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Roberts, "Rockin' Robin" (1940-1967)

HistoryLink.org Essay 9217 : Printer-Friendly Format

A founding father of Northwest rock 'n' roll, Tacoma's "Rockin' Robin" Roberts (1940-1967) initially sang with that town's trailblazing 1950s white rhythm & blues combo, the Blue Notes. But in mid-1959 he was lured away by their crosstown rivals, the Wailers, who had mainly been known for their role in helping define the original Northwest rock sound, which consisted largely of instrumental tunes. His addition to their lineup proved to be a wise move: Roberts's energetic manner, riveting voice, and deep knowledge of R&B music all combined to make him as charismatic a front man as the Pacific Northwest would ever produce. Ever ambitious, Roberts was a key instigator in pushing his fellow band members to form their own record company, an unprecedented move for a teenaged group. Etiquette Records' debut release -- the earliest garage-rock version of "Louie Louie," and one that featured Roberts's electrifying vocals -- became a number one, region-wide radio hit in 1961 (and again in 1962), and can be credited with inspiring legions of later bands. Sadly, though, Roberts -- who more than any other individual embodied the frenetic spirit of the early Northwest rock scene -- would die far too young.

Lawrence Fewell Roberts II was born in New York City on November 23, 1940, the only child of an acclaimed architect, Lawrence F. Roberts, and Marie B. Roberts (1910?-1985). He was raised in Queens, New York, until his father died unexpectedly and Roberts and his mother moved to an affluent neighborhood on the north side of Tacoma to start anew in a home at 4203 N 31st Street.

Already nicknamed "Robin," Roberts was by September 1951 attending Jefferson Elementary School (4302 N 13th Street) in Tacoma and, according to a local news report as a crosswalk guard, or "school boy patrolman." After attending Mason Junior High (3901 N 28th Street), Roberts entered Stadium High (111 N E Street) in 1955. From most accounts, Roberts came off as a sort of oddball, ultra-brainy, nerd type -- an honor roll student who would serve as his school's Science Club secretary, German Club vice president, and PTA and Red Cross representative.

The Blue Notes

But then Roberts fell in with a few kids from the wrong side of the tracks. A budding rhythm & blues fan, Roberts often took the risk of going to Tacoma's black district -- "Lower Broadway" -- in order to shop at the Broadway Record Shop. There local police typically picked up white kids and, after a scolding, took them back to their own neighborhoods. After hanging out at the Broadway Record Shop for so many hours that he became a familiar presence, the store owner hired him as a part-time helper and errand boy. One result was the growth of Roberts's very hep collection of R&B discs, which constituted a pool of tunes that would inform his own musical sensibilities in the years ahead.

In the meantime, Roberts had begun to fancy himself a singer of R&B and rock 'n' roll, and in September 1957 the 14-year-old rock-star wannabe went over to the country fair in nearby Puyallup, where he bravely stood up on a bench and without any instrumental accompaniment suddenly began loudly singing a Little Richard song for passersby. Among those fairgoers happened to be a couple of fellow teens who had recently formed their own band, the Blue Notes.

Guitarist "Little Bill" Engelhart didn't recognize the fearless singer, but bassist John "Buck" Ormsby remembered having seen Roberts at Stadium High. After the crowd dispersed they invited Roberts to join the Blue Notes, and during one of their early rehearsals he spotted a couple dozen teenagers dancing in the alley and proposed that the band start throwing their own dances and making some money. They rented a hall, put up posters, rented a Coke machine, and the long-standing local DIY (do-it-yourself) rock 'n' roll ethic was thus established.

"Louie Louie"

Around the same time that Roberts joined the Blue Notes, he acquired a copy of the single, "Louie Louie," by the Los Angeles-based band Richard Berry and the Pharaohs. His passion for the tune led him to insist on adding it to his band's repertoire, and the Blue Notes proceeded to introduce locals to the song at many weekend teen dances.

It was at those early shows that Roberts began establishing his reputation as a high-voltage rockin' R&B singer who worked the stage with wild abandon. As Ormsby soon realized:

"He was one of the ... best singers I ever heard. He was an ad-libber. He could take any song and turn it into his own song. And he was talented enough to get that energy going with everybody. He was real high-strung -- always a volcano ready to go. Real dynamic and entertaining on stage" (Cryptic Tymes).

