BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of rock’s most versatile and accomplished characters, male or female, her career spanned half a century during which time she achieved success as a solo singer, part of an iconic duo, writing and producing records for others, running multiple record labels and founding and overseeing the first label to specialize in hip-hop, scoring the first commercial hit with a rap song.

Born Sylvia Vanterpool in 1935 she recorded her debut just after turning 15 alongside jazz legend Hot Lips Page for Columbia Records, already displaying a strong sense of character in her vocals. A second single credited to her alone followed before she moved on to Savoy where she recorded as Little Sylvia, yet never accentuated her youth as a gimmick. Her early records, though solid, failed to click and determined to have a lasting career she looked to diversify her talents and began taking guitar lessons from Mickey Baker, one of the top rock session players in the business. She was a quick study and with her vocal ability and dazzling looks they realized there was a lot of potential in a partnership, following in the footsteps of Les Paul and Mary Ford who’d been huge selling pop stars for a number of years featuring Ford’s alluring vocals and Paul’s inventive playing.

Paired on a number of labels the two of them formed a striking duo, each wielding guitars while Sylvia handled bulk of the lead vocals but with Mickey’s harmonies and occasional lead lines thrown in. In late 1956 they hit big with a re-worked version of a song written by Bo Diddley and his sideman Jody Williams called “Love Is Strange” which became one of the iconic songs of the late 1950’s. Subsequent records may not have matched its sales but they were impressive work which showed their expanding production ideas coming to fruition.

In 1960 Sylvia, who’d first altered the spelling of her name to Vanderpool, then married Joseph Robinson in 1959 and took his last name, found herself producing the breakthrough hit for Ike & Tina Turner, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” with Baker taking the spoken male responses to Tina’s singing, while Sylvia was the one who played lead guitar. Her subsequent work with Baker failed to draw much notice and they split their partnership by 1965 upon which time Sylvia and her husband had begun their own record label, All Platinum Records, which began the second and most successful phase of her career, writing and producing hits for The Moments, old friend Shirley Goodman (of 50’s duo Shirley & Lee), The Whatnauts and Retta Young among others.

In 1972 she’d written a song called “Pillow Talk” and sent it to Al Green, then at the height of his popularity with a soft love-themed soul sound, but the deeply religious Green felt it was too racy for him and so Sylvia recorded it herself and got a #1 R&B hit and a Top Three Pop hit out of it, re-launching her then-dormant singing career. More hits followed but before long she’d turned her attention to another new label, Sugar Hill Records, and upon hearing the early strains of rap at a birthday party where someone was rapping over a record she immediately saw the commercial potential in the concept and gathered three aspiring rappers, put them together as The Sugarhill Gang and released “Rapper’s Delight”, the first rap hit.

The label’s biggest coup was signing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five with Melle Mel whose work she produced, urging them to write a socially relevant descriptive record which turned into “The Message”, widely acclaimed as the greatest rap song of all-time while the group The Funky Four + 1 featured the first female MC in Sharon “Sha Rock” Green whose legendary “That’s The Joint” was co-written by Robinson.

With hip-hop established the field became far too deep for one label to dominate for long and by the mid-80’s their heyday was over the company folded. But Robinson’s legacy was long since established, as an artist and songwriter, as well as the first prominent female guitarist in rock and first female producer. Her musical instincts were uncanny and her business sense matched it. With the looks of a model and the brains of CEO and notable accomplishments in every walk of the industry Sylvia Robinson’s legacy is all but unmatched in rock ‘n’ roll.

She passed away in 2011 at the age of 76, forever to be known as The Mother Of Hip-Hop, but that was just one small part of a much deeper and more diverse career spanning all of rock’s first half century of revolutionary achievements.
 

SYLVIA VANDERPOOL ROBINSON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

PACIFYING BLUES
(Columbia 30220; August, 1950)
Though just a few weeks after her fifteenth birthday, Sylvia sounds remarkably mature, not just due to the sexualized content but also her intuitive grasp at how to create a distinct persona as she spars with Hot Lips Page while the music rocks out in the sax break. (7)

CHOCOLATE CANDY BLUES
(Columbia 30220; August, 1950)
Despite some racy double entendres the premise itself doesn’t work as the lines are too silly to be believable and with only a good Seldon Powell sax solo to give it some life there’s not much Sylvia can do to rescue this even though she tries her best. (3)

SHARP LITTLE SISTER
(Columbia 30227; September, 1950)
Another mature turn by the 15 year old singer who overcomes a few weakly written lines by injecting the right attitude into the song which gets helped further by some really solid support from the band, their hard-charging vibe meshing well with her sassiness. (7)