In Houston, Texas where he was born in 1903 in the historic Fifth Ward district to an African-American middle-class multi-racial family, Don ‘Deadric’ Robey was by all accounts destined for business greatness. Although his parents and family had merely assumed that he’d be a great lawyer or doctor or an educator, Don had other ideas. In spite of his early academic gifts, he dropped out of school as a teenager and began a quest to make his own way as an entrepreneur.
By his early twenties, he’d displayed a knack and acumen for starting small successful businesses. And in most instances, combined with an innate set of ‘street smarts’, he was mostly successful in every venture he attempted.
After a brief three-year stint in Los Angeles successfully managing his own nightclub, the ‘Harlem Grill’ in LA’s rapidly expanding black entertainment district along Central Avenue, he not only prospered but cultivated many business ties that would serve him well in later years. It was an incredible time as all the greats from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Jelly Roll Morton to Dizzy Gillespie to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Redd Foxx and countless others were exciting huge crowds on LA’s famed black owned entertainment clubs on Central Avenue. Robey was soaking the whole atmosphere up. It surely made an incredible impression on the young Don Robey. He returned to Houston and opened a taxicab company that with 17 vehicles or so serviced the fast growing mostly black neighborhoods.
Often mistaken for white, Robey instead chose to flout his true blackness like a proud Peacock. In fact, he would forever be identified with the brand name ‘Peacock’ on his various ventures. In 1945, he opened the “Bronze Peacock Supper Club” in Houston. With his long time assistant Evelyn Johnson, Robey opened a series of record stores and established an artist booking and personal management firm, “Buffalo Booking Agency.” In doing so, his client list in the emerging ‘booking and management’ field would prove impressive. Among the artists Robey established were soon to be world famous, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, ‘Memphis Slim,’ and ‘Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’ among others.
In 1949, he founded the Peacock Record label. By his death in 1975, Don Robey had built a recording musical empire that for three decades beginning in 1945, until he opted to sell his vast musical catalogue and brands in 1974 to African American legendary record executive Otis Smith then President of ABC-Dunhill Records, which had been one of the most successful black owned companies in America. Some historians insist that Robey’s vast musical empire was the most successful black owned company in America during its time. Indeed, Robey laid the extraordinary groundwork that many black owned recording companies such as Vee-Jay (of Chicago), Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International, and Solar Records, et al., would successfully utilize as a business model years later.
Only “Black Swan Records” which was owned by Harry Pace during the emergence of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ in New York in 1921 with a recording label line-up that included black Opera singer, ‘Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’ and jazz pioneer, ‘Fletcher Henderson’ and other ground breaking performers predated the musical recording epics that Robey would unleash from his operating base in Houston in 1949 and later Memphis until his death in 1975. The scope of Robey’s success would rival that of mostly white owned recording labels such as Chess and Roulette by the late 40s and early 50s.
At one time in his myriad of recording labels, Robey had no fewer than 100 various acts under contract on four different labels that included Peacock-Duke, and these performers crossed the line from Blues to the emergence of Rhythm and Blues to Gospel, to Rock and Roll to Country and Western to Rockabilly to jazz. In other words, he had it all. Simply put, he was the most successful black man in the recording business and in an industry when he first burst onto the scene that was clearly dominated by whites. And that was no small task. One of Robey’s earliest artists was the incredible ‘Little Richard.’
Similar to Berry Gordy and Motown in later years in Detroit and Los Angeles, Don Robey was a local legend in Houston and whose reputation as a shrewd and smart businessman spread throughout the then rapidly expanding black entertainment world. Yet, unlike other black recording owners, Robey via his individual success as a small business owner in his early years had amassed a sizable fortune. He utilized his own money to initially expand his businesses and was totally independent of any partners who might encourage or even demand that he take his business ventures in a different direction. He was a rarity in the music business as an independent self-made wealthy man.
His subsequent commercial entertainment success in 1945 was the successful launch and management of the Bronze Peacock Supper Club in Houston. It was an upscale club often equated to a Copacabana, (the Copa) in New York or famed Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The ‘Bronze Peacock Club’ quickly became a major performing venue for the leading black entertainers of the day including jazz greats Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and stand-out Blues performers such as Ruth Brown, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, “T-Bone Walker” and hundreds of others. Robey’s Bronze Peacock was often referred to as “Las Vegas in Houston” due to its classy upscale atmosphere and name performers he showcased to an eager and willing Houston audience. He later open the “Club Matinee” in the Fifth Ward of Houston and featured many then unknown acts including “Ike and Tina Turner.”
