Sunday, March 18, 2007

Roscoe Robinson - How Many Times Must I Knock (Sound Stage 7 2618)

How Many Times Must I Knock


[This post has been in the pipeline for a long time, and I figured that since we've been focusing on some under-appreciated sides that were cut at American Studios during the height of their success, now would be as good a time as any to finally make it happen. Before we go any further, I'd like to acknowledge the generous contributions of John Ciba and David Cole, without whom it never would have been possible.]

Roscoe Robinson was born in 1928 in either Dumont, Alabama or Dermott, Arkansas (I've seen it listed both ways). In any event, his family (like so many others) moved north to find work, and had settled in Gary, Indiana by the late thirties. Roscoe's vocal talents were evident early on and, by the time he was fourteen, he had begun singing with local 'quartet-style' Gospel groups, much like his close friend Sam Cooke.

(For the scoop on Robinson's storied Gospel career, please be sure to visit holy ghost, where I've attempted to outline it in detail...) By the early sixties, Roscoe had been essentially shut out of the Gospel field, and was having trouble finding work. He decided to try and 'cross-over' and recorded a one-off single for the Tuff label, a New York concern that was distributed by Chess. The record, What Makes A Man Do Wrong, didn't do much, and Roscoe decided to take matters into his own hands.

Reportedly pawning his Cadillac, he started up his own record company, and named it after his wife, Gerri. Drawing on the wealth of experience he had accumulated in over twenty years out on the 'Gospel Highway', he arranged and produced a song written by Raven Wildroot called That's Enough, and released it as Gerri 001 in late 1965. Backed with the deep Ivan Thompson ballad, One More Time, the record couldn't miss.

When it started to make some noise locally, Chicago record distributor Ernie Leaner got interested and, after lending Robinson the money to get his car out of hock, shopped it around to some major labels. It was picked up by Wand in New York, who agreed to allow Leaner to handle distribution in the midwest. Released as Wand 1125 in the summer of 1966, this bouncy uptown soul number spent thirteen weeks on the R&B charts, climbing as high as #7.

The follow-up (Wand 1143) was another great two-sider, How Much Pressure (Do You Think I Can Stand) backed with Do It Right Now, which were both written by Robinson as well. Both songs hit the R&B top 40 on their own in successive weeks in December 1966. His next few Wand releases failed to chart, however, and after a disagreement with the company over management issues, he walked away the following year.

His next stop was Nashville, where he would hook up with the legendary John R, the influential WLAC disc jockey that was the head of production for the Sound Stage 7 label. Roscoe became a part of the team at 'J.R. Enterprises, Inc.', and "was helping producing and arranging and putting it all together." Excellent records like One Bodillion Years and Fox Hunting On The Weekend kept him in the public eye down South, and he was getting plenty of work, but the records couldn't dent the national charts.

Today's positively AWESOME B side (the flip of Why Must it End) was recorded down in Memphis in 1968 with the 'American Studio Group' (aka The Memphis Boys) just cranking it out. I'm not sure if that's Tommy Cogbill or Mike Leech playing that bass, but, man! The punchy horn lines by Nashville stalwart Bergen White along with those high energy female vocals combine to make this one of my favorite of Roscoe's records. After his next Sound Stage 7 single (the great I'm Burning and Yearning (For You)) tanked in early 1969, Roscoe decided it was time to move on.

“John Richbourg was like a daddy,” Robinson told David Cole a few years ago, “I loved him. He was good for getting a lot of folks’ careers going. But Sound Stage 7 had a star already, Joe Simon..." Ultimately, he said, John's radio show was no longer enough to break his records nationally, and there just wasn't much promotion beyond that. It was once again time to take matters into his own hands, and he re-activated his Gerri label.

After releasing the ultra-collectable Don't Forget The Soldiers (Fighting in Vietnam) (Gerri 002), he got together with another legendary southern dee-jay, Ed 'Doctor Jive' Mendel. Mendel asked him to go into the studio and cut something, and he came back with a cover of Fred Hughes' Oo Wee Baby, I Love You that he had pressed up on Gerri. When Doctor Jive started to spin the record on the air, his phones lit up, and he knew they had a hit. He was able to place it with Atlantic, and it climbed to #42 R&B in the summer of 1969.

Somewhere around in here, Roscoe began hanging out at Sound Of Birmingham, Neal Hemphill's Alabama studio, where he worked with people like Frederick Knight, Jerry Weaver, Sam Dees and his Black Haze Express (pictured at left), and the elusive Cold Grits. The two unreleased Roscoe Robinson tracks that have come to light on John Ciba's excellent The Birmingham Sound compilation are simply amazing. If you don't have it, get it.

After so many years around the business, Roscoe knew just about everybody, and he got together with his old friends Harrison Calloway and Aaron Varnell down in Muscle Shoals in 1970. The record they produced with The Fame Gang, Don't Pretend (Just Be Yourself) (Fame 1469) is simply top shelf stuff, and one of the most sought after of all the Fame 45s, routinely going for serious cash when it shows up on eBay.

Apparently not content until he recorded in every studio in the south, Roscoe next headed for Stan Lewis' Sound City out in Shreveport, Louisiana (for more on the great records he made out there, please check out The A Side). By 1972, Robinson made the decision to 'cross back over' into Gospel music, where he, for the most part, still remains today (as I mentioned above, his Gospel side is covered at length over at holy ghost).

In 1998, Roscoe released an album of secular standards called 'Roads and Rails', and made a very well received appearance at the Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland as part of a Sound Stage 7 revue that also featured the great Earl Gaines. (I just read that my man Little Buster performed at the festival that year as well!)

More recently, that same album was re-issued under the title So Called Friends in 2004, and Roscoe has his Gerri label up and running again with a 2005 release, The Gospel Stroll.

He performed with Ralph 'Soul' Jackson at two shows last year that helped celebrate the release of the Sound Of Birmingham CD (a decidedly low-fi video of the Birmingham show is up on You Tube).

I know I must sound like a broken record sometimes, but Roscoe Robinson truly deserves a LOT more recognition than he's ever received. The reality is, however, that because he recorded for so many different labels, there will probably never be a decent CD overview of his work. A contemporary of Sam Cooke, who would go on to replace one of the most prominent voices in 'hard Gospel' before crossing over, just as Sam did, Roscoe should be considered a treasured part of our heritage...

How Many Times Must He Knock?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That one was indeed a real cooker. I have that Neal Hemphill comp too, I'm with you on that one.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Dystopos said...

I just shook hands with Mr. Robinson and picked up a copy of a double CD entitled "That's Enough: The Singles Collection" with 48 tracks. This was at the Birmingham Record Collectors show today. I'm not sure where else you can buy it, but the spine has a Gerri logo.

Incidentally, I happened to pick up the "High on Jesus" LP for $3 at the show, but since I was short on cash to buy the double CD, I ended up selling it to Robinson's manager for $10.

If you're ever in Birmingham, Robinson often sings at Beloved Community Church on 41st Street South in Avondale. Everybody is welcome.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Meghan Plummer said...

Hey there-

This is Meghan Plummer, and I'm an intern for THE OXFORD AMERICAN magazine. I hope you're well.

I'm researching Black Haze Express and am curious where you found a photograph of them. Any information you could provide would be most helpful.

Thanks for your time and what you do!


5:09 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Meghan - The photograph in question was supplied by Roscoe himself, through Rabbit Factory Records.


7:43 AM  

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