The last few years have seen a number of great losses in the world of R&B music. Many female vocalists in particular have made their transitions to another world: Ruth Brown, Teena Marie, and Dee Dee Warwick, just to name a few. On September 29, 2011, another great talent was added to that list: Sylvia Robinson. Like the aforementioned artists, Sylvia Robinson was a trendsetter, a groundbreaker, and a trooper through many phases of this business called music.
She began recording at age 14, stepped out as not only a singer, but also a guitarist, by age 18 (not an easy feat for any woman in the spotlight at that time, much less an African-American one!). In her early 30’s, she launched her own record label. Over the ensuing decades, she would write, produce, and mix a number of influential hit records for herself and a myriad of other artists. Vocally speaking, Sylvia had something different to offer. Not a powerhouse belter, she made her musical mark as a sultry purveyor of song — whether the mode be sensual soul, gritty funk, pop, or blues. Her sensual approach is glowingly apparent in her trademark classic, “Pillow Talk,” an oozing 1973 romp through the sheets which one might argue originated the quiet-storm format on soul radio. Sylvia originally wrote the seducing invitation to play for Al Green. When he passed on it, however, she didn’t hesitate to put her own money on the line and take a chance by releasing it on her own Vibration Records. Although she had scored several successes as a songwriter by this point (The Moments’ “Love on a a Two Way Street” and “Not on the Outside”), few realized that Sylvia possessed 20 years’ worth of experience as a recording and performing artist by the time “Pillow Talk” started climbing the charts.
“Pillow Talk” accomplished more than the admirable feats of reaching #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and crossing over to #3 on the Pop chart. The record marked the first time a female artist had so brazenly expressed her sensuality over the airwaves. By the time Donna Summer came out with the erotic “Love to Love You Baby” two years later, the stage was set. Not to mention, the term “disco” was not yet in place as a genre name when Sylvia hit; but the bustling rhythmic backdrop of “Pillow Talk” undoubtedly played a role in creating its foundation.
Yet, sensuality wasn’t all there was to Sylvia’s vocal game. Her early performances and recordings required not a demure sound, but care for note precision (check out 1952’s “A Million Tears”), attention to intensity (“I Found Somebody to Love”), and a knack for penning resonating melodies (“Don’t Let Your Eyes Get Bigger Than Your Heart”). The latter quality would be brought to public notice in 1974 as she scored another R&B #1 with her composition “Shame, Shame, Shame,” brought to life by the vocal duo of Shirley Goodman and Jesus Alvarez. The song was another crossover hit, and garnered the duo TV appearances the world over.
Sylvia’s recording career began in her early teens. She cut a pair of 78 recordings with Hot Lips Page for Columbia in 1950. Billed under her birth name of Sylvia Vanderpool, it was decided the following year to coin her “Little Sylvia” as she moved to Savoy Records and then to Jubilee, where she would record a host of singles over the next decade. Soon, she met guitarist Mickey Baker at a session. He taught her the instrument, which prompted her to begin songwriting — as she told journalist A. Scott Galloway in 1996. She recalled that the two set out to be the black version of Les Paul & Mary Ford.
They released a handful of sides for Rainbow Records prior to striking gold with their second Groove Records release, “Love Is Strange,” which stayed as the #1 R&B tune for two weeks and reached #11 on the Pop chart — an unusual accomplishment for a black act in the segregated days of 1957. The song itself was written by another African-American pioneer of the time: singer-songwriter Bo Diddley, who — in the midst of legal troubles — published the song under his wife’s name. The follow-up, “There Oughta Be a Law,” was another popular number, getting to #8 on R&B and just missing the Pop Top 40.
Mickey and Sylvia’s musical output had become more sporadic by 1959. By then married to businessman Joseph Robinson — some sources erroneously state 1964 as their marriage year — Sylvia decided to try her hand at a solo career (see Jet magazine photo). In addition to performing as a live act at venues such as Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel, she cut further sides for Jubilee, including a spirited take on the traditional “Frankie and Johnny.” But her departure wasn’t permanent. The two reunited to form their own Willow label, on which they released new material during the early ’60s. Finding no further success, however, Baker moved to France, and Sylvia was on her own again. For awhile, she recorded sides for labels such as Sue and Tru-Glo-Town. But by 1967, she and husband Joe decided to take her career into their own hands by starting the All-Platinum Group.
