Sylvia Robinson (née Vanderpool; May 29, 1935 – September 29, 2011), known mononymously as Sylvia, was an American singer, record producer, and record label executive. Robinson achieved success as a performer on two R&B chart toppers: as half of Mickey & Sylvia with the 1957 single "Love Is Strange", and her solo record "Pillow Talk" in 1973. She later became known for her work as founder and CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records.
|Birth name||Sylvia Vanderpool|
|Also known as|
|Born||May 29, 1935|
Harlem, New York, U.S.
|Origin||Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.|
|Died||September 29, 2011 (aged 76)|
Secaucus, New Jersey, U.S.
Robinson is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the hip hop genre: "Rapper's Delight" (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, and "The Message" (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, both of which she produced. At the 11th Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000, she received a Pioneer Award for her career in singing and for founding Sugarhill Records. Several publications have dubbed her the "Mother of Hip Hop". In 2022, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Ahmet Ertegun Award category for being a major influence on the creative development of hip-hop's early successes, and is the first woman to receive the award unaccompanied by another person.
Life and career edit
Early life edit
Robinson was born as Sylvia Vanderpool on May 29, 1935, in Harlem, New York, United States, to Herbert, who worked for General Motors, and Ida Vanterpool. Robinson attended Washington Irving High School until dropping out at the age of 14, and began recording music in 1950 for Columbia Records under the stage name "Little Sylvia".
Early career edit
In 1954, she began teaming up with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker, who 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 chart and reached number eleven on the Billboard pop chart in early 1957. After several more releases including the modestly successful "There Oughta Be a Law", Mickey & Sylvia split up in 1958 and she later married Joseph Robinson. Sylvia restarted her solo career shortly after her initial split from Baker, first under the name Sylvia Robbins. In 1960, Robinson produced the record "You Talk Too Much" by Joe Jones, but she did not receive credit.
In 1961, Mickey & Sylvia recorded more songs together for various labels including their own. Their label was called Willow Records and was distributed by King Records of Cincinnati. That year, Baker provided vocals and Robinson played guitar on Ike & Tina Turner's hit single "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" which earned Ike & Tina their first Grammy nomination. "I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that's me playing guitar," Robinson said in a 1981 interview with Black Radio Exclusive.
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 Jaynetts, 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" (1970), 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" (1975), The Moments' "Sexy Mama" and "Look at Me (I'm in Love)", Retta Young's "(Sending Out An) S.O.S." (1975), and the Whatnauts/Moments collaboration, "Girls". Robinson co-wrote and produced many of the tracks, although later she was supported by two members of The Moments, Al Goodman and Harry Ray, as well as locally based producers, George Kerr and Nate Edmonds.
Solo career edit
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 the US Billboard Hot 100 (#3), while also reaching #14 on the UK Singles Chart in the summer of 1973. She was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973, and earned a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 1974 Grammy Awards. "Pillow Talk"'s subtly orgasmic gasps and moans predated those of the 1975 Donna Summer song "Love to Love You Baby". Reviewing Robinson's 1973 debut LP (also titled Pillow Talk), Robert Christgau wrote in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981) that it is "Let's Get It On without production values. Call it underdeveloped if you want; I'll mention that it's unaffected. Including the best peace lyric heard lately, entitled 'Had Any Lately?'"
Sugar Hill Records edit
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" (1979), performed by The Sugar Hill Gang, brought rap into the public music arena by attaining one of the first commercially successful hip hop songs and revolutionized the music industry by introducing rap, scratch, and breakdance. 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".
In 1982 Sylvia Robinson with Grandmaster Melle Mel, produced the record "The Message", which was performed by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.  The record discussed life in the ghetto and became one of the most influential tracks of the hip-hop genre. On December 5, 2012, Rolling Stone selected "The Message" as one of the "50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time". In order for Rolling Stone to compose this list, the business asked 33 different artists and experts from every genre of music including Busta Rhymes, Boots Riley, The coup, Mike Diamond, from the Beastie Boys and Talib Kweli. Once the votes were in, "The Message" was placed in the number 1 spot on the list. Grandmaster Flash stated "And when that project was on the slate to be done-The message; I'm talking about-she would ask us for a period of time about doing a record having to do with the real life things that happen in the 'hood. And we kind of ducked it for a minute." Without Sylvia Robinson's insistence and pressure there would be no "The Message". This was the first record of its kind, where the DJ who was the cornerstone of Hip hop at the time (1980s) was not involved in creating a track that they performed.
