Harlem, N.Y. lost its rhythm and blues patriarch as Bobby Robinson, owner of the neighborhood’s famed record store Bobby’s Happy House died on Jan. 7 at 93.
Among many other accomplishments, Robinson was best known for jumpstarting the careers of a bevy of major R&B and rap stars.
According to the New York Daily News, Happy House was launched in 1946 and was the first Black-owned business on Harlem’s 125th St.
Robinson was reared in Union, S.C., and fell in love with blues music as a teen, according to The New York Times. Stationed as a corporal in Hawaii during World War II, Robinson was given the task of hiring entertainment, and he snagged extra funds on the side by loan-sharking sailors and soldiers. After garnering $8,000, he moved to Harlem and purchased an old hat shop for $2,500.
Robinson transformed the shop into a record store and later a recording studio, often cutting records for local “Doo-Wop” acts. He acquired his first hit with “I’m So Happy” by Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords in 1956. The single, which Robinson penned, went on to be highly successful in the Northeast.
By 1959, Robinson had another hit on his hands with Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City,” which became a No. 1 national hit.
He was also credited with giving soul legend Gladys Knight her group’s catchy moniker. Initially, the group referred to themselves as “The Pips,” but after meeting with Robinson, he persuaded the singers to change their name.
“I said, “Gladys is the singer, so you better put her name out front,’” Robinson told the Times in a past interview. “They went for it, otherwise Gladys Knight would’ve been just another Pip.”
Robinson also helped jumpstart the careers of Ike and Tina Turner, Brownie McGhee and The Five Satins. During the late ’70s, Happy House became one of the early label owners to record rap music, taking in artists such as Grandmaster Flash, Spoonie Gee and Doug E. Fresh.
Robinson’s shop continued to be a staple in the Harlem community, but in the ‘90s, he was forced to relocate the business to a shop around the corner. In 2008, Happy House officially closed its doors. Like many other historic businesses in the area, it had lost the battle to gentrification.
According to News One, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) gathered with 100 mourners in Harlem on Jan. 13 to honor Robinson’s legacy. The final farewell was held in a church just one block away from where Happy House used to stand.
At the event, Rangel presented Robinson’s family with words honoring Robinson that will be added into the congressional record.