With All-Platinum, Sylvia now had a vehicle with which to hone her writing and production chops, at the same time introducing to the public promising young talent in hopes of making them household names. Over the next decade, fresh acts with chops that belied their years would get their start in the All-Platinum family of labels, which included Vibration, Stang, and Turbo. The Moments, Linda Jones, and Shirley and Company were international chart-toppers, while many other artists — Retta Young, Donnie Elbert, Eleanor Mills, George Kerr — weren’t as hot on the charts, but went on to make an impact in other facets of the music industry. Even established performers such as Chuck Jackson and Lonnie Youngblood cut LPs for Sylvia’s company. During All-Platinum’s run, Sylvia herself recorded four albums and over 20 singles, including 11 R&B chart entries. In addition to “Pillow Talk,” the most notable of these include “Didn’t I,” “Soul Je T’Aime” (performed with Ralfi Pagan), “Alfredo” (the theme from the Dustin Hoffman flick of the same title), “Sho Nuff Boogie” (a collaboration with The Moments), and “Sweet Stuff.”
By 1978, however, funds were running dry as The Moments made their way to Polydor, as Ray, Goodman & Brown. The dry spell was brief, thanks to Sylvia’s discovery of three burgeoning young New Jersey rappers. A few rap records had made their way into stores, but none had managed to score in a commercially viable way. That all changed when Sylvia took Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee into her recording studio and produced the now legendary “Rapper’s Delight” with the assistance of the Positive Force band and a generous sample from Chic’s disco nugget, “Good Times.” The resulting single release not only christened the trio The Sugar Hill Gang, but also birthed Sugar Hill Records. It shot to #4 R&B and made the Pop Top 40 — effectively introducing the world to a musical art form that had previously been limited to the streets of New York. By some accounts, the record sold in excess of five million copies. Due to Sugarhill’s accounting policies, however, it was never certified by the Recording Industry Association of America.
The Sugar Hill explosion led to a plethora of rap acts making their debuts on wax. Sugar Hill Records itself introduced seminal acts such as The Sequence (a female act which both rapped and sang, and featured a pre-fame Angie Stone), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, featuring Melle Mel; and Treacherous Three. Furthermore, veteran soul artists such as Philippe Wynne (of Spinners) and Candi Staton cut LPs for the label, as did Sylvia and Joe’s son Joey with his group, West Street Mob. Even actor Joey Travolta (brother of John) got in on the action with a 1982 release.
Sylvia’s last charting single as an artist in her own right was 1982’s “It’s Good to Be the Queen,” an answer record to comedian Mel Brooks’ “It’s Good to Be the King.” She had several smaller-scale releases in the ’80s and ’90s, including: a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” with Kevin Keyes on the Sugarhill subsidiary Jersey Connection; a remake of Johnny Nash’s “Rock Me Baby” on Bon Ami; and a CD EP entitled Sylvia Goes Reggae right before Rhino Records’ purchase of the Sugarhill catalog in 1995.
A handful of compilations of Sylvia’s recordings for All-Platinum and Sugar Hill have been released over the years, while a number of her ’50s sides appear on compilations chronicling that era. The best of the bunch is Deep Beats’ 1997 set, Pillow Talk: The Best of Sylvia, which includes all the hits, as well as the aforementioned “Distant Lover” and “Alfredo.” Also of note is Sylvia’s own compilation, The Greatest Hits, which includes her 1977 rendition of “Love Is Strange” and “Fingers Do the Walking,” an obscure jam from the 1978 concept LP, Brand New Funk.
Sylvia’s four-decades-plus-long career was occasionally rocked by controversies over business practices, with respect to artist royalties. But what always remained constant was quality songs, production, playing, and vocalizing. Just listen to her expertly mellow delivery on “Gimme a Little Action” from the Pillow Talk LP, the celestial phrasing and arrangements found on 1976’s “L.A. Sunshine,” or even the dynamic range present on her 1978 cover version of Dee D. Jackson’s disco romp “Automatic Lover.” It’s clear throughout the spectrum of her work that Sylvia took each session as a meaningful piece of work, not merely a product to be tossed out into the marketplace for profit. Her name may not often be mentioned among the R&B greats, but perhaps that’s because she had so many irons in the fire: label owner, songwriter, guitarist, producer, and finally, vocalist.
Surely, it must not have been easy to be the “Queen of Sugar Hill.” But thanks to Sylvia’s efforts in that role, many promising artists became established hitmakers to be reckoned with — something that may not have happened otherwise. And before, during, and after her reign, she contributed a wealth of her own performances with the kind of raw energy, enthusiasm, and sophistication for which many artists strive.
Thank you, Sylvia Robinson, for your multi-faceted legacy, and the joy it has brought this listener and so many others. Be sure you keep the music alive and “Shake Some More” in heaven. We’ll surely be enjoying the fruits of your labor “Forever and a Day.”