"Rockin' Robin" Roberts, former singer with Tacoma rock band, the Wailers, dies in an automobile accident on December 22, 1967.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/18/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9208
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On December 22, 1967, Lawrence Fewell "Rockin' Robin" Roberts II (1940-1967) perishes from injuries he sustains as a passenger in a car crash on the Bayshore Freeway in San Mateo, California. Roberts is best remembered by fans of Northwest rock 'n' roll as the frenetic singer who in 1960 helps transform an obscure rhythm & blues song -- Los Angeles musician Richard Berry's 1957 ditty, "Louie Louie" -- into a garage-rock hit with his band, the Wailers. Although Roberts also will record other great tunes with the group (including "Since You Been Gone"), "Louie Louie" will prove to be his lasting claim to fame after it becomes a number one regional radio hit in 1961 and then again in 1962. In 1963, Portland's Kingsmen famously copy Roberts's version and score an international hit with "Louie Louie."

Go Rockin' Robin!

After singing with the Wailers for four years, Roberts -- who graduated from Tacoma's University of Puget Sound (1500 N Warner Street) -- quit to further his education at Oregon State University and to continue serving in the Marine Corps Reserves. He began, however, to have second thoughts about abandoning his musical life, and when invited to rendezvous with his former bandmates at a Los Angeles recording studio in 1966, Roberts accepted. There the Wailers cut what would prove to be Roberts's (and their label's) final single: Etiquette Records' "You Don't Love Me" / "You Weren't Using Your Head."

A half year later, Roberts moved to San Francisco to begin work as a chemist for the Crown Cork & Seal company. His timing was perfect: It was 1967's Summer of Love, and Roberts was now on the front lines to witness the countercultural revolution's Acid Rock epicenter, the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.

You Weren't Using Your Head

On the evening of December 21, 1967, Roberts attended a party with some co-workers and ended up departing in the car of a 22-year-old woman, Sunny Cabell McCully. As the San Mateo County Times reported, witnesses stated that at 1 a.m. on the 22nd her car entered the Kehoe Avenue offramp heading southward in the northbound lanes of the Bayshore Freeway (today's Highway 101). 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, which sent several troopers racing to the area in an attempt to intercept the wrong-way driver -- their collective efforts failed.

A number of terrified drivers swerved to miss the oblivious McCully, but another, 61-year-old Roy Lee Shaffer, didn't react in time, and a head-on collision just south of the 19th Avenue overpass (replaced by today's Highway 92) was the result. Making matters worse, Shaffer's car was then struck by third car, and then the whole pileup was struck by a fourth. Yet a fifth car slammed into a fire truck and a tow truck that had arrived on the scene, and it then burst into flames. Meanwhile, Roberts, McCully, and her two other passengers were all trapped in their car and had to be removed by firemen, highway patrolmen, and various passersby. In the resulting traffic jam, a sixth car ran into a seventh car.

Since You Been Gone

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

For more than three decades the burial site for Roberts -- who was survived only by his mother, Marie B. Roberts (1910?-1985) -- was identifiable only by a minimal cement marker. Until, that is, a kind-hearted, Tacoma-based fan, Jeff Miller, formed the Headstone Committee, which led a public fundraising drive that, in 1998, succeeded in procuring a marble headstone. It features 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: "Wrong Way Crash Kills Two on Freeway in S.M,"  San Mateo Times, December 22, 1967 (newspaper clipping in possession of Jeff Miller, Tacoma); "Third Victim Of Freeway Crash Dies," San Mateo Times, December 23, 1967 (newspaper clipping in possession of Jeff Miller, Tacoma); "Former Singer With Tacoma Group Killed," probably Tacoma News Tribune, undated (newspaper clipping in possession of Jeff Miller, Tacoma); "Roberts," memorial service notice (newspaper clipping in possession of Jeff Miller, Tacoma); San Mateo County Certificate Of Death (9881AB), ca. December 26, 1967, copy in possession of Peter Blecha.

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