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Salute to an Entrepreneur From the '50s

March 05, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The names of Bobby Robinson's record labels--Fire, Fury and Enjoy--summarize the energy and determination of their enterprising owner-founder in the '50s and '60s.

The South Carolina native was still in his teens, the story goes, when he settled in New York in 1946 and opened his own record store--Bobby's Records.

The store was on 125th Street in Harlem, about halfway between the Apollo Theatre and a favorite steak house of many of the musicians who performed at the legendary showcase.

Many of the Apollo artists stopped by the store on their way to dinner, and Robinson became intrigued enough by their world that he started his own labels--Red Robin and then Whirling Disc. But he wasn't pleased with the business arrangements and he opened Fury Records--and began enjoying his greatest success.

"The Fire/Fury Records Story," a two-disc retrospective just released by Capricorn Records, documents that success: more than 50 selections released by Fire, Fury and Enjoy Records between 1959 and 1965.

The selections include Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City," a No. 1 pop and R&B hit in 1959; Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae," another No. 1 R&B single the following year; Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying," a Top 20 R&B hit in 1960; Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," a Top 10 R&B and pop single in 1961; and King Curtis' "Soul Twist," a No. 1 R&B single in 1962.

Other Fire and Fury artists featured in the box set include Lightnin' Hopkins, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Arthur Crudup, Bobby Marchan, Tarheel Slim and Titus Turner.

As the album demonstrates, Robinson's releases offered a wonderfully appealing mix of R&B and blues styles, generally characterized by a sense of intimacy and vitality.

In the album's colorful liner notes, compilation producer Diana Reid Haig describes Robinson's contribution as the head of one of the first black-owned record companies in the country:

"The common thread that connected all of Robinson's various record labels was his uncanny ability to bring out the best in his artists. While most producers at that time attempted to soften the edges of rhythm & blues singers in hopes of appealing to the pop market, Robinson delighted in capturing raw-edged artists like Elmore James and Buster Brown just as they were."

Regarding his approach, Robinson, who remains active as a record store owner and record producer in Harlem, declares: "I record things that touch me. And I try to record them pure, 100%, no water added."

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