Mickey and Sylvia
Sylvia Robinson died yesterday. With the exception of a few people, the response to this on the social sites was like the sound of crickets chirping. So, I decided to pull this out and dust it off, to show her importance to the music industry.
(Excerpted from my book Rap Whoz Who, the first encyclopedia done on rap music, published 1996 by Schirmer/Simon and Schuster Macmillan, and nominated for the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award.)
Sugar Hill Records was known as the first record label fully devoted to rap. Before its demise in 1985, Sugar Hill Records was responsible for signing major pioneer rap acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Sequence, the Funky Four Plus One, the Sugarhill Gang, the Crash Crew, the Treacherous Three, and Spoonie Gee.
The label was founded by Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson and her husband, Joe Robinson. Sylvia once recorded as Little Sylvia for Savoy Records in the early 1950s, and she was also part of the 1956 guitar/singing duo Mickey and Sylvia, responsible for million-selling hits like “Love Is Strange.” Sylvia also produced Ike and Tina Turner’s 1961 hit “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” the Moments’ (later recording as Ray, Goodman, and Brown) “Love on a Two-Way Street,” and Shirley and Company’s disco hit “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Sylvia returned as a single recording artist on her own Vibration label in 1973, with the hit “Pillow Talk,” which topped the R&B charts and reached number 3 on the pop charts.
Back in the 1960s Sylvia began doing business in the Bronx with the Blue Morocco Club on Boston Road. Towards the 1970s Sylvia and her husband Joe, formed several record labels, including All Platinum, Turbo, Stang, and Vibration. All Platinum Records had a total of thirty-five hit records by artists including Chuck Jackson, Linda Jones, and Candi Staton. The Robinsons also later bought the Chess Records catalog of master recordings by blues guitarist Muddy Waters and others.
By the late 1970s the All Platinum label was ailing when Sylvia noticed that her kids were listening to MC and DJ tapes from the Bronx that were circulating around this time. During this same period she also heard people MC’ing over disco records at a party for her sister in Harlem. With her oldest son, Joe Jr., Sylvia began to assemble a group that would provide the same type of entertainment she saw people enjoying around her. At this same time the Robinsons were given a production and distribution deal by Roulette Records’ Morris Levy. Sugar Hill Records was established in the Roulette Records offices at 1790 Broadway in Manhattan.
Sylvia first worked with the young men she had gathered, calling them the Sugarhill Gang. They recorded the landmark “Rapper’s Delight,” which contained rhymes that were written mostly by Grandmaster Caz, who went unaccredited. The record reportedly sold over two million copies in the United States alone. She next worked with three female MCs called Sequence, recording the single “Funk You Up.” Both of these singles put the label on the map as the premier full-fledged rap label.
After some business differences, Morris Levy asked to be bought out of the deal with the Robinsons for $2 million. The Robinsons moved Sugar Hill Records out of the Roulette Records offices, and into offices located in Englewood, New Jersey. At the new location Sylvia set up a studio house band to record her rap records, called Wood, Brass, and Steel. The musicians who made up the house band were guitarist Bernard Alexander, drummer Keith LeBlanc, bassist Doug Wimbish, percussionist Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher, guitarist Skip MacDonald, and keyboardists Gary Henry, Duane Mitchell, Reggie Griffen, and Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, who served as principal arranger on most of the records. There was also a horn section called Chops, and engineering all the records was Steve Jerome.
During the early 1980s Sugar Hill Records turned out a number of hits for its rap roster, however, it was still in serious financial trouble, primarily stemming from the company’s desire to distribute its own product. By 1983 Joe Robinson signed a distribution deal with MCA.
Towards 1984 one of Sugar Hill’s artists, Grandmaster Flash, saw a conflict of interest in his contract with the label, because Sylvia Robinson managed his group, the Furious Five, and produced their recordings. He sued the company for $5 million in royalties and the right to use his name and the name of his group, the Furious Five. Courts awarded him only the right to use his own name, after which the Furious Five was split down the middle, some members staying at Sugar Hill, others leaving the company with Grandmaster Flash.
By 1985 Sugar Hill Records’ financial situation continued to decline, with the added $3.5 million in loans and advances from MCA remaining outstanding. MCA bought the Chess catalog from the Robinsons for $3 million. Sugar Hill Records remained insolvent, and was forced into bankruptcy. In 1995 Rhino Records purchased the label’s back catalog and unreleased master recordings.