The first West Coast rock vocal group of note, their career spanned thirteen years on record and for many of its members they spent the rest of their lives singing together, as they were still appearing on stage in various aggregations into the 21st Century. In spite of this longevity The Robins themselves have over time become mostly glorified footnotes in the careers of two other related acts, that of Johnny Otis as well as The Coasters.

The core members of The Robins were from Oakland, California and got their start while still in school as a trio consisting of Terrell Leonard (professionally known as Ty Terrell) and two brothers, Billy and Roy Richard. After graduating the three headed south to Los Angeles to try and make a career in music and wound up at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts where they won second prize in the weekly Amateur Night contest.

The A-Sharp Trio, as Terrell and The Richard boys were calling themselves, were subsequently hired by Otis to sing there on weekends. Around the same time another aspiring vocalist named Bobby Nunn was working for Otis handling a variety of tasks around the club, possibly just to keep him around until an opportunity arose for Otis to use him singing.

That opportunity came about when Otis was in the studio cutting sides for Excelsior Records in early 1949 and had the idea of putting Nunn with The A-Sharp Trio in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of The Ravens, as Nunn was a bass singer who’d be naturally complimented by the tenors of Terrell and Billy Richard, with Roy Richard filling the sound out as baritone. The newly merged group cut one record in which they were credited as The Four Bluebirds, named by Otis who received the lead artist credit on the label.

Since they were merely acting as sessionists the group then went on their own to Aladdin Records seeking their own recording opportunities and chose the name The Robins which they’d keep until the group folded in the early 1960’s. When Otis signed with Savoy Records in late 1949 The Robins joined him and while many of the records they appeared on were put out with Otis as the primary artist, The Robins were credited on the label as well and scored their first hit under their own name as lead artists at this time. Their most acclaimed work during this time however came alongside Little Esther on the comedic “Double Crossin’ Blues” which was a #1 hit for 9 weeks and featured Nunn and Esther trading off lines in humorous fashion.

Their time with Otis was short thanks to a falling out over credit, financial and otherwise, and The Robins subsequently made the rounds of various Los Angeles labels, both large and small and were ripped off of royalties at each stop, and of credit as well, as RPM issued sides of theirs as by The Nic Nacs. In spite of this a few of their records actually sold well in various spots even without the name recognition The Robins name would’ve provided.

In late 1952 they recruited another singer, Grady Chapman, which gave them someone other than Bobby Nunn to handle lead chores and diversified their sound as well as the nature of their material and they also managed to sign with major label RCA giving them their highest profile in years. When Chapman was jailed briefly they took on another singer, Carl Gardner, recommended by Johnny Otis, who they apparently held no grudges against.

Gardner stuck around when Chapman returned making them a six man group and The Robins had their most sustained run of excellence immediately after upon signing with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s new Spark Records label in 1954, as the legendary team crafted a unique comic “playlet” style for them. When Atlantic Records lured Leiber & Stoller to their label – placing The Robins “Smokey Joe’s Café”, their biggest hit on it in the process – the hope was that the group would accompany them but most of the group preferred to stick on the West Coast where they were very big draws and had called Los Angeles home their entire professional lives.

Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner felt otherwise however and promptly went east with Leiber and Stoller and formed The Coasters who embellished the style that had been started with The Robins. The remaining group, now down to the original three members plus Grady Chapman but no bass singer, brought in H.B. Barnum to fill Nunn’s role as they carried on under disc jockey Gene Norman’s Whippet label.

Though there’d be no hit making third act for the group they did remain active, releasing a lot of songs over the next few years and touring constantly. When Grady Chapman, who’d been cutting solo records on the side for some time, left in 1957 he was replaced by Bobby Sheen and later Billy Richards nephew, also named Billy, joined them to close out their run in the early 1960’s.

The Robins final years saw them record for a number of small labels, including getting back together with Johnny Otis on his Eldo label briefly, but the group broke up in 1962. The members however mostly kept their hand in the business, with Barnum becoming a well regarded pop music producer, while Sheen recorded for Phil Spector in the 1960’s as Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans with Darlene Love, while oddly enough at one point or another many of The Robins joined former member Bobby Nunn’s later edition Coasters group… the same group that formed initially because they hadn’t wanted to move across country.

On occasion surviving Robins would reunite for a performance but one by one they began passing away. Roy Richards in the late 1970’s, Bobby Nunn in the mid-1980’s and the others at various points in the Twenty-First century. Though they’d had just a handful of national hits their legacy, both in terms of style and the ensuing careers of various group members, made them among the most noteworthy vocal groups of rock’s first full decade.

THE ROBINS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
Featured vocal group as The Four Bluebirds… for Johnny Otis. The group who’d soon become The Robins acquit themselves well on this Ravens pastiche, thanks to a rawer sound and more freewheeling approach. (6)

(Excelsior 540; April, 1949)
As sidemen… for Johnny Otis.

