A second Aladdin single, "Don't Like The Way You're Doing" b/w "Come Back Baby," showed up just a couple of weeks later. They were next signed to the Savoy label, along with the rest of Otis' performing outfit, which resulted in a series of releases that included Johnny Otis playing with them and their appearance on the single "Double Crossin' Blues" backing his lead singer Esther Jones (aka Little Esther). The latter record went on to become one of Savoy's biggest sellers. In the meantime, the first Savoy single actually credited to the Robins, "If I Didn't Love You So" b/w "If It's So Baby," showed up in December of 1949. They cut a huge number of singles for Savoy in 1950, some credited to the group and others released as Johnny Otis, Little Esther, and Mel Walker singles (of which, on the latter, they were credited as "the Blue Notes"). Their debut Savoy single was eventually flipped, the upbeat "If It's So Baby" replacing the bluesier original A-side as the "play" side, and peaked at number ten on the R&B charts, the group's first national chart placement. To add to the promise they seemed to enjoy that year, "Double Crossin' Blues" became an even bigger hit, rising all the way to the top spot on the R&B charts.
It seemed as though the Robins were on their way. And then, suddenly, in the spring of 1950, their first string of success came to a halt. They had approached Johnny Otis about the amount of money they were getting, and Otis responded by firing the Robins from his show, on the eve of what would have been their first national tour. The Robins were gone from Otis' orbit and their recording contract, but Savoy issued several Robins singles over the ensuing months, thanks to the large stockpile of recordings that they'd left behind; additionally, Bobby Nunn, who had already cut some sides on his own, recorded some singles in the wake of the split. The summer of 1950 saw them pick up their career under a new contract with Dolphin Records, which yielded "Race of Man" b/w "Bayou Baby Blues." Then it was off to the Bihari Brothers' RPM and Modern Records imprints later in the year, where they cut some sides backing Mickey Champion. But it was in 1951, on a session that yielded four songs, that fate took a hand -- one of the numbers they cut was "That's What the Good Book Says," a fairly undistinguished composition that was notable as one of the earliest successful songwriting ventures by a pair of white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The song was relegated to a B-side, and in order to keep the group from overtly running afoul of their Dolphin contract, it was credited to "the Robbins" -- but it did mark the first time that Leiber & Stoller would cross paths with this group professionally.
The quartet became inactive during mid-1951 thanks to the military draft, which caught up with the Richards brothers and Terrell. Bobby Nunn was the only member not in uniform for most of the next year, and he pursued a string of singles under his own name during this hiatus, as well as working with Little Esther on a few sides for Federal. The four originals reunited in late 1952, opening what was essentially the second phase of the group's history, and they did it by adding a fifth member to their ranks, Grady Chapman. His presence, with a second, higher-range tenor voice, extended their upper range considerably and gave the group what was essentially a new sound. The re-formed Robins also gained the services of a new manager, Jack Lewis, who pushed them up into the big time with an RCA Victor recording contract in early 1953. In February of that year, they made their RCA bow with "A Fool Such as I" b/w "My Heart's the Biggest Fool," the latter notable as a group original. The quintet remained with RCA through the end of the year, though their last recording session took place in the fall -- despite several impressive recordings, they never charted with the label. In October of that year, RCA released the Robins' recording of "Ten Days in Jail," a Leiber & Stoller composition that gave a jocular treatment to a subject with some serious undertones, all done to a comic fault; it stood out thanks to the comical yet gritty vocal approach of the group, and released as an RCA Victor single it did fairly well.
But Leiber & Stoller, like a lot of songwriters in that era, found themselves cut out of a big chunk of their rightful royalties, an experience that led them to protect themselves in the future by forming their own publishing company and, in tandem with the latter, their own record label, Spark Records, with veteran record company man Lester Sill as the third partner in the company. The Robins had bounced from RCA back to the Bihari Brothers, this time to the Modern label imprint Crown Records, through which they released a handful of sides in 1954. It was during this period that they added a new member, tenor Carl Gardner -- it seems that Grady Chapman had become unreliable, owing to some personal and legal situations, and wasn't always a certain bet to be available, and Gardner came aboard as insurance that they would have at least five voices at their shows (and when Chapman did make it, there were six, which was even better). Finally, in the spring of 1954, the group was once more between contracts and when Leiber & Stoller approached them -- having had a good experience working with them before, and seeing some potential for a serious future with the group -- and wanted the Robins signed to Spark, and the group was willing. And they hit the second time at bat for Spark with "Riot in Cell Block #9," a more outrageously comical and over the top treatment of the theme that had worked so well with "Ten Days in Jail," complete with machine-gun sound effects -- the two producers, however, replaced Bobby Nunn as lead singer on the track with a guest vocalist, Richard Berry, later of "Louie, Louie" fame.