Robey’s recording company artists are legendary and far too numerous to mention here. Yet, it’s fair to say that his 1949 discovery and signing of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a watershed occurrence. Thornton on Robey’s Peacock Records in a recording session produced by a soon to be legend in his own right, ‘Johnny Otis’ that Robey had on the Peacock Label as well and with a 1951 song that was written by two young then struggling white songwriters, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, “Hound Dog." It quickly became a bonafide international hit and cultural phenomena. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s gut wrenching version of ‘Hound Dog’ released in March of 1953 on Peacock Records was, for its time the equivalent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ some three decades later. ‘Hound Dog’ further established Peacock Records and Don Robey as a major force in the music industry. Many attribute the overall success of the song as the forerunner to two major musical genres to come, Rhythm & Blues as well as Rock and Roll. Indeed, several years later, a young up and coming “Elvis Presley” covered ‘Hound Dog’ note for note and the rest is well, additional musical lore.
But, Robey and his entourage of extraordinary producers, musicians, and writers in his Houston headquarters were no one-hit wonder. Utilizing income from the success of both “Big Mama” Thornton and Elvis Presley’s huge hit, ‘Hound Dog’, Robey wanted to expand his label to even more emerging black music and that’s when he negotiated with two Memphis based WDIA radio personalities to purchase from them a label they’d had some limited success with and that was Duke Records. Lacking funds to expand the label, the two had turned to Don Robey.
In today’s instance of mergers and acquisitions, buy-outs and takeovers, Robey’s expansion into the Memphis music scene with his acquisition of ‘Duke Records’ was the stuff of genius. With Duke came some of the then greatest artists ever to perform including the legendary “Johnny Ace” who would be considered a forerunner to a later Sam Cooke or Al Greene. After just one major hit by Johnny Ace who Robey coveted due to his extraordinary cross-over appeal to white audiences, Ace was tragically killed by a self-inflicted accidental gun-shot less than two years later. Yet, in the brief eighteen months or so he recorded and performed countless one-night concerts throughout the Southwest and Southeast for Don Robey, the music became to be considered by music buffs as R&B classics.
Also within the Duke acquisition was a pure blues singer who’s velvet voice would until today, become and remain one of the most successful artists ever recorded and that’s was legendary Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.
Not merely content with his explosive success in the fast expanding ‘Blues’ and R&B markets, Robey expanded his reach into what many considered at the time a very sacred and controversial area of music. And that was into the then little noticed ‘gospel music’ genre. Over time, Robey’s visionary expansion into gospel music would give him artists that were quickly becoming household names, not only within the gospel audience but within the mainstream audience as well. Robey did to Gospel what later Gospel performers would do and that was to add a commercial sound that was akin to the sounds normally associated with the Blues or Rhythm and Blues. Some called it heresy, but Robey’s expansion of the traditional Gospel sound to one that found a mainstream audience was truly remarkable.
His success within the gospel arena remains a record that few have duplicated since. With such legendary gospel artists on his “Songbird” label such as the Five Blind Boys, Inez Andrews, the Dixie Hummingbirds and dozens of other gospel chart makers that fans around the Southwest and country were anxious to hear and purchase the records, Don Robey had set in motion musical exceptionalism in every conceivable manner.
If his foray into gospel music had been historic, his launch of the “Backbeat” Label was equally brilliant. Realizing a need to offer his rapidly expanding audience more upscale acts from those he was recording on his “Duke-Peacock” label, Robey launched the “Backbeat” label. Here, he would have another label that could record and release such great up and coming artists as ‘Joe Hinton’ and ‘O.V. Wright’. All of whose appeal gravitated to a more upscale audience that sought music beyond the Bluesy imprint he’d established with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. And successful it was beyond measure. “Joe Hinton” and “O.V.Wright’s” success spurned many music critics and fans that worship these artists nearly six decades later.
But, perhaps the recording move that raised more than an eyebrow or two was his signing of a young white soulful and Southwest Texas Rockabilly performer who’d been greatly influenced by another great Texas black music legend, ‘Joe Tex’ and that was “Roy Head.” Robey’s signing of Roy Head to his ‘Backbeat’ label proved to be a stroke of genius in that Head’s recording and 1965 release of “Treat Her Right” was a smash hit and million seller propelling Head to stardom and Robey’s Midas touch and reputation to astronomical heights. ‘Treat Her Right’ reached number two on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. Only the Beatles’ classic “Yesterday” then perched at the Billboard Hot 100 number one slot prevented ‘Treat Her Right’ from reaching number one. And what made Robey’s success with Roy Head even more note worthy was that it was somewhat rare for an exclusive black label to have such a success with a white artist at the time.
