Sylvia Robinson: from rhythm and blues singer to hip-hop legend
August 30, 2012 4:26 PM   Subscribe

She was born Sylvia Vanderpool, but Little Sylvia grew up to be the Mother of Hip-Hop, Queen of Sugar Hill. Sylvia Robinson's rise from rhythm and blues singer to the woman who formed The Sugar Hill Gang and ran the first label to release hip-hop.

Born in New York City in 1936, Sylvia Vanderpool's recording debut came at age 14, with Hot Lips Page and the Nelson Clark Orchestra for Columbia Records in 1950. She went by Little Sylvia from 1951 until 1953, when she teamed up with renowned session guitarist, McHouston (Mickey) "Guitar" Baker. "Little" Sylvia Vanderpool joined Mickey Baker and His Band, and the story goes that Mickey taught Sylvia guitar around 1954. They became a proper duo as Mickey and Sylvia, releasing a few singles until they landed at RCA Victor, first on the Groove subsidy, then Vik, where they released their first album in 1953.

Mickey and Sylvia moved up to RCA Victor in 1960, but left to start their own label, Willow Records, the very next year. Their short stint on Willow resulted in one hit song, Baby You're So Fine, their more upbeat take on Gee Baby by Joe and Ann from 1959. Mickey and Sylvia released one last single away from RCA, but were back with RCA Victor in 1965 for two singles. They released their second and final true album that same year, on RCA Camden, RCA's budget label. The title track, Love is Strange, was a hit when it first came out in 1956, but by the album release in 1965, the duo had already split up.

Mickey Baker headed to France, "soured by the racial situation in America." He arrived in the early 60s, and has lived there since. Sylvia married Joe Robinson in 1964, and the couple started a new label, All Platinum Records, in 1968. Sylvia co-wrote some hits for the label, including Love is a Two-Way Street, first recorded by co-writer and All Platinum artist Lezli Valentine, then by The Movements. In 1972, recording as a solo artist and under the simple name "Sylvia," Pillow Talk was a proto-disco track that she recorded after Al Green turned down. It was a hit, and Sylvia was back as a lead performer. She released a couple albums in the 70s and singles into the 80s, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Looking to expand their holdings, Sylvia and Joe Robinson bought the influential blues, R&B and soul label Chess Records in the mid-1970s, initially intending to keep the Chess roster active, but due to mismanaged funds, the Chess label was limited to re-releases in this period. In the end of the 1970s, All Platinum was facing bankruptcy. One night, Sylvia was in a club and noticed that the DJ was talking to the crowd, and they were responding to what he was saying. She saw a way for All Platinum to recover. By 1979, Sylvia and other record producers were approaching Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and other notable MCs to make a record, but Flash and crew didn't think there was money in making records. So Sylvia picked three unknown MCs and made The Sugar Hill Gang. (Google books preview)

Local artists and people with Sugar Hill have been critical of Sylvia Robinson's running of Sugar Hill, but credit her for spotting talent. As Sugar Hill's in-house drummer, Keith Le Blanc, put it:
"I would say that Sylvia's forte was being able to recognize talent and get all that talent in the same room at the same time. She would have some creative input as far as what she did and didn't like about this or that, or she might have an idea based on something that she heard in a club and would get Jiggs Chase to write, but mostly the creative side of the music came from the musicians and the rappers."
Sylvia even jumped on the rapping bandwagon, and released a semi-serious parody of Mel Brooks' It's Good To Be The King Rap in 1982. On a more serious note, she co-wrote The Message with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. The song went against the upbeat party songs of the day, and was almost not completed. But it was, and it became the first hip-hop song added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

Jumping back a few decades, after Rapper's Delight and The Message put Sugar Hill Records on the map. Still not great with money, the Robinsons' set up a deal with MCA, which some attribute as a death blow to Sugar Hill, as the labels fought in court over money owed and contracts breached. In the end, Sugar Hill got back full rights to their catalog, but received no money. In 1995, Sugar Hill was sold to L.A.-based Rhino Records, which was fitting in a number of ways. Wayne and Charlie (The Rapping Dummy) can now be heard on Rhino Records, home to numerous novelty acts as well as re-issues of all sorts.

Joe Robinson died from cancer on November 5, 2000 (Google books preview). Sylvia resided in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, staying away from much publicity, turning her affairs over to her son, Joey. She passed away on September 29, 2011, from congestive heart failure.
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

When an f.l.t. post ends with [more inside], you know there is going to be more inside.
posted by Egg Shen at 4:27 PM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Really, that last link above the break is a great one. It's an in-depth piece from Vanity Fair in 2005, with some comments from the reclusive Sylvia herself.

There's a lot of nice tracks from Sylvia's various periods streaming online, but I'll add those as comments later, if someone else doesn't get there first.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:32 PM on August 30, 2012

This is excellent.

Oliver Wang interviewed Dan Charnas
, author of "The Big Payback", who profiled Sylvia Robinson in his book.
posted by gen at 7:04 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love your posts filthy light thief. Thanks for your passion.
posted by erebora at 7:10 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd read that Vanity Fair piece before but it's worth a reread and the rest of the links look good too. Excellent post, as always.
posted by immlass at 7:10 PM on August 30, 2012

Btw, Oliver Wang's podcast, Sidebar, for his blog is excellent. I cannot recommend it more highly.
posted by gen at 7:10 PM on August 30, 2012

Charnas explains that Robinson was uncredited for her production of Ike and Tina's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" (1961)
posted by gen at 7:16 PM on August 30, 2012

From my reading, it seems there are quite a few disputed credits around Robinson, but I don't think that's too unusual in the music industry at large, when there are multiple individuals crafting and recording individual songs.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:09 PM on August 30, 2012

I favourited this post on the basis of the Vanity Fair article alone. Now I've got all the other good stuff to plough through as well.

Great post.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:46 AM on August 31, 2012

The saga continues at Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree...
posted by ovvl at 6:30 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you hear a song featuring Pitbull that sounds remarkably familiar to Mickey and Sylvia, you'd be correct. Pitbull's "Back In Time" sampled "Love Is Strange", but in the heavy-handed P Diddy "I'll Be Wanting You" style.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:09 PM on September 5, 2012

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