Names You Should Know – In Music: Sylvia Robinson

Round Two: Redefining Rhythm and Blues

mickeysylviastudioMickey and Sylvia produced a number of singles through the 50s and early 60s, but only achieved modest success. Their follow up to “Love Is Strange,” “There Ought To Be A Law,” shipped with the B-side “Dearest,” which was well received by the music community, and one of their last singles to chart, “Lovedrops,” went gold when it was covered by Canadian band Barry Allen & the Rebels. They also notably worked on the 1961 Ike and Tina Turner hit “It’s Gonna Be All Right,” their biggest single until they released “Proud Mary” ten years later. Again, controversy ensued, and there is some disagreement as to who did what on the record, with Baker and Turner both claiming they performed the guitar parts and primary male vocals.

The duo broke up at the end of the 50s/beginning of the 60s, but there isn’t a definitive answer why. We do know that Mickey Baker was becoming increasingly frustrated with the music industry, due in no small part to the controversies that seemed to follow him around, and although he’d continue to collaborate with Sylvia for a few years, he soon moved to France to get away for good (although he would still work as a musician until his death in 2012). It was also right around this time that Sylvia Vanderpool met Joe Robinson, fell in love, got married, and became Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson.

In 1966, Sylvia and her husband moved to Englewood, New Jersey, and founded a record company. Joe would mostly manage the business side of things, while Sylvia would handle the creative part of the business. Their company, All Platinum Records, would release a bunch of hits – many penned and produced by Sylvia herself – and their in-house production studio, Soul Sound Studios (later, Sugar Hill Studios), would host a slew of great artists until it burned down in 2002. Many of the early records written and produced by Sylvia for her label would become classics, making the artists under her known to the world, but none would be as influential as one of the few she performed herself.

All Platinum Records and “Pillow Talk”
sylviarecordsThe early 60s was a difficult time for rhythm and blues as a genre. Rock and roll had evolved into the most popular thing on the planet, and for much of the 50s the term “rhythm and blues” was often synonymous with “black rock and roll.” As the Civil Rights Movement championed artistic integration, rhythm and blues as a genre seemed left without a voice that made it distinct from the rest of popular music.

Labels like Motown Records (founded in 1959) and All Platinum Records saved rhythm and blue from obscurity by doing so well what black artists had done in the past – reach back to the South and find some new sounds. In years past, rhythm and blues had spawned rock and roll by fusing jazz, blues and country gospel. In the sixties, R&B gave us soul music thanks to the integration of the Memphis Soul sound, and New Orleans Funk followed soon after. Finally, the disco fever of the 70s lit imaginations, and the resultant sound salad solidified in the contemporary R&B sounds of today.

One of All Platinum Records’ first big hits was “Love On A Two Way Street” by The Moments. The song reached #3 on the pop charts, sold more than a million copies, and lives on as a sample in Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Sylvia was one of the song’s writers. She also wrote Shirley and Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame“, and co-wrote “Pillow Talk,” another All Platinum Records million-selling single. The record company was successful enough to open up a UK label, and in 1975 they less successfully purchased the historic Chess records.

“Pillow Talk” was instrumental in helping lead the way towards R&B including one of its most significant ingredients – female sexuality. She wasn’t the first, but the song that was so sexy Al Green turned down the offer to record it himself made an impression on the music industry that couldn’t be shaken. Besides the lyrics, Sylvia’s suggestive voice, her growls and moans, would inspire other female artists to push boundaries themselves.

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