Blue Notes' drummer Lasse Aanes agreed:

"Robin used to jump up on top of the piano during the sax solo and dance around, and then in one motion, leap off and grab the mic from the sax stand and continue singin', never missing a beat!" (Miller).

Thus, it didn't take long for this highly charged kid to pick up the augmented nickname "Rockin' Robin," which was based on the title of the February 1958 hit by the Los Angeles singer, Bobby Day.

A few months later, "Louie Louie" played a role in an amusing incident when the Tacoma police began shutting down a Blue Notes' dance after discovering that the hall was over capacity. Roberts pled that the band be allowed to play one more song so the teens wouldn't riot. The cops agreed, and Roberts then led a half-hour long version of "Louie Louie" -- an act of defiance that got the band banned in town by the Tacoma city council.

Dolton Days

In the spring of 1959 the Blue Notes booked some studio time at Joe Boles's Custom Recorders (3550 Admiral Way) in West Seattle. Long story short: They ended up recording several songs, but the teen ballad that Engelhart wrote and sang – "I Love An Angel" -- was the one that got the band signed to the town's red-hot label, Dolton Records. Feeling sidelined, Roberts was frustrated -- especially when Dolton's Bob Reisdorff began meddling with the group's dynamics. They were renamed Little Bill and the Bluenotes, Engelhart was put in different stage attire than the other boys, and Roberts suddenly felt that he was being shunted aside.

That's when another incident occurred -- one that backs up Engelhart's and others' contention that Roberts, for all his brilliance, was also quite naïve. Reisdorff had gotten the band a gig on KING-TV's “Open House for Mental Health” fundraising telethon, hosted by the Hollywood figure Bob Barker. The one stipulation was that he didn't want Roberts to perform. And the logistical complication was that they would be appearing late: after they finished a dance in Centralia and then raced back up the highway 80 miles north to Seattle.

Under pressure from his bandmates, Engelhart begged to have Roberts sing at least one song. Reisdorff finally relented, saying: "You promise Robin won’t say anything crazy?" Engelhart promised, and they performed a few songs live at 3 a.m., a few more at about 6 a.m., again at about 9 a.m., and once again at 10 a.m. Impressed by their youthful fortitude, Barker finally stepped up  to Roberts and live on camera said: "You guys are just unbelievable! Now, let me get this straight: last night you were in a town called Centralia; you come up here today and you guys go on at 3:00 in the morning, and here it is 11:30. How do you do this?" Roberts responded cheerfully: "Oh, we take pep pills" (Engelhart).

"I'll Go Crazy"

In June 1959 Little Bill's "I Love An Angel" entered the nation's Hot-100 and looked like a winner. Meanwhile, one month earlier, the Wailers' instrumental, "Tall Cool One," had broken out as a Top-40 national hit and the band set out on a big-time tour of the East Coast. Then in August -- soon after the Wailers returned home -- Roberts jumped ship and joined them. And he took “Louie Louie” with him. As the Wailers played gigs around the state -- and according to rhythm guitarist John Greek, a few down in both Oregon and California that year -- Roberts's new band mates really grew to appreciate what Roberts contributed to their sound and overall stage presence. Not only did he sing in a rather high and sinewy voice with a razor-sharp timbre, Roberts was a then-rare soulful white boy who was not a bit inhibited about moving his body on stage. The Wailers' pianist/singer, Kent Morrill, recalled:

"Robin was a pretty crazy guy. He was a very high-strung person who appeared like he was on speed all the time -- but I don't think he was. I don't think he did any kind of drugs. But he was so hyper that he couldn't sit still for five minutes. He had to walk and shake his hands like he used to do. And he was just a bundle of nerves and energy and so when he would come onstage it was like a bull out of a chute. Mostly, I think we decided to bring him in because of his energy; to jump all over the stage. And I think he helped add that to all of us. And, he had a very unique voice. I don't know who to compare him to ... there was a lotta blues in him" (Morrill).

"Robin was a real character," confirmed Wailers' lead guitarist, Rich Dangel (1942-2002).