The group followed this up with the similarly themed "Framed," which seemed to click with everyone who heard it. The problem for Leiber & Stoller, partner Lester Sill, and the Robins, however, was that Spark had no reliable national distribution or promotion; as a result, their releases, good as they were, simply weren't seeing the sales that they should have, or making the charts. The recording of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" in the summer of 1954 brought matters to a head, and also gave the two producers a song that they could parlay into something much bigger than Spark Records was ever going to be. Leiber & Stoller had already piled up impressive credits as songwriters with the Big Mama Thornton hit "Hound Dog," and in mid-1954 Nesuhi Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records with his brother Ahmet Ertegun, approached them about licensing "Smokey Joe's Cafe" for release on Atlantic's Atco imprint. As a result, the record appeared on both the Spark and Atco labels, peaking at number 79 nationally on the pop charts and number ten on the R&B charts. It seemed as though the Robins were finally breaking through somewhere beyond Los Angeles, and that's when matters got complicated.
Spark was already attracting attention from major labels, and at one point it seemed as though Decca Records was going to be buying out Leiber & Stoller and Sill. But the Spark owners and Decca's management were never able to nail down a final agreement, and in 1955 it was Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records who came knocking on Leiber & Stoller and Sill's corporate door. Ertegun and producer Jerry Wexler (who was a partner in Atlantic) loved what they heard in the Robins' music and saw in the future of Leiber & Stoller, and offered the duo a contract with Atlantic and a buyout of Spark Records' entire existing library. Leiber & Stoller would function as independent producers, a first in the business -- they would have a legal partnership as producers and songwriters, but they would be under the Atlantic umbrella. A deal was made that would soon turn Leiber & Stoller into wunderkinds within the record industry, but the Robins weren't in quite so cooperative a mood. For starters, signing with Atlantic would mean moving to the East Coast, and none of the members -- mostly long transplanted from the South and Texas to California -- were in a hurry to make that move. Also complicating matters greatly was the fact -- according to historian Marv Goldberg -- that Terrell had taken it upon himself to register a copyright in the Robins' name himself. In the end, he and the Richards brothers refused to sign with Atlantic.
Chapman was apparently out of the picture at that moment, and so their decision left Gardner -- the newest member of the group -- and co-founder Nunn as the only members that Leiber & Stoller and Atlantic had to work with, and even Gardner wasn't with them at first. He initially stayed on with Terrell and the Richards brothers, but Leiber & Stoller were able to convince him to shift his alliance to Nunn -- so the producers had two singers without a group name that they could use legally. They ended up recruiting Leon Hughes and Billy Guy and forming the Coasters, signing with Atlantic, and going on to years of success (that were still continuing as the first decade of the new millennium drew to a close with Gardner coaching a performing version of the group that included his son, Carl Gardner, Jr.). Meanwhile, the Robins had hardly ceased to exist -- they had a record of hits that people remembered well, especially on the West Coast. Terrell and the Richards signed with Whippet Records and got one especially promising single out, entitled "Cherry Lips," which ultimately failed to chart. They continued performing on the West Coast for years, recording intermittently, with Grady Chapman handling the leads. After their Whippet contract ended in 1957, they moved on to the Imperial Records subsidiary Knight Records the following year, but late in 1958 Grady Chapman left. He was replaced by Bobby Sheen, and with him as lead singer they later recorded for Arvee Records and Lavender Records, continuing into the early '60s. They cut their last two records, "White Cliffs of Dover" b/w "How Many More Times and "Magic of a Dream" b/w "Mary Lou Loves to Hootchy Kootchy Coo," for the latter label in 1961. ~ Bruce Eder