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Anna Robinson

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Most of what we know about Anna Robinson comes from Bass Lines, the autobiography of bassist Milt Hinton, who remembers her as "Ann Robinson." Hinton landed in New York during the late 1920s, and met her when she was living in a swank apartment on Sugar Hill, in a neighborhood largely populated by successful Afro-American entertainers. Robinson, who at the time was employed by the Cotton Club as a dancer in a group billed as the Three Rhythm Queens, appears to have been a strikingly outspoken and sexually liberated woman. Hinton recalls visiting her at home where she thought nothing of receiving visitors in the nude while smoking marijuana and singing along with phonograph records. She appears to have been a tough, joyous, anarchic libertine. Perhaps her way of life has something to do with the sketchiness of her available history. Information regarding exact dates is almost completely absent. After the end of the run at the Cotton Club, her next regular gig involved appearing as a solo act at Monroe's Uptown House, where she danced less and focused more on comedic singing. According to Hinton, Robinson wrote original tunes and also had a way of composing "clever hip lyrics" which she set to established standard popular melodies. (This procedure would later become known during the '50s and '60s as vocalese, a style most famously demonstrated by King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.) Hinton specifically noticed how "Nat Cole and a couple of other stars recorded a few of her tunes" long afterwards, but that she did not receive credit for her compositions or innovative ideas. Hinton also remembered "show business people from downtown" visiting Monroe's seeking "fresh material for their own acts." He insisted that Martha Raye actually based some of her routines on Robinson's material. Hinton also compared the two women saying that both were dancers with unusually wide mouths, who incorporated this physical characteristic into their comedic performances. Sometime during the late '30s, Robinson performed her own songs as a star in some sort of "New Faces" revue, about which nothing more has been discovered. She also made a couple of three-minute records on March 9, 1939 with Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra, a band whose members included Henry Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, and Sid Catlett. The other vocalist on the date was Ruby Smith. Johnson's "Hungry Blues," a song from the short-lived pro-labor stage show De Organizer, had poignant anti-racist lyrics by Langston Hughes. Robinson's method of handling this politically outspoken opus was powerful, gutsy, and hauntingly bittersweet. "Harlem Woogie" preserved for all of time the rowdy, "party animal" aspect of Anna Robinson. She lashed out with guttural scatting and turned a hot record into a fairly twisted display of raucous, wild abandon. Aside from a second version of "Hungry Blues" recorded June 15, 1939, this is apparently all that survives of Anna Robinson on record. Hinton claimed to have assembled a band and backed her up as she sang her original tunes on her own recording session "at one point in the mid-forties," but he wasn't aware of what became of those discs, and doubted that they had ever been issued to the public. The rest of her story is grim; Robinson became addicted to heroin, stopped performing but continued to sell her songs, caring not at all if she'd ever receive composer credits or royalties, but only looking for cash in order to finance her habit. Anna Robinson was murdered in an alley behind her Harlem apartment building in a homicide apparently linked to the underground narcotics trade. Someone cut her throat and left her there to die. The rest is silence.

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Years Active:

'20s, '30s