"He had as much energy on the stage as off the stage. He was the kind of guy that would pace back and forth in a room and literally shake his hands around and stuff, you know: like he was trying to get loose all the time like a jogger or something. And he was real nutty, a real card. Full of energy, and he had a real high IQ, pretty much a genius type. But he was a real party guy -- he just loved to have a good time" (Dangel).

Adding to that assessment, Greek recalled that

“I was real impressed with Robin. Rockin' Robin was real high energy man! That guy was somethin' else! He was the best singer up here though. Nobody came close to him” (Greek).

Meanwhile, the band's fans and plenty of the region's peer musicians were impressed too. The teenaged future singer with Seattle's Dynamics, Jimmy Hanna, recalls an early dance at Seattle's National Guard Armory (Virginia Street and Western Avenue):

“When I saw the Wailers for the first time, I remember Robin singing a James Brown tune: ‘I’ll Go Crazy.’ Robin did that Un. Be. Lieve. Able [laughter]. Rockin’ Robin was just untouchable -- as far as singing. His energy on stage wasn’t to be equaled. I thought his energy in person was as good as anybody I’d heard. And I’d heard some good ones! But Rockin’ Robin -- I mean, man: his pitch of intensity on stage was unparalleled. I mean he was right in there with the top echelon. He could have been bigger than any other person that I can think of at that point" (Hanna).

Back to Boles

In the summer of 1960 the Wailers went into Boles's basement studio and finally recorded their version of "Louie Louie." By this time it had mutated from a subtle calypso ballad into a squared-off, prototypical example of what would someday be called garage rock. The band had come up with a magical combination of elements: a crude sax blatting those famous three intro notes; a perfect exposition of the Sea-Port drumbeat; Dangel's solid guitar chording; and Roberts, Morrill, and Ormsby chanting "duh-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh" in the background.

Add to that odd musical bed Roberts's maniacal lead vocals, his ad-libbed "yeahs" at the end of every few lyrical couplets, his exhortation (just before Dangel's edgy guitar solo) of “OK: Let’s give it to ‘em right now!,” and you have a '60s teen-culture masterpiece.

Proper Etiquette

That's when three of the Wailers – Roberts, Morrill, and newcomer Ormsby (who had left the Bluenotes several months prior to join on) decided to form their own label: Etiquette Records. The first single release would be "Louie Louie" backed with Roberts singing a version of Ray Charles' raver, "Maryann." Issued in March 1961, the disc thrilled Pat O'Day, the kingpin radioman at Seattle's most powerful radio station, KJR, and he helped pound it all the way to the top of their Fab-50 charts.

KOL followed suit, and that spring the 45 blossomed into a strong hit all around the Puget Sound area with retail figures that were just nothing less than phenomenal: Etiquette sold nearly 15,000 copies of the 45 through Northwest record shops in just a matter of weeks. Even the major trade publication, Cash Box magazine, reviewed it favorably: "Fine Blues vocal by the songster on a catchy ditty that was an awhile back success by ... Richard Berry ... Roberts receives striking combo support ..." and gave the disc an overall grade of "B+."

A Radio Hit

With that momentum behind them the Wailers set out on a summer tour in California and also discovered that perhaps they needed to license the single up to an outside label that could give "Louie Louie" the final push needed to make it a national hit. O'Day recalled:

"'Louie Louie' was a song Robin believed in. He used to call me on the phone and say; 'How can we make that thing break through?' He said, 'Isn't the evidence there, Pat, that it's a hit?' And I'd say, 'Robin; the evidence is there in spades. And what we need is a record company that will believe in it.' So, I finally got Imperial [Records in Hollywood] to take 'Louie Louie' on. And they released it. But ... they totally dropped the ball. They never put any emphasis behind it. And it's too bad. As a result, Imperial missed a record that was as big as anything they would ever have. And I guess if there's one thing that's a shame it's the series of circumstances that never allowed Robin's 'Louie Louie' to ever achieve its rightful Number One position in the country” (O'Day).

But that didn't stop O'Day and KJR from reviving the single in 1962, and it skyrocketed to Number One again. That was the same year that the band's classic The Fabulous Wailers At The Castle LP -- which included Roberts's vocals on "Since You Been Gone" -- and "Rosalie" was released. The Wailers also recorded an instrumental, "Shakedown," that credits Roberts as composer, but attribution to him as the writer of "Since You Been Gone" is erroneous as it is a note-for-note copy of Ted Taylor's 1959 Duke Records gem, "Since You're Home."

