Robinson circa 1976.
|Birth name||Sylvia Vanderpool|
|Also known as||Little Sylvia
Mother of Hip Hop
March 6, 1935|
New York, New York, U.S.
|Origin||Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.|
|Died||September 29, 2011
Secaucus, New Jersey, U.S.
Sylvia Robinson (née Vanderpool; March 6, 1935 – September 29, 2011) was an American singer, musician, record producer, and record label executive. Robinson was best known for her work as founder/CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records. Robinson is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre; "Rapper's Delight" (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, and "The Message" (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; which dubbed her as the "Mother of Hip-Hop". Robinson received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and being the founder of Sugarhill Records at the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000. Robinson died of congestive heart failure on September 29, 2011 at age 76.
Robinson was born as Sylvia Vanderpool (aka Vanterpool) in 1935 in New York City. Robinson attended Washington Irving High School until the age of 14, and began recording music in 1950 for Columbia Records under the billing, Little Sylvia.
In 1954, she began teaming up with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker, who then taught her how to play guitar. In 1956, the duo now known as Mickey & Sylvia, recorded the Bo Diddley and Jody Williams-penned rock single, "Love Is Strange," which topped the R&B charts and reached number eleven on the Billboard pop charts in early 1957. After several more releases including the modestly successful "There Oughta Be a Law", Mickey & Sylvia split up in 1959 with Sylvia later marrying Joe Robinson that same year. Sylvia restarted her solo career shortly after her initial split from Baker, first under the name Sylvia Robbins. In 1961, the duo reunited and recorded more songs together for various labels. They are most noted during this period for singing background on Ike & Tina Turner's hit single, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine". In 1964, frustrated with the music business, Baker moved to Paris.
In 1966, the Robinsons moved to New Jersey where they formed a soul music label, All Platinum Records, the following year, with artist Lezli Valentine, formerly of the Jaynettes, bringing the label its first hit with "I Won't Do Anything". In 1968, the duo signed a Washington, D.C. act named The Moments, who immediately found success with "Not on the Outside". Within a couple of years and with a new lineup, the group scored their biggest hit with "Love on a Two-Way Street", which Sylvia co-wrote and produced with Bert Keyes and (uncredited) lyrics by Lezli Valentine. Other hits on the label and its subsidiaries, including Stang and Vibration, included Shirley & Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame", the Moments' "Sexy Mama" and "Look at Me I'm in Love" and the Whatnauts/Moments collaboration, "Girls". Robinson co-wrote and produced many of the tracks, although later she was supported by members of The Moments, Al Goodman and Harry Ray, as well as locally based producers, George Kerr and Nate Edmonds.
In 1972, Robinson sent a demo of a song she had written called "Pillow Talk" to Al Green. When Green passed on it due to his religious beliefs, Robinson decided to record it herself, returning to her own musical career. Billed simply as Sylvia, the record became a major hit, reaching number-one on the R&B chart and crossing over to reach Billboard Hot 100 (#3), while also reaching #14 in the UK at the beginning of 1973. She was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973. Robinson recorded four solo albums on the Vibration subsidiary and had other R&B hits including "Sweet Stuff" and "Pussy Cat". "Pillow Talk" has been called an early example of prototypical disco music and went on to sell two million copies. The vocals are replete with moaning and heavy breathing, predating Donna Summer's orgasmic moans on "Love to Love You Baby".
In the 1970s, the Robinsons founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem, an affluent African American neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid-1900s. The song "Rapper's Delight", performed by The Sugar Hill Gang, brought rap into the public music arena and revolutionized the music industry by introducing the technique of re-using existing compositions, a practice that became known as "sampling". Later acts signed to Sugar Hill Records included all-female rap/funk group The Sequence, featuring a teenage Angie Stone (recording as "Angie B"), who had a million-selling hit in early 1980 with "Funk U Up". Sugar Hill folded in 1985, due to changes in the music industry, the competition of other hip-hop labels, such as Profile and Def Jam and also financial pressures. Robinson, who had by now divorced Joe Robinson, continued her efforts as a music executive, forming Bon Ami Records in 1987. The label was noted for signing the act The New Style, who later left and found success as Naughty by Nature.
Death and future biopic
Robinson died on the morning of September 29, 2011, aged 76, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey from congestive heart failure. On August 19, 2014, The Hollywood Reporter reported that producer Paula Wagner had acquired the rights to the life story of Sylvia Robinson, the influential rap pioneer and producer known as the "Mother of Hip-Hop." Wagner acquired the rights from Robinson's son, Joey Robinson, who will executive produce and serve as a consultant on the project along with rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel. Music executive Robert Kraft will co-produce the film. The film will cover Sylvia Robinson's four-decade career in the music business, her turbulent love life and the mark she made on popular culture at a defining moment in the evolution of hip-hop.
