There are a lot of people that have influenced music, but few of them have had as impressive a career as Sylvia Robinson. Known as the Mother of Hip-Hop (alternately, Queen of Hip-Hop), she was witness to the birth of three musical genres, and worked on seminal tracks in all of them. The hits she produced or helped produce changed the landscape of culture both directly and indirectly, and the fact that we don’t have a biopic of her life to watch is criminal.
Round One: The Birth of Rock and Roll
Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson was born without the Robinson in New York City in 1936. There, she attended Washington Irving High School, but music was in her blood from a young age and she began recording for Columbia when she was just 14 years old. She published two singles with famed trumpeter Hot Lips Page (“Chocolate Candy Blues”/”Pacifying Blues”, “I Was Under the Impression (That You Loved Me)”/”Sharp Little Sister”) before moving to Savoy Records and changing her name to Little Sylvia, in an attempt to follow up the success Savoy had previously with Little Esther. These early years made her a child star, landed her on the cover of Jet magazine, and afforded her the opportunity to work with some of the most talented people in the music industry.
Those first two records are often overlooked in her discography, but how important they were to her musical development shouldn’t be understated. Hot Lips Page was incredibly popular in his day, and his music helped influence rhythm and blues from the very beginning. It was one of the best opportunities a young artist could hope for, and the evidence shows that she soaked up as much information as she could. Throughout her career, her strongest music has always tried to maintain that balance between the dance beat (rhythm) and the musician’s voice (blues), and the early tutelage of Hot Lips Page may have had something to do with that.
Most of the material she released over the next few years was in collaboration with a respected session musician trying to make it as a bandleader, Buddy Lucas. Together they recorded quite a few songs, but only about half were released (more appeared on a retro compilation in 1995, and a follow-up in 1997). Their work together occurred during the musical revolution of the early 50s that we would come to know as the birth of rock and roll, but they didn’t know that at the time. We do know that Sylvia and Buddy were in the thick of it. Their 1952 release “I Went To Your Wedding” was a standard-for-the-time ballad, but one of the single’s B-sides (it was released twice, with different B-sides) was “Drive Daddy Drive,” a fast, upbeat dance number that should definitely be in the discussion about early rock.
Also notable from the time period is a song called “A Kiss For My Baby.” Unreleased until it appeared on Jubilee Jezebels, Vol. 2 in 1997, the song features Sylvia and Buddy communicating somewhat conversationally, in a style that she would become famous for after she met her next producing partner and became a duo.
“Love Is Strange”
By 1956, Sylvia was established as a singer, but spending so much time around such creative musicians instilled in her a desire for more, and she vowed to learn guitar. She called on session musician Mickey Baker, who also worked regularly for Savoy, to give her lessons. Baker is known as one of the most influential early rhythm and blues guitarists, his name is often mentioned beside the likes of Bo Diddley and Ike Turner, and she learned from him quickly.
Along with learning guitar from Baker, Sylvia recorded a single with his band, “Fine Love,” with a B-side featuring a fast-paced dance number, “Speedy Life,” that hinted at the dynamic between the two musicians. Inspired by the success of husband and wife duo Les Paul and Mary Ford, Baker suggested they form a duo, and the two became Mickey and Sylvia. They would work as an act through the 50s and collaborate together until the end of the 60s, but it was one song – their only Top 40 hit – that would define their partnership and land them a place in music history permanently.
Although “Love Is Strange” only reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, its influence has been incredible. Jimi Hendrix’s brother, Leon, claims that the song was one of Hendrix’s primary musical motivations, and Buddy Holly often lauded the song, going so far to do his own cover (a surprisingly stripped-down version – he would also cover Mickey and Sylvia’s “Dearest”) and incorporating some of Sylvia’s singing style into his own performance. Additionally, the guitar sound in the finished song was enhanced through multi-track recording and layering, one of the first times that technique was used, but not anywhere near the last. Years later, the song would appear on The Dirty Dancing Soundtrack and capture the hearts of a whole new generation of listeners, helping to inspire a whole new generation of musicians. In 2004, it was ultimately given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, due to its importance to music.
Outside of how it shaped the show part of show business, “Love Is Strange” also shaped and directed Robinson’s understanding of the business side of things. Its release was marred by controversy, primarily around the question of who wrote the song. The credit on the track was given to Mickey and Sylvia, along with Bo Diddley (who was credited under his wife’s name for legal/financial reasons), but Diddley’s guitarist, Billy Stewart, made the claim that the foundation the song was built on was a guitar riff he wrote.
Regardless of who wrote the foundation the song was built on, the fingerprints of Sylvia Robinson and Micky Baker are all over it. The Afro-Cuban guitar and laid-back vibe is more reminiscent of the earlier Mickey and Sylvia track “Se De Boom Run Dun” (below) than any of the multiple versions of “Love Is Strange” that have been recorded since, and the conversational back-and-forth between the two artists in the song’s last third is Sylvia being Sylvia like we’ve seen her do before.