The Few. The Proud. The Brave.

Meanwhile, Roberts had been attending the University of Washington (where he stayed in the Terry Hall dorm), and then Tacoma's University of Puget Sound (1500 N Warner Street) -- where he joined the Sigma Nu Fraternity and was crowned Homecoming King -- and, in 1962, also joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve to train down in Pendleton, Oregon, and San Diego, California, where he served in platoon 120th Regimental Honor Platoon.

Upon returning, Roberts played a few gigs, but ultimately announced that he would be exiting the Wailers. He graduated from University of Puget Sound and decided to continue his studies in biochemistry at Oregon State University in Eugene. Though simultaneously in school and the Reserves, Roberts still managed to cut loose with some rock 'n' roll once in awhile. Four decades later, one old military pal, Robert Williamson, posted some recollections about those days online:

"I knew Robin Roberts briefly in the early 60’s as we served together in the Marine Corps Reserve. Robin was as great a Marine as he was a singer and entertainer ... . One time we had gone to Nevada for a Marine Summer camp, and on leave, Robin and some of the guys went to a club (I wasn’t there, but heard about it) someone on stage was murdering a song Robin had written or made popular, and Robin jumped up on the stage and said he would show how it was suppose to be done. I guess he almost got thrown out of the club until his Marine buddies convinced them he really was Rockin' Robin Roberts" (louielouie.net).

Professor Roberts

Making academic headway at Oregon State University, Roberts was eventually rewarded with an assistant professor position, but reminders of his musical past were always popping up. In April 1963 two Portland-based bands -- the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders -- had each recorded their versions of Roberts's and the Wailers' "Louie Louie," and both got considerable radio play in Oregon all that summer.

Meanwhile, in Corvallis a new teen band -- the Sceptors -- formed with an initial set-list that included such Northwest classics as "Louie, Louie," the Wailers' " Tall Cool One," and the Ventures' " Walk Don't Run." A bit later they renamed themselves the Six Short Knights and a major career highlight for the guys consisted of the Oregon State University street dance they played one night near the Memorial Union Quad. One supposes that Roberts couldn't resist the impulse to join in because at one point he stepped up, introduced himself, and then led the combo in a rendition of his signature tune, "Louie Louie."

Later, when invited to rendezvous with his former bandmates at a Los Angeles recording studio in 1966, Roberts accepted, and the Wailers cut what would prove to be his (and their label's) final single: Etiquette Records' "You Don't Love Me" / "You Weren't Using Your Head."

Rockin' Robin R.I.P.

By July 1967 Roberts -- who was a member of the American Chemical Society and the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists -- had resettled in San Francisco, California (at 1395 Golden Gate Avenue), working as a chemist at the Crown Cork & Seal Company. That timing was perfect for him to be exposed to the counter-cultural revolution that was rocking the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with new sounds in the Summer of Love. Then, on the evening of December 21, 1967, Roberts attended a party with coworkers, including a young woman named Sunny Cabell McCully, and eventually they (and her two female roommates) departed in her car.

As The Times of San Mateo reported, witnesses informed police that at 1 a.m. McCully's car entered the Kehoe Avenue off-ramp to the Bayshore Freeway (today's Highway 101), heading south in the northbound lanes. Although a few other drivers honked their horns in an effort to alert McCully -- and one even exited to find a telephone and call the Highway Patrol, who sent several troopers racing to the area in an attempt to intercept the wrong-way driver -- all their efforts failed.

After a number of terrified drivers swerved to miss the oblivious McCully, another, Roy Lee Shaffer, didn't react in time, and a head-on collision occurred just south of the 19th Avenue overpass. Making matters worse, Shaffer's car was then struck by another car, and then the whole pileup was struck by a fourth car. Then a fifth car slammed into the fire truck and a tow truck that had arrived on the scene, and that car burst into flames. Meanwhile, Roberts, McCully, and her two passengers were all stuck in their car and had to be removed by firemen, highway patrolmen, and passersby. In the resultant traffic jam a sixth car ran into a seventh car.