In a statement, Wagner says Robinson's life story has all the elements of a great film, "It is not only the story of female empowerment at a time when the world of music was male-dominated, but it's also a story of the origin of hip-hop and how this woman's determination, immense talent and savvy business sense fostered an entire musical movement." Joey Robinson said of his mother and father, Sugar Hill Records co-founders, and of the upcoming film, "This movie is going to show how my parents were able to remain independent, keep control of their publishing and master recordings and how they later dealt with the major record labels and mob associates. Sugar Hill paved the way for a new genre of music that the industry had no knowledge of back in 1979. You will see the struggles of what Sugar Hill went through to keep hip-hop music alive when the industry wanted to bury it." On October 21, 2015, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Warner Bros. had picked up the untitled Sylvia Robinson story, and that Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez - the writers on the hit Fox TV show, Empire - had been tapped to tell the story of Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill Records.
- 1952: "Drive Daddy Drive/I Found Somebody To Love" (Jubilee 5093)
- 1952: "A Million Tears/Don't Blame My Heart" (Jubilee 5100)
- 1953: "Blue Heaven/The Ring" (Jubilee 5113)
Mickey and Sylvia
- 1957: Mickey & Sylvia
- 1957: New Sounds
- 1957: Love is Strange
- 1973: Do It Again
- 1996: The Willow Sessions
- 1997: Love is Strange: A Golden Classics Edition
- 1960: "Come Home/Frankie & Johnny" (Jubilee 5386)
- 1964: "Don't Let Your Eyes Get Bigger Than Your Heart / From The Beginning" (Sue 805)
- 1964: "Our Love/I Can't Tell You" (Sue 106)
- 1973: Pillow Talk (US #70)
- 1976: Sweet Stuff
- 1976: Sylvia
- 1977: Lay It On Me
|1973||"Have You Had Any Lately?"||102||—|
|"Soul Je T'Aime"||99||39|
|"Sho Nuff Boogie"||80||46|
|1977||"Lay It on Me"||—||65|
|1982||"It's Good to Be the Queen"||—||53|
In popular culture
- In the Drunk History episode "American Music" (2014), Sylvia Robinson was portrayed by Retta.
- Sylvia Robinson is allegedly one of the inspirations for the character Cookie Lyon (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson) on the popular Fox television show Empire.
- Robinson is featured on the documentary series Profiles of African-American Success.
- In a March 2015 piece in The New York Times debating U.S. copyright laws, writer MK Asante cited the need for artists to return to Mrs. Robinson's mantra of "Don't copy things that are out there... come up with something new, something different."
- "Sylvia Robinson – 'Mother of Hip-Hop' Dead at 75". Tmz.com. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- Instagram - Leland Robinson
- Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2011 - Sylvia Robinson (1936-2011)
- "'Rapper's Delight'". National Public Radio. December 29, 2000. Retrieved 2010-12-20.
The story goes that Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee met Sylvia Robinson on a Friday and recorded "Rapper's Delight" the following Monday in just one take.
- JET Magzine - Rhythm and Blues Foundation Holds 11th Awards Gala In New York - October 16, 2000
- "Sylvia Robinson". Cashbox Magazine News. Retrieved 2011-10-06.
- James C. McKinley Jr. (September 30, 2011). "Sylvia Robinson, Pioneering Producer of Hip-Hop, Is Dead at 75". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved October 1, 2011.
- "Names You Should Know: Sylvia Robinson". Teamugli.com. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
- Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 338. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
- Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 7th edition by Joel Whitburn; ISBN 0-8230-7690-3 (pg. 619)
- "Harlem – New York City Neighborhood – NYC". nymag.com. Retrieved 2011-09-30.
- "Harlem, Hamilton Heights, El Barrio, New York City". ny.com. Retrieved 2011-09-30.
- Tracy Scott (September 29, 2011). "'Sylvia Robinson, mother of Hip Hop, dead'". s2smagazine.com. Retrieved 2011-09-29.
Sylvia Vanterpool Robinson, 75, often credited as the Mother of Hip-Hop, died today at 6:28 a.m. EST from congestive heart failure.
- "Paula Wagner Developing Sylvia Robinson Biopic". The Hollywood Reporter. August 19, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- "Sugar Hill Record's Co-Founder Sylvia Robinson Biopic in the Works". News One. August 24, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
- "'Empire' Writers to Pen Movie About the "Mother of Hip-Hop" (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
- Cummings, Jozen (2015-03-08). "Was 'Empire' inspired by these real hip-hop stars? | New York Post". Nypost.com. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
- "Sylvia Robinson: Pioneering Record Producer, Ushered in Era of Rap | Kate Kelly". Huffingtonpost.com. 2015-03-18. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
- "Update Our Culture, Not Just Copyright Laws". NYTimes.com. 2015-03-17. Retrieved 2015-08-26.