Born Sylvia Vanderpool in New York, NY, March 6, 1936; married Joseph Robinson; children: Leland and Joseph Jr. Education: Attended Washington Irving High School, New York. Addresses: Home--Englewood, NJ.
Entrepreneur Sylvia Robinson didn't create hip-hop music, but she may have done more than any single individual to carve out a space for it in the musical marketplace. It was Robinson's Sugar Hill label that first put hip-hop music on records, and in 1979 she brought together the musicians who created the piece that gave hip-hop music its name, the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Robinson actually played bass on that recording, and years earlier she had made a name as a performer herself: "Love Is Strange," which Robinson and guitarist Mickey Baker recorded as Mickey & Sylvia, was a familiar pop hit of the late 1950s, and Robinson's own "Pillow Talk" helped kick off the disco era in 1973.
Robinson was born Sylvia Vanderpool on March 6, 1936, in New York City. By the time she enrolled at Washington Irving High School she was already singing music in the new rhythm-and-blues genre, and she attracted the attention of a Columbia Records staffer. She made her first record when she was 14, backed by the veteran jazz trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page, and through the early 1950s she recorded, sometimes as Little Sylvia, for a variety of small labels including Savoy and Cat. Robinson then met session guitarist Mickey (McHouston) Baker, one of the key instrumentalists of early rhythm-and-blues, and the two began working together musically as Mickey & Sylvia.
In 1956 Mickey & Sylvia were signed to RCA and released "Love Is Strange," a catchy song with a humorous seduction dialogue between the two vocalists. Written by rock-and-roll guitarist Bo Diddley but credited to his wife, Ethel Smith, the song came to Mickey & Sylvia via Diddley's lead guitarist Jody Williams (who played lead guitar on their recording) after the Chess label rejected Diddley's own plans to recording the song. "Love Is Strange" was a hit on both rhythm-and-blues and pop charts, and artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to the zany country family group the Maddox Brothers & Rose later covered the song.
Mickey & Sylvia lasted until 1961, creating other moderate hits such as "There Ought to Be a Law" and "Baby You're So Fine." They also backed the rising R&B duo of Ike & Tina Tuner on 1961's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine." Nothing on the level of "Love Is Strange" surfaced, however, and in 1962 Baker departed for France to begin a career as an expatriate blues musician. Two years later Sylvia married Joseph Robinson, a real estate agent. He gave up his career to become her manager, but retained his salesman's attitude, telling interviewers, according to the London Independent, that "music is music; what I try to do is to get it played and sell it."
The Robinsons settled in Englewood, New Jersey, and opened their new All Platinum record label in 1967 or 1968. With their own in-house recording studio, Soul Sound Studios, they were well positioned to take advantage of the growing soul market. The label did well enough to launch several subsidiaries, including Stang and Turbo, and several All Platinum releases, including the chart-topping Moments' smash "Love on a Two-Way Street" (1970), became major hits. Sylvia Robinson co-wrote that ballad with Bert Keyes.
Perhaps All Platinum's most successful release, however, featured Sylvia Robinson herself on vocals. The steamy "Pillow Talk" (1973), released on the Vibration imprint with Robinson once again billed simply as Sylvia, anticipated the sensuality of the disco era, with Sylvia's breathy seductive vocals and her assertion that "it takes two to tangle." The song was awarded a gold record (for sales of 500,000 copies), and it remained a standard presence on compilations of 1970s music for years afterward. Robinson recorded a new album, Sylvia, in 1976.
By the end of the decade, the hits had dried up, leaving All Platinum in dire financial straits. The company had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when Robinson was taken for her birthday to the New York club Harlem World in 1979. "I was sitting there and saw children out on the floor dancing, and this guy was talking over the records. Anything he said made them go crazy," Robinson recalled to Steve Jones of USA Today. What Robinson was witnessing was an early stage of the rap phenomenon, with a DJ improvising rhymes over instrumental mixes of dance recordings and perhaps manipulating the recordings themselves inventively. "All of a sudden, a voice said to me, 'If you put a concept like that on wax, you'll be out of all the trouble you're in," Robinson told Jones.
That summer Robinson encountered the new music once again. In an Englewood pizzeria she heard Henry Jackson, known as Big Bank Hank, rapping over the music playing on the restaurant's sound system. Robinson asked him if he wanted to record. "He was the manager of the store, but he left the parlor with his apron on," Robinson told Noam S. Cohen of the New York Times. "There was flour all over." Jackson was quickly teamed with two other local rappers, high school student Master Gee and flower salesman Wonder Mike, and the Sugarhill Gang was born. The group was named for the Robinsons' new label, Sugar Hill, which in turn was named for an elegant section of New York's Harlem neighborhood. The label was partly bankrolled by former Roulette Records owner Morris Levy, a cutthroat veteran of the New York recording scene.
In Robinson's studio, the Sugarhill Gang recorded the hip-hop genre's debut 12-inch single, "Rapper's Delight." That 15-minute record, which gave hip-hop its name (those syllables appeared repeatedly in nonsense rhymes near the song's beginning), proved wildly successful, at one point selling 96,000 copies in a single day on the way to an estimated sales total of eight million. The instrumental backing track of the record was based on Chic's dance hit "Good Times," but the sampling impulse preceded the technical development of the concept: the "Good Times" music was performed by live musicians, with Sylvia Robinson herself playing bass. Within a few months of the release of "Rapper's Delight" in October of 1979, the Sugarhill Gang was opening for the high-flying funk band Funkadelic and appearing in Europe, and Robinson was keeping watch over a 24-hour-a-day production schedule at Sugar Hill.
The Sugarhill Gang followed up "