R ‘n B singer Lionel Robinson may not be wellknown but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been productive over the years. He has had several failed deals with different labels during his career but the hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005 probably took the biggest toll.
He was born in New Orleans, 1951. He recorded several 45’s for Traci Borges’ Knight imprint based in Metairie, Louisiana. He also used the name Lonnie Robinson for a release. Lionel “Lonnie” Robinson still hasn’t moved back to NOLA.
What actually happened that day New Orleans was flooded by Katrina in 2005?
We were preparing ourselves to leave. I came out on my porch and I looked down my street and saw water rolling down the street. I broke back inside and grabbed my wife by the hand and I said “get your purse and let’s go”. I opened the door to let her in the car. By the time I got around to the drivers side the water was up to my ankles coming up my legs. Oh Lord! I dove in through the window. I just hit the gas and left everything.
I had a record deal with a company out of Memphis Tennessee and I had finished the album, mixed it and everything. I was getting ready to send it off so they could press it. Guess what? Damn, here comes Katrina! The master was destroyed! I have had streak of some unfortunate things that has happened to me in the music business on the recording end.
I would like to ask you how you got into music. Did your parents encourage you playing music?
Well, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I was born to a lady that was like 11 years old. We were living in an abandoned house next door to three (older) ladies. My mother was trying to get food and milk for me and her. She left me in the abandonned house. My diapers were soaked and I got maggots on me. They ate me all up. I got scars on my body from where they bit me. I was three months old and I had like a 100 shots of penicillin because by my mother being 11 years old she didn’t know what to do. One day the authorities came to arrest my Mama to bring her to a reform school or whatever. She said “I’m not going you let you take my son and have him become ward of the state”. The ladies next door treated my mama real well and took care of me too. My Mama said “I’m not going to sign any papers with you or anything but you’ll are good people. I want you all to raise my son”. This is why I left from New Orleans to Chicago. I guess there were better opportunities in Chicago. Every year of my life the three ladies brought me back to New Orleans to my mother’s house and said “here’s your mother” and brought me to my dad’s house and said “here’s you dad”. I never went back to stay with my mama or my dad though. I always stayed with those ladies and they raised me in different intervals of my life. I was blessed that they came along and took care of me. It was a hectic ride and I have been good ever since.
That’s a really tough start in life… What inspired you to become a singer?
I worked at a sweetshop in New Orleans after I moved back from Chicago. I used to sing all the songs on the jukebox walking from the shop to my house. I had a grandmother that was a gospel singer and my uncle was a famous jazz musician from New Orleans. His name was Ernest Miller, Punch Miller or Kid Punch Miller. He gave me a one of his cornets at about age 8. I played in a band and stuff like that but I kind of got away from it when I got into high school.
Anyways, I came back to New Orleans in 1967. I never sang in churches or had no formal training – just singing on the corner. I met a guy one day and he told the other guys singing on the corner with me “be quiet, be quiet”. Suddenly, I was the only one left singing. He said “man, you can sing! I’m with a band called the Blue Pearls. Why don’t you come to rehearsel tomorrow?” I said “ok”.
We started to perform around town. One night the guys called me at about 3:30 in the morning. They were at Traci Borges’ Knight Recording Studio. They were hired to play behind this particular artist that was Traci’s at the time. “We are over here and this cat can’t sing the song. You get dressed and we’ll come and get you”. They introduced me to Traci Borges at the studio and he gave me a little tablet with the lyrics and a portable tape recorder. They brought me to another room while they finished up what they were doing. In 10 – 15 minutes I learned the song and I was ready to go! After the 3rd take I nailed the whole song. Right after that Traci brought me to his office and gave me a contract. I told him “wait Traci, I can’t do this. I am part of them (Blue Pearls) and they’re a part of me. So you sign me, you sign them.” The guys in Blue Pearls said “you go on and sign, bro. We will get on with you”. So I went on and I signed and the first record I recorded was “Candy Girl”. The Blue Pearls played the music.
What else can you tell me about the Candy Girl track?