(Score 4010; May, 1949)
The first explicit youth themed record in rock is relatively simple in every way but mesmerizing all the same thanks to their seductive harmonies and the song’s edgy undercurrent. (6)

(Score 4010; May, 1949)
Vocal group rendition of Roy Brown’s hit from the year before, as Bobby Nunn’s bass lead and the Robins slightly ominous harmonies, plus a guitar in place of the horns give it a different feel, not quite up to the level of the original but pretty good all the same. (6)

(Aladdin 3031; June, 1949)
A Ravens pastiche turned inside out is competently done but its differences are probably too subtle to be easily recognized by casual listeners who might mistake this – and be intended to mistake it – for the more accomplished veteran group. (5)

(Aladdin 3031; June, 1949)
Another song with its DNA taken from The Ravens, sung well but lacking anything to set it apart such as more vibrant instrumental support which would’ve provided them with a slightly different sound from their rather obvious role models. (5)

(Savoy 726; December, 1949)
The hit record that effectively launched the group, and the 50’s rock vocal group style, a perfectly written and performed leering put-down that exudes menace yet retains a warm and soulful quality that is mesmerizing. (9)

(Savoy 726; December, 1949)
Much of this ballad is ahead of its time, particularly some of the textures used in the arrangement, but that sparse arrangement also leaves Bobby Nunn hanging at times undercutting what otherwise is a good lead vocal. (6)

(Savoy 731; January, 1950)
Though third billed after Johnny Otis and Little Esther it’s The Robins’ bass vocalist Bobby Nunn who steals the show with his comedic timing while they all contribute sublime harmonies behind Esther on this widely celebrated #1 hit. (8)

(Savoy 732; February, 1950)
Just one of many highlights here, The Robins lecherous vocals are in the spotlight on Side One while lead vocalist Bobby Nunn tosses in one line at the coda of the instrumental side for good measure, giving the song its identity. (9)

(Regent 1016; February, 1950)
As sidemen under the name The Bluebirds… for Johnny Otis & Mel Walker.

(Savoy 738; March, 1950)
With tenor Billy Richard on lead and usual bass frontman Bobby Nunn providing just spoken-interludes the concept recalls earlier pre-rock prototypes of The Ink Spots while crucially updating the sound with a sly wit for the rock era. (8)

(Savoy 738; March, 1950)
With Nunn out front this is a more typical Robins song in concept but with great inner conflict, sublime harmonies and a stark musical track it manages to stand out all the same. (7)

(Savoy 752; June, 1950)
Foreshadowing the more suggestively humorous work of the group still to come this sets a high bar with great vocals, both Bobby Nunn’s lead and the others backing him, and a multi-layered arrangement highlighted by Pete Lewis’s lethal guitar. (8)

(Savoy 752; June, 1950)
Though this sappy ballad from the late 1930’s was somewhat radically updated by The Robins more earthy vocal approach, there’s only so much they can do when the source material straitjackets them, making this a record caught between eras and styles. (3)

(Savoy 762; September, 1950)
Everybody’s given plenty to do here, from the multi-layered vocals with a strong Bobby Nunn lead to the backing band who if anything have too much to do, as Johnny Otis’s vibes and Pete Lewis’s guitar vie for control making it a little too cluttered for its own good. (6)

(Savoy 762; September, 1950)
A rather subdued final turn with Johnny Otis as this ballad finds them pushed slightly outside their comfort zone in terms of pacing and content and while at times their singing borders on sublime, at others Bobby Nunn struggles with maintaining his projection. (5)

(RPM 313; December, 1950)
As The Nic Nacs with Mickey Champion… Though the attempt to cash in on their earlier pairing with Little Esther is shallow and exploitative, they do a good job with what they’re given and turn this into a modest artistic and commercial success. (6)

(RPM 313; December, 1950)
As The Nic Nacs with Mickey Champion… A failure in the writing stage which substitutes racial stereotypes for actual humor makes The Robins revisiting their work on this “Double Crossin’ Blues” rip-off not worth the effort despite good vocal performances all around. (4)

(RPM 316; January, 1951)
As The Nic Nacs… Another shameless rip-off of an earlier Robins cut, this time “If It’s So Baby” with worse lyrics, weaker accompaniment and lackluster vocals from the group who hopefully were ashamed they and RPM were passing this off as something new. (3)

(Modern 20-807; March, 1951)
Notable for being the first record written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller which has the smart-ass humor they became known for, and while Bobby Nunn delivers it well the song relies more on shock value than a well-rounded story and relevant production. (5)

(Modern 807; March, 1951)
A straight re-write of The Robins’ debut from two years earlier may feature a more mature sounding group but their penchant for recycling past songs has reached its breaking point and may be one reason why they’d soon be left without a recording contract. (4)