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.



August 28th is the birthday of Wendell Scott, the only black driver in NASCAR during his career, which spanned the 1960s and early 1970s.  He was forced to retire in 1973 after getting injured in what’s traditionally known as “the Big One” in Talladega, Alabama that same year.  Scott won the NASCAR Grand National (now known as the Sprint Cup) series in Jacksonville, Florida on December 1, 1963.  He is the only black driver to win that to date. (No typical Victory Lane trophy queen finish for him however, with photographers and girls and such.)  He had 147 top ten finishes in 495 Grand National career starts.  Born in 1921 in Danville, Virginia, Scott (a master mechanic, like most NASCAR drivers in those years) started racing in 1947, after first driving a cab, and then hauling moonshine liquor, which is pretty much the genesis of stock car racing.  He died December 23, 1990.  Richard Pryor played Scott in a film about the driver and his career, titled Greased Lightning in 1977, co-starring Pam Grier, Beau Bridges, Cleavon Little and Richie Havens.


I can’t believe I gotta sit down here in this day and age, and write about something that has a contingent Jim Crow smell to me.  I mean it’s 2010, and I gotta ask why this man has yet to receive a nomination in the NASCAR Hall of Fame??  Come on!—give me a break! I mean, I’m looking at the nominees here for the 2011 class.  All these guys should be there of course.  Ned Jarrett, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and the others, should be there.  I was looking at the nominees in 2010 for that class, and I was like, OK, let me see if next year’s gonna be the year.  But realistically, can you REALLY overlook somebody with the historic value and credentials Scott has?  Can a person really be that shortsighted?  Look, I have all of Scott’s Grand National / Winston Cup stats on my computer.  After all, NASCAR (along with other motor sports) happens to be something I like.  It’s not my religion, but I like motor sports racing, very much.  I just think this silent noncommittal position by the sport on this matter is just plain dumb now. Give the man a damn nomination!  (Interestingly enough, Scott and his family have reportedly named Weatherly, Roberts, Jarrett, along with Tiny Lund, Richard Petty, and good friend Earl Brooks, as guys who tried to look out for Scott while all the racist shenanigans were going on during his career.)


Muslims.  We’re dealing with Muslims now, and Islam, right?  We tend to innovate and advance our discriminatory practices.  But it seems like these guys are still having problems with black folks advancing or holding their own in a motor sport.


Stupid.  Just, stupid. 


So I’m sitting down in front of my tv the other morning and whose face appears on the screen but Carol Channing’s. Carol Channing, a woman I’ve seen on television all my life. Always perky, quirky, bubbly, funny, the actress and singer will always be remembered for two musical comedy roles: bombshell Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which she originated on Broadway, and Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! She’s about 90 years old I believe now, with a bunch of awards, including three Tonys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.


As I watched Carol Channing (the program she was on was The View) I listened as she launched what seemed like a ten minute reprimand against the American school system and American society in general, for allowing the arts to be taken out of the schools. I cannot tell you how delighted I was to hear this. Delighted.


For you see, as we continue to descend to the depths of Roman Empire debris, no matter how many American flags we thrust up in our yards and on the sides of public transportation vehicles, and faces, everything me and those that came before us have come up with, has been redefined. Whether it’s some girl we know or never heard of before, spreading those thighs and giving blowjobs for us on videos and posting them online, and becoming world famous with a reality show, or China owning 900 billion dollars of United States debt, it’s good to hear from time to time, the tiny little ingredients that has brought us to the way the state of things are now, like the elimination of the arts in our schools for example.


While I’m sure it was some liberal agenda years ago (and no I’m not a conservative), that brought us to relinquishing authority over our children, which is why we can’t give them an ass whipping in public or in class when they deserve it, I’m glad I saw Miss Channing to remind me of things that used to exist, like class, and talent. It made me feel like Edward G. Robinson in the movie Soylent Green, whose last desire was to see how nature used to be, before he dies.



The passing of bohemian poet, writer and singer Tuli Kupferberg at age 86 last week got me thinking about some things. Ostensibly, there’s the usual review of the person’s career—the works they presented to the public, what makes their body of work important, etc., etc. This time around for me however, I got to thinking about the sheer art of creating art itself.


Here was a man who had been creating since the early 1960s, constructing poems, writing songs, forming bands, selling cartoons, all with great verve, all the way up to his final days with YouTube postings displaying his usual wit. What struck me about Tuli Kupferberg is just the inordinate need to create art without polish, to conceive without thought of market value, but the need to convey a truth strong and humorously, and to inform.


Kupferberg was based in the Lower East Side of New York City. His work was left-wing and antiwar, and his presentations were in the absurdist theater vein. He formed the underground band the Fugs in 1964 with Ed Sanders, author of the book on Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders, The Family, and owner of the Peace Eye Bookstore, a place that housed antiwar sentiment and showcased artists like R. Crumb and others. Those Fugs albums were what I bought a few years later when I was a kid. I never forgot the presentation of those songs. There was definitely a punk energy to them, and of course, the Fugs predate punk by a number of years.


There was just purity to Tuli Kupferberg’s work.  When he completed his pieces, you knew that he wasn’t trying to get a merchandising deal with Coca-Cola or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as “Seinfeld” would say, but there are a couple of generations out here that cannot conceive of creating any art without seeking some kind of deal like that. With Kupferberg moving on, it just reminds me that that kind of spirit has moved on also.

Once Upon a Time


There was a time when television news was special in this country. It is almost impossible to believe now, but once upon a time the three networks (there were only 3 then, CBS, NBC and ABC), didn't have the exact same news stories when they went to broadcast during the early years of television. They had the main breaking world news stories of course, but not the same smaller ones. It was also possible during this period to change a channel during a commercial break, and go to another news broadcast, and not run into another commercial.

I once heard media mogul Ted Turner describe the networks as a cartel, meaning that the networks, as a group of corporations, decide what policy and operations they will put forth as one unit. They decided long ago that when one station goes to commercial, they will all go to commercial. Rarely can you turn a channel and completely escape not seeing a commercial coming on, at the very same time as the other commercial on the other channel you just left.

This has also affected the quality of the news. The homogeneous nature of all this, comes from the fact that most reporters are not being allowed to "beat the pavement" so to speak, in the Jimmy Breslin (pictured above) fashion, and find real and important news stories that actually effects us all. (They'll have special shows to do sensationalized sex and murder pieces, like a Dateline or ABC's 20/20, and little popcorn segments about rip-offs and such on the local news from time to time, but that's pretty much it.) This corporate level of control explains why the news now is nothing more than celebrity gossip. There's a reason why you don't fully understand the reasons for maintaining wars, but you know how many women Jesse James and Tiger Woods slept with.

What is American Karaoke?


I have never been able to watch American Idol. Although there have been a few decent singers to come out of the show in the past, year after year it seems that the quality has gone down. That is because in general, on and off the show,  the criterion for judging whether a person actually has singing talent has changed. For people in a certain age group, the vocal skills of Patti Labelle is viewed as just screams, while someone like Mary J. Blige is regarded as one of the finest singers to ever come into the business. It seems that generations have changed not only the measuring method, but the measuring stick as well, when it comes to evaluating vocal skill.

With Idol though, it seems that vocal skill is hardly taken into consideration at all. (The evaluation of it by the judges however, is mentioned for show and dramatic effect.) The matter of importance for Idol is how one looks, e.g., who's cute and how one wears one's hair. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel calls American Idol, karaoke. That opinion here is understood.