The late Eddie Bo from New Orleans, he did the horn tracks. He arranged the whole horn section and everything. He came to Tracis studio and wrote the part in about 15 minutes. When the horn players arrived Eddie Bo handed each one of them a sheet and said “here’s the charts, are you guys ready, put on the track”. Bam! They nailed that in the first take. Eddie got in the car and left. That’s how quick we did that, man (laughs). That was my first record “Candy Girl”.
Who was Bob Lawrence who did a lot of engineering for Traci Borges?
Oh, Bob. He was the chief engineer for WWLTV in New Orleans and he was also the guy who set up the whole (Traci Borges) studio. He put up all the wires and stuff. I helped build the brick consignment for the studio building. I did all that stuff with Bob and Traci too. Bob Lawrence did pretty much all the engineering on the music that came out of there.
Who owned the Sunshine Movement Records for whom you recorded one 45?
His name was Jerry Brown. He owned a typewriter company. He came to Traci for some other business. At that time we had just done the dummy vocals for “Are You Sure (you want to give me your love),” so they could put the horns and strings on the song. Then I would come back and re-do the vocals to finish the song. Jerry heard the demo vocals and asked “Traci, who’s that guy?” “Oh, that’s Lionel Robinson. He’s one of my artists.” Jerry was like, “Man, why don’t you let me produce this song of his? Can I meet him? I found a pressing company that can do the best vinyl records in the South. The quality is unbelievable”. Jerry Brown ended up producing the song with Traci and myself.
As I mentioned then Jerry owned this big typewriter company and that’s how he did his payola. He would go to the program directors for the various radio stations. He said “look man, you look like you can use a good typewriter. I got $250 – $300 typewriters. I am going to give it to you for free and since I own the company I’ll write you a receipt for it. At the end of the year you can write this off on your taxes”. (Laughs) And that’s how he would pay the guys to play the records on the radio. This guy Jerry Brown was amazing! He got me a lot of play on WLAC in Nashville Tennessee.
Was payola really that widespread?
Was it worldwide? Oh, hell yeah man! (Laughs). This aint no secret I’m telling you. You got guys who were jocks who would play your record for a $25 bag of (co)caine because that’s how bad they were on it. They would play your stuff for two or three weeks and then they would call you again “hey, give me another bag of stuff”. A lot of the jocks liked white girls. If you’re smart and you’re in the game to get your record played then you go get a white girl to bring him so he will play your record. The name of the game is to get the record played. You do whatever is necessary. Yeah, man! Serious business! Some guys love other men, oh well, then you go get a man and bring him on in there. The name of the game is to get your record played.
You left Traci Borges and then it got kind of quiet for a while. What happened?
After my stay with Traci Borges I met a gentleman named Mr. Elijah Walker. God bless him! He had this deal with Malaco Records and Chimneyville Records out of Jacksonville, Mississippi. At that point Elijah Walker had Jean Knight and King Floyd as his main artists. We signed a deal for three 45s and an album. He turned me on to the different writers. We got together and wrote the songs. One morning they call around two in the morning and told me Elijah Walker passed away. I lost that whole deal. We recorded all the music but it was never was released.
Did you ever hear about the Soul Blenders who did a song called “Tight Rope” on the Knight label?
I could not for the life of me tell you who the heck was in the band. I was in the studio when they recorded it but I don’t remember the guys name or nothing. I lost a lot in Katrina. I lost so much memorabilia from all those different people who came through the Knight Recording Studio. I lost all that in New Orleans during Katrina. I owned a business for 14 years in New Orleans. It was a bridal business where I sold tuxedos, gowns, the shoes and everything. All gone. I lost all my jewelry and all my cameras. I had 4 tracks, I had 8 tracks, keyboards… All my music memorabilia I lost.
Lionel Robinson later went on to play with the City News Band and First Class as well with and along many of the greats of his genre. He also played some gigs around the Muhammed Ali versus George Foreman fight in Zaire 1974. He stayed active as a singer until his death on December 21st, 2012. Rest in peace.
You can read more about Mr. Robinson and listen to some of his songs here: