Author Tags: Music

Usually cited as Vancouver's first rock 'n' roll deejay, Robert Gordon 'Red' Robinson was born in Comox, B.C. on March 30, 1937. He started his career in radio by contributing to Al Jordan's afternoon show for teenagers on CJOR in 1953. They made contact after Robinson phoned into the show impersonating Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart who was visiting Vancouver at the time.

Red Robinson's first program called Theme for Teens has been described as the first scheduled radio program for rock 'n' roll in Canada. As soon as he graduated from high school in 1954, Robinson became an on-air host, befriending major artists who came to play in British Columbia and frequently serving as an emcee for the likes of Elvis Presley (1957) and The Beatles (1964). For EXPO 86, he presented 40 acts for Legends of Rock'n'Roll that included Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Righteous Brothers.

On October 23, 1957, as the host of the Teen Canteen program on CKWX, Robinson also hosted two shows for the Biggest Show Of Stars For 1957 at the Georgia Auditorium featuring Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Frankie Lymon, Eddie Cochran, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka and Buddy Holly. Robinson vividly recalls conducting a three-minute interview with Buddy Holly prior to the show. “We were both kids, neither one of us thought rock 'n' roll would last. He even stated this in his interview." Robinson was proud to be recognized by Buddy Holly at the time as the first disc jockey in North America to list the song “That’ll Be The Day” in Cashbox magazine. At that time, just 12 deejays in North America contributed their most requested hits, ten in all, to Cashbox. "Buddy felt I was the one most responsible for launching the career of The Crickets," says Robinson. "He recognized this during the interview.... Buddy was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He was fun loving & relaxed, who could have been a chum that I had gone to school with. Even the tough touring schedule did not bother him as it was an exciting time, a time of innovation, a time of youth. In those days, they did two or three songs, and then on to the next act. It’s interesting to note that after his untimely death I added a new facet to my own career & began booking rock & roll acts. In 1962, '63 and '64 I booked The Crickets in the Vancouver area and became friends with Sonny & JI...a friendship that has survived to this day. I will always treasure my meeting with Buddy. There was only one...he is gone but his legacy lives on.”

A 1957 photo [at right] of Robinson and Buddy Holly has been misrepresented as a photo of Buddy Holly with bad boy rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, much to Robinson's amusement.

Red Robinson first worked in television when he went to work at KGW radio station in Portland in 1959. He returned to Vancouver to become program director at CFUN in 1961, then operations manager at CJOR in 1968, followed by a long stint at CKWX from 1971 to 1983. From 1985 to 1993 he hosted a cross-Canada 'Oldies' program called Reunion, then switched to a local Oldies show for CISL for which he continues to broadcast on Sundays. Having long gained an understanding of the radio business and media promotion, Robinson started his own management company in 1988, chiefly working in the field of advertising, having become a provincial icon in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies for his cheerful manner in the style of dependable sports broadcaster Jim Robson. Red Robinson became the third Canadian broadcaster inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the U.S. in 1994. As the veritable Dick Clark of Vancouver pop music, Robinson was inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2000. Like his fellow broadcaster Jack Cullen, Red Robinson has long been an ardent collector of music memorabilia, amassing an extensive collection of photos. Some of these appear in Backstage Vancouver: A Century of Entertainment Legends (Harbour, 2004), co-written with Greg Potter, a journalist and amateur guitarist who wrote Hand Me Down World: The Canadian Pop-Rock Paradox (1999).

[BCBW 2004] "Music"

Red Robinson Reflects on Rock & Elvis Presley
Associated Press profile (2000)