It should also be noted though that Vee-Jay Records during the 50s, a black record company out of Chicago with legendary record man, Ewart Abner at the helm was poised for even greater success with its historic signing of two young white groups of musicians during the 60s, “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons” as well the phenomenal “Beatles.” Yet, although Vee-Jay had initial surprise success with both the Four Seasons and the Beatles, it was short-lived with the flurry of lawsuits that descended upon Vee-Jay Records in the wake of its success with both groups. The major white owned labels sensing the emergence of the success of the two groups papered over the small Vee-Jay Record label with a flurry of lawsuits aimed to wrest control of the two emerging superstar groups. And what might have been even greater success for its original husband and wife founders, Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken; the initial jubilation was short lived.
But, Robey due to his business acumen, iron grip and control of his publishing, labels and artists had no such major issues. Perhaps, Robey’s isolation from the normal chicanery widely accepted at the time in the recording industry was immune from such poaching in that his base of operations was in Houston. Whereas, most of the other emerging and major recording labels were in the New York, Chicago or Detroit or in the other major urban cities, Houston attracted little attention despite the enormous success that Robey was generating. This gave Robey even more immunity from midnight raids on his artists or his valuable publishing rights. Further and at the time, most recording and releases were regional to a great extent. However, Robey’s 1952 success with Big Mama Thornton’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ was truly national and international in scope and placed him in a spotlight he might otherwise have avoided.
Nelson George in his epic book, “The Death of Rhythm and Blues” observed of Don Robey and his Houston base, “…Robey built an empire worth millions in a city far removed from the main line of entertainment. Yet, his geographical location worked in his favor. Robey was a big fish in a pond that hadn’t held any that big before.”
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland
Yet, Robey developed and generated so many artists and performers that it would literally take a dedicated encyclopedia just to cover his work alone. From Little Richard to BB King to Bobby Bland to O.V.Wright to Roy Head to Big Mama Thornton, it’s a list of near endless achievement by a black man at a very special time in history that truly was extraordinary.
When the great innovators of the music industry are mentioned, it’s rare if ever you hear the name Don Robey. Although this man paved a path of success “his way”, one would think that everyone in America and around the world that truly love the music he helped create beyond just music collectors and historians would know all about the incredible accomplishments of this man. Yet, when his name is mentioned in its rarity and as is often the case with most highly successful black businesspersons of his era, unflattering words are usually attached. He’s been accused of robbing artists of their royalties or even of being tied to the mob or in some extreme unfair observations; he’s been likened to a murderer or worst. In one movie, his unfair characterization was thinly veiled as a gangster.
Rarely if ever has there been any in-depth discussion of the greatness of Don Robey and how he forever changed the recording industry for the likes of Berry Gordy, Curtis Mayfield, or Gamble/Huff or Dick Griffey that were to follow in his success, or for that matter, the major white owned labels such as Atlantic, Brunswick, Capitol or RCA that coveted ‘race music’ in its catalogue as it was then called. As the country was quickly moving, listening, dancing and more importantly purchasing black music in huge numbers, the major labels wanted a piece of this very profitable business and often, by any means necessary.
As a successful businessman who was black in the often rough and tough record business, Don Robey had to be resolute and firm in not only how he dealt with rivals but, in many instances, the artists themselves. Were he white, he would be lauded as one of the great businessmen of all times. But, such respect has not been so easy to come to the legacy of the great black music entrepreneurs such as Don Robey.
Count Basie & Don Robey
In spite of his major success in Houston and beyond, often when suppliers or vendors discovered he was black, the racism and use of the ‘N’ word was often. In one instance when ordering the record printing of one of his artists, the white East Texas manufacturing representative stated bluntly that he would not deal with “no Nigger.” Robey is quoted as having said to the fellow in a firm and intimidating voice, “they call me, Mister Robey.”
President Barack Obama has declared June African-American Music Appreciation Month. As we acknowledge the true greatness and the often-unheralded success of these truly remarkable men and women that pioneered the music that the entire world enjoys, the name and legacy of Don D. Robey has to be included at the very top of the list. He was the ‘Original King of Black Music’.