Sugar Hill Records 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.
Personal life edit
Robinson was married to businessman Joseph Robinson Sr. from May 1959 until their amicable divorce in the late 1980s. Together they had three children, sons Joseph "Joey" Robinson Jr. (1962–2015), Leland Robinson (b. 1965 or 1966) and Rhondo "Scutchie" Robinson (1970–2014). Robinson owned a bar in Harlem, New York named "Joey's Place" after her husband in the 1960s. Robinson also owned another New York bar and nightclub named the Blue Morocco during the mid-1960s.
In popular culture edit
- In 2003 American electronic musician Moby sampled her song "Sunday" for his song "Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday)".
- 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 M. K, Asante cited the need for artists to return to Robinson's mantra of "Don't copy things that are out there... come up with something new, something different."
In 2014, producer Paula Wagner acquired the film rights to Robinson's life story from her son, Joey Robinson, an executive at Sugar Hill Records. Joey (who died in July 2015) was scheduled to executive produce and serve as a consultant on the project, along with rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel, while music executive Robert Kraft was to co-produce the film along with Stephanie Allain. In October 2015, Warner Bros. announced that it would be the studio producing the film, and that Malcolm Spellman and Carlito Rodriguez, two of the writers on Empire, were writing the script. In October 2018, it was announced that Wagner and Warner Bros. were still moving forward with the film, Spellman and Rodriguez had been joined by Tracy Oliver in completing the script, Justin Simien had been attached as the director, and that Oliver would join Robinson's son Leland as executive producers.
- 1973: Pillow Talk (Vibration VI-126) (US #3)
- 1975: Sweet Stuff (Vibration VI-127)
- 1976: Sylvia (Vibration VI-129)
- 1977: Lay It On Me (Vibration VI-131)
- 1996: Pillow Talk: The Sensuous Sounds of Sylvia (Rhino R2-71987) (CD compilation)
Little Sylvia edit
- 1951: "Little Boy" / "How Long Must I Be Blue" (Savoy 816)
- 1952: "I Went To Your Wedding" / "Drive Daddy Drive" (Jubilee 5093)
- 1952: "A Million Tears" / "Don't Blame My Heart" (Jubilee 5100)
- 1953: "The Ring" / "Blue Heaven" (Jubilee 5113)
- 1954: "Fine Love" / "Speedy Life" (Cat 102)
Sylvia Robbins edit
- 1960: "Frankie and Johnny" / "Come Home" (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)
- 1968: "I Can't Help It" / "It's A Good Life" (All Platinum 2303)
Charted singles edit
|1973||"Pillow Talk" (Vibration 521)||3||1||59|
|"Have You Had Any Lately?" (Vibration 524)||102||—||—|
|"Didn't I" (Vibration 524)||70||21||—|
|"Soul Je T'Aime" (with Ralfi Pagan) (Vibration 525)||99||39||—|
|1974||"Alfredo" (Vibration 527)||—||62||—|
|"Private Performance" (Vibration 528)||—||62||—|
|"Sho Nuff Boogie" (with The Moments) (All Platinum 2350)||80||46||—|
|"Sweet Stuff" (Vibration 529)||103||16||—|
|"Easy Evil" (Vibration 530)||—||68||—|
|1976||"L.A. Sunshine" (Vibration 567)||—||54||—|
|1977||"Lay It on Me" (Vibration 570)||—||65||—|
|1978||"Automatic Lover" (Vibration 576)||—||43||—|
|1982||"It's Good to Be the Queen" (Sugar Hill 781)||—||53||—|
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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.
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Sylvia Vanterpool Robinson, 75, often credited as the Mother of Hip-Hop, died today at 6:28 a.m. EST from congestive heart failure.
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