Vancouver, British Columbia (AP) - He talked about cars and girls with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, got cursed on stage by John Lennon, and engineered hoaxes that created unruly street scenes.
As a teen-ager broadcasting Canada's first rock 'n' roll radio show, Red Robinson had to buy his own "race" records by black performers in the 1950s, carrying them out of the store in brown paper bags "like pornography."
Along the way came personal and public triumphs - interviews and friendships with greats like Bill Haley and Roy Orbison, induction into the rock 'n' roll halls of fame in Canada and the United States - and the pain of watching his contemporaries fall one by one to self-destruction and the pressures of fame.
Looking back on the eve of his final broadcast earlier this month, the 63-year-old Robinson sounded again like the freckle-faced 17-year-old who first put needle to vinyl on his own show 46 years ago.
"Rock 'n' roll - when it was born, it was fun. You could sing to it, you could dance to it," he said, sitting back on a couch in his memorabilia-packed office. "We thought this was a great big incredible roller-coaster ride and it was never gonna last. We were all kids having fun."
Much has changed since the days that Robinson calls the "innocence" phase of rock 'n' roll, but the clock seemed to roll back at the last show of his daily radio career, held in a Vancouver hotel ballroom.
Sitting at a simple desk with a single microphone and his everpresent headphones, Robinson's smooth voice and laser timing entertained hundreds of guests including old high school friends, business and charity partners, family and fans. Songs in the lineup included "Marie" by the Four Tunes, the first record he played on his first program, on Nov. 12, 1954.
Longtime pals remembered a kid hooked on music.
"I thought he was a bit of a goofball. He was doing a radio show. He was only a kid," said Dean Regan, who wrote a musical about Robinson called Red Rock Diner. "That's what rock 'n' roll was. Rock 'n' roll was a kid."
Robinson, always known as Red because of his flaming hair, was a radio nut at age 10 who put on shows in his family's garage, charging neighborhood kids a penny to attend. Then he heard a local disc jockey, Jack Cullen, and everything became clear.
"He interacted with the audience. I never heard anything like it," Robinson said. "I would go down and try to sneak into the studio to see him work. I knew then that I really loved this business because it talked to me, radio talked to me."
As his younger brother Bill, 61, put it: "In life, there's perhaps one in 10,000 who finds a job for which he's ideally suited. He's one of those people that happened to get the perfect job for him. He couldn't help but be successful."
When actor Jimmy Stewart came to town in 1952, Robinson telephoned an afternoon radio show titled Theme for Teens on station CJOR and did his best impression, apparently convincing host Al Jordan it was authentic. A week later, Robinson said, he called again and tried a Humphrey Bogart. Jordan figured out the hoax, but instead of being angry, he invited the 15-year-old to come help out on the show.
Robinson spent afternoons after school doing the odd impression, writing material and performing production tasks. When Jordan left the show in 1954, program director Vic Waters gave Red a shot.
"`You've been on this show, why don't you run it yourself?"' Robinson remembered Waters telling him. "`You've got a lot enthusiasm, why don't you try it?"'
Waters, now 82, recalled it differently, describing Robinson as "sitting there like a dog looking at a bone" until Waters told him to take over. Robinson "leaped across the control room, sat down and ... never looked back."
"The rumor that I gave Red his first job is wrong. Red gave Red his first job," he said.
It was an exciting time, with the new music reviving radio audiences after stars such as Jack Benny and Milton Berle had gone to television. The same age as his listeners, Robinson became a celebrity, signing autographs and often serving as master of ceremonies for big shows and promotional events.
One of the biggest was the Beatles, who attracted a frenzied crowd during their 1964 visit to Vancouver. At the request of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, Robinson went on stage during the set to tell the crowd to back up because the platform was shaking. Lennon cursed at him to get off.
Robinson's prominence gave him access to top performers who came to town, and he tells endless stories about his times with Holly, Presley and others.
Calling himself the first disc jockey to play Presley music in Canada, he credits Elvis for cementing the popularity of rock 'n' roll, ensuring its transformation from fad to industry. Before that, the thrill was just being around the scene and the performers.
"Not because at the time they were spectacular, but because we were kids and it was exciting and we thought it wouldn't last long," Robinson said. He refers repeatedly to an October 1957 interview in which he asked Holly how long rock 'n' roll would last, and Holly answered, not much past Christmas.
It wasn't all fun. Robinson said playing music by black artists could bring trouble back during segregation.
"You'd go in to buy it and honest to God they'd put it in a brown sack, and under the counter. You had to know what to ask for. It was like pornography," he said. "Look at early rock albums by black artists. There's no pictures of black artists on them. There's pictures of dancing and teen-age parties, but no pictures of black artists themselves."
Then there were the slurs and threats.
"I had phone calls, and I'm going to use their words. Nigger lover. OK?" Robinson said. "Why are you playing that devil's music? It was no joke - I mean, I'm a kid and it scared the hell out of me."
Robinson's career also included publicity stunts, such as false news reports on the night of March 31, 1958, that a whale had washed ashore in Vancouver. By the time midnight brought April Fool's Day, more than 10,000 people had jammed the waterfront hoping for a sighting.
When Robinson announced the prank by playing a record of Kirk Douglas singing "Whale Of A Tale," an angry crowd pounded on the doors of the radio station.
Robinson also had a stint in Portland, Ore., where he did his radio show and a television show called Portland Bandstand. He served in the U.S. military, then returned to Canada in 1961 and became program director at CFUN.
By 1969, with the classic rock era gone and the scene increasingly dominated by drugs and volatility, Robinson left the microphone to become operations manager back at CJOR. He later started an advertising company, but always returned to the studio, doing a morning show at CKWX for more than 12 years. After another break, he went to CISL in 1993.
On his farewell show, he began by talking over the opening guitar run of "Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees. "All aboard," he said. "This is my last ride and we're going to Clarksville."
His schtick included timeless puns of the trade - "This is the vinyl frontier" - and topical comments, such as this joke about Texas Gov. George Bush's post-election plans: "Win or lose, he'll need a designated driver."
That style made Robinson seem like a part of daily life, said Lorna Dysart, 56, a fan who came to his farewell show.
"When I come back from vacation, I turn on the radio to see what Red's up to and what's been going on," Dysart said. Asked if she'll listen to Robinson's successor, formidable rock 'n' roll deejay Tom Lucas, she said: "I've been wondering that myself. I do like the music, but Red was a big part of it, the way he did his show."
Lucas, attending Robinson's final show, pulled out a worn child's autograph book full of signatures from radio personalities, pro wrestlers and others. On the first page is the most prized of his collection - Red Robinson - obtained decades earlier.
"When I was a kid, I idolized him," Lucas said as Robinson signed the page a second time.
Robinson refers to himself as one of the last of an era, with radio moving more and more to a pre-programmed format. His green eyes saddened when he remembered contemporaries who fell victim to the drinking and drugs of the rock 'n' roll scene, or the inevitable toll of the years.
"I feel very honored to have been a survivor," he said. "All my friends are dead. It makes me sad. All these great talents are gone."
That includes most of the 82 broadcasters, including Robinson, who were inducted into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Asked what was best about that day, Robinson chose words that summed up his career.
"Just being part of the whole thing," he said, "seeing what had developed from the rudimentary start which was now billions and billions of dollars as a huge industry, and to mingle with people like Ben E. King and Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry."

-- By Tom Cohen, Associated Press Writer