Since You Been Gone

Killed on impact, Roberts, age 27, was pronounced dead (due to "head trauma") on arrival at Mills Memorial Hospital, and McCully was pronounced dead at County General Hospital. The next day a passenger in the fifth car, which had caught fire, also died. Roberts's remains were taken to Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, then transferred home, where memorial services were held at the chapel of his alma mater, the University of Puget Sound, with Chaplin Jeff Smith (1939-2004), who later gained fame as the "Frugal Gourmet" TV chef, officiating. On January 5, 1968, Roberts's ashes were buried at Tacoma Cemetery (4801 S Tacoma Way).

Three decades later, in the spring of 1998, a kind-hearted Tacoma-based fan, Jeff Miller, formed a Headstone Committee, which held a public fundraising drive. They succeeded in making arrangements to replace the minimal slab that had long marked the gravesite with a more dignified marble headstone featuring an engraving of a "Louie Louie" 45, the musical notes to that song's main riff, and this legend: "Singer, Entertainer, & Friend -- He Brought Louie Louie To The Northwest And The World."

Sources:
Peter Blecha interviews with: Little Bill Engelhart (October 1983, and after), John Greek (April 28, 1988), Buck Ormsby (August 9, 1983, and after), Rich Dangel (January 24, 1987, and after), Bob Reisdorff (1988 and 1999); Jimmy “Hanna” Ogilvy (1984); Kent Morrill (1985); Pat O'Day (1985); recordings in possession of Pete Blecha; Pete Blecha conversations Winston Vidor (1984); "Patrols Take School Posts," unidentified newspaper clipping, September 13, 1951, courtesy Jeff Miller; USMC, Marine Corps Recruit Report, circa 1962, courtesy Jeff Miller; Little Bill Engelhart, So Anyway ... (Seattle: Engelhart, 2005), 14; Jeff Miller, "History 101: Little Bill & The Blue Notes," No-Fi magazine, September 1999, p. 5; Alan (Wright) and Lisa (Lindstrom), "The Wailers," Cryptic Tymes magazine, Spring 1994, p. 37; Rick Nelson, "Wailers, Friends Will Honor Rockin' Robin," Tacoma News Tribune, SoundLife magazine, March 27, 1998, p. 2; Robert Williamson, louielouie.net blog post accessed on November 2, 2009 (http://www.louielouie.net/blog/?p=219); "Six Short Knights," Pacific Northwest Bands website, accessed on November 2, 2009 (http://www.pnwbands.com); Peter Blecha, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, (New York: Backbeat Books, 2009), 41, 59-61; "Wrong Way Crash Kills Two on Freeway in S.M," San Mateo Times, December 22, 1967; "Third Victim Of Freeway Crash Dies," Ibid., December 23, 1967; "Former Singer With Tacoma Group Killed," obit, probably Tacoma News Tribune, undated newspaper clipping, January 3, 1968, courtesy Jeff Miller; Certificate Of Death (9881AB), San Mateo County, December 26, 1967, copy in possession of Peter Blecha.


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Rockin' Robin Roberts, ca. 1958
Courtesy Lasse Aanes


The Blue Notes, Tacoma, ca. 1957
Courtesy Lasse Aanes


Rockin' Robin Roberts on the Bill & Grover Show, KTNT-TV, Tacoma, ca. 1958
Courtesy Peter Blecha Collection


Rockin' Robin Robert (1940-1967), senior high school photo, 1958
Courtesy Stadium High School


Rockin' Robin Roberts on-stage, ca. 1960
Courtesy Jeff Miller


Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Wailers, promo photo, 1960
Courtesy Jeff Miller


"Louie Louie" 45 label, Rockin' Robin Roberts, 1961
Courtesy Peter Blecha Collection


Rockin' Robin Roberts in Marine Corps Reserve uniform, 1962
Courtesy United States Marine Corps


Rockin' Robin Roberts's final recording, Etiquette (No. 26, Side A) 1966
Courtesy Jeff Miller


Rockin' Robin Roberts's final recording, Etiquette (No. 26, Side B), 1966
Courtesy Jeff Miller


Rockin' Robin Roberts's original grave marker, Tacoma Cemetery, Tacoma
Photo Courtesy Ginny Michaels


Headstone, Rockin' Robin Roberts, Tacoma Cemetery, Tacoma, 1998
Photo Courtesy Jeff Miller


 
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