The Robins Biography

This Los Angeles, California, USA-based vocal group was formed in 1947. ‘Ty’ Terrell Leonard (1930, Jackson, Mississippi, USA; tenor) and twins Billy (b. William Gene Richard, 31 January 1928, Crockett, Texas, USA, d. 10 December 2007, Los Angeles, California, USA; baritone) and Roy Richard (b. 11 November 1933, Louisiana, USA, d. 18 October 1978, Orange City, California, USA; baritone) had originally sung together as the A-Sharp Trio, but changed their name to the 4 Bluebirds with the addition of Bobby Nunn (b. Ulysses B. Nunn, 20 September 1925, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, d. 5 November 1986, Los Angeles, California, USA; baritone/bass). This act hooked up with band leader Johnny Otis, when they won second place at a talent contest at his club, The Barrelhouse. After recording a track with Otis and his orchestra for Excelsior Records, they changed their name to the Robins for an Aladdin Records session.

The Robins’ first chart record, in 1950 for Savoy Records, was the mid-tempo ‘If It’s So, Baby’ (number 10 R&B), recorded with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. Its excellent ballad b-side, ‘If I Didn’t Love You So’, received much more airplay in many areas. Otis also used the Robins to back his young prodigy, Little Esther, on the hit ‘Double Crossin’ Blues’ in 1950. The Savoy recordings were made in a bluesy modulated style of the period and did nothing to set apart the Robins from other groups. During 1950-51 the group recorded for the Savoy subsidiary Regent, Modern Records, RPM (as the Nic Nacs, with Mickey Champion as female lead vocalist), and Recorded In Hollywood without notable success. Military service for all the members (bar Nunn) also helped stall their career.

At the start of 1953, the Robins, with the addition of tenor lead Grady Chapman, were signed to RCA Records and came under the production aegis of the up-and-coming songwriting team of Leiber And Stoller. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began radically to transform the Robins into a proto-rock ‘n’ roll group with an exuberant beat-infected sound. No hits resulted on RCA, but in 1954, with a move to Leiber and Stoller’s own Spark label, and with tenor Carl Gardner (b. Carl Edward Gardner, 29 April 1928, Tyler, Texas, USA) having replaced the temporarily indisposed Grady Chapman, the Robins found success with ‘Riot In Cell Block #9’. The song, which used the menacing bass vocal of Richard Berry and machine-gun sound-effects, was one of the most controversial records of 1954. It sold well in California and a few other locales but failed to chart nationally because of poor distribution. The group successfully followed it with another regional hit, ‘Framed’ (1954), and in 1955 hit with ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ (featuring the returned Chapman). Fast-rising independent Atlantic Records took notice of sales in California and assumed distribution, making it a national hit (number 10 R&B) on their Atco Records subsidiary.

On the cusp of great success, the Robins disintegrated at this point, with Gardner and Nunn joining with Billy Guy and Leon Hughes to form the Coasters to record for Atlantic. Under the aegis of producers Leiber And Stoller, the Coasters flourished. The Robins, with newcomer and producer H.B. Barnum (b. Hidle Brown Barnum, USA) and Grady Chapman once more installed as main lead vocalist, continued to record, on Whippet and other labels, albeit unsuccessfully, until breaking up at the end of 1961.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.