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RPM 313; DECEMBER 1950



When you listen to music is it really necessary to know who’s singing and playing it in order for you to enjoy it? I mean, the music sounds the same to you whether or not you have the biographical information at hand.

Record companies in the 1950’s were oftentimes barely one step above bank robbers, loan sharks and confidence men in their ethical standards and so if you were an artist trying to make a living in this business you soon learned that contracts meant little when it came to actually getting paid and the only part of them that seemed to hold any legal weight was the fact they tied you to a record label like indentured servants.

So you looked for ways around that, trying to cut records with no strings attached. Guys like Big Joe Turner or Cecil Gant sold their services strictly for cash, cut four sides and walked out the door money in hand and made the same offer to the next label. Though it made their catalogs a nightmare to try and piece together down the road at times it they might’ve been the only artists who were satisfied with their transactions.

After their falling out with Johnny Otis in the winter of 1950 The Robins found themselves adrift and began a prolonged stretch where they had no permanent home but were never out of work… even if it meant working under assumed names to make records.


A Lonely Blue Year
For those keeping meticulous track of such things you’re probably aware that we’ve missed a few post-Savoy records by The Robins.

This was not an accident.

After they parted ways with Otis they signed with John Dolphin’s Recorded In Hollywood label and laid down a few sides… hopefully for cash because Dolphin, a record store owner who constantly dabbled in making records, was a criminal who made Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky, one of the cheapest men in the industry, seem like Santa Claus by comparison.

It wasn’t Dolphin’s involvement in these sides however that caused us to skip over them, but rather the fact they really weren’t rock ‘n’ roll. In an attempt to replicate the success they’d had with Little Esther on Double Crossin’ Blues he’d paired them with Maggie Hathaway for a few songs yet the material – including the one side they cut without her, the dreadful Race Of Man – was this weird hybrid spiritual-folk music that had no realistic market to appeal to.

Still under contract to Dolphin, who never once lived up to those contracts himself, The Robins realized those records had done them absolutely no good either financially or in terms of boosting their career prospects and they needed to cut some more records while they were still in demand from their hits under Otis.

So they turned to probably the second most notorious rip-off artists in the business, the Bihari brothers who owned Modern Records and its subsidiaries, including RPM Records. Though they were notorious song-stealers, they did have much higher standards when it came to material and hiring the best session players than Dolphin, so at least the records would be good.

However they wouldn’t come out under The Robins own name because of that pesky contract with Dolphin. As a result they were dubbed The Nic Nacs and paired with vocalist Mickey Champion, who had just released her debut on Modern in the fall, to try once again to recreate the magic of the Little Esther duet stating with Gonna Have A Merry Xmas.

The plan was exploitative, unoriginal and since it couldn’t even be promoted as the same group it was probably also mostly futile, but it’s Christmas and ‘tis the season to be tolerant of such shortsighted ideas.


Got My Baby In His Old Christmas Sack
One on hand you can see how record executives were desperate to cash in on the Little Esther phenomenon. A girl barely in her teens with a thin reedy voice scoring three chart toppers in a few months time was hardly anything to scoff at and since independent labels were operated on the slimmest of margins the chance to recreate something that was a proven seller was too good to pass up.

For The Robins, who let’s not forget had a hit on their own – If It’s So Baby – before teaming up with Esther, this was what they were being asked to do… maybe even it was a condition of their being signed in the first place, so who were they to argue?

In Champion they had a singer with some genuine talent of her own and though no means as distinctive as Esther, she could hold her own with The Robins… provided they actually got a chance to do more than hum and ooh, as Gonna Have A Merry Xmas starts off as basically a Champion solo record while The Robins are providing nothing more than atmospheric backing, not even singing any words behind her, just providing the aural bed for her to sing over.

Her lines, as well as her delivery, are good however as the song starts off with a Silent Night melody lift to give it a Christmas feel leading into Champion’s vocal as she takes a typical starting point for rock ‘n’ roll – physical separation between her and her lover – and turns it on its head by announcing he’s coming back to her for the holidays.

There’s some good images, though not very Christmasy, early on, particularly how she’s giving away booze as presents to her friends to get them high, but considering how many pop records were cheerily singing about sugarplum fairies and candy canes, this is a refreshing twist on the usual topics.

As to how much she sounds like Little Esther… well, there’s some resemblance but I don’t think you’d mistake them for each other and certainly the backing track, the one thing they could’ve easily replicated simply by using some vibes and giving the guitar more of a presence, they kind of avoid doing and so it’s going to be up to Bobby Nunn’s eventual appearance to delude you into thinking this might be a clandestine revival of the fizzled partnership from a year earlier.


If You Love Me Right This Christmas
They wait until the exact mid-way point before letting Nunn take a line, a risky move considering how much they were clearly aiming for the same audience. But with his arrival this unquestionably becomes the very thing they were shallowly trying to recreate… so much so it’s uncanny.

Part of this is because musically speaking Gonna Have A Merry Xmas is very close to that earlier smash. The pace, the melody, the way the vocals rise and fall, each are taken almost verbatim from Double Crossin’ Blues. But it’s more than that, it’s also the way Nunn is deployed that turns this from a mere imitation to virtually a carbon copy of the source material.

Except this just isn’t as good, though it’s certainly far better than it has any right to be. The performances are all first rate, Nunn in particular has the persona down pat and he gets a good line dissing Santa, telling him to keep away from his baby as if he was competition.

The problem however is when they try and recreate the verbal sparring that highlighted the Esther and Nunn performance the story has to be twisted in knots to explain it. After all, Champion just got done telling us how happy she was to have him back and now she’s complaining that he hasn’t been around for two whole years! He offers a vague apology which she accepts without further questions and they close it out in tandem, letting the rest of The Robins harmonize on the closing lines, framing these two as the picture of contented bliss.

Yeah, it’s a phony happy ending, but it’s Christmas and what do you expect… a lump of coal upside his head?

It’s About To Come To An End… Actually No It Isn’t
Though everything about this record is somewhat sundry by nature, from the fact it wasn’t trying to be original, that it shoehorned a plot twist into a story that was headed in another direction entirely and intentionally misled you into thinking it might’ve been other people incognito (and in fact half of the equation was in fact just that), the record itself is certainly enjoyable to listen to, even if you do know the truth.

There may be some obvious shortcomings that could’ve been easily remedied by not trying to follow somebody else’s blueprint to the letter, but on the whole you wouldn’t mind getting Gonna Have A Merry Xmas in your stocking on Christmas morning – and RPM must’ve thought so too, as they re-released it the next two holiday seasons with a different label number.

Considering that Esther herself was on the verge of a contractual split with Otis… or at least with Savoy Records… there may even have been a window of opportunity for this grouping if they played their cards right.

They would try but whether the public was tired of the sound or if the magic just wasn’t there with new participants, this was the most successful of their records together and only made an impact regional charts at that.

If nothing else though it kept The Robins busy and in time they’d get to leave behind these crass ploys to exploit a past association, but not for awhile yet. In the meantime there’s still plenty more cloak and dagger stuff with them to get to so after you finish your eggnog and cookies, settle in for another smarmy adventure in the record industry.


(Visit the Artist page of Mickey Champion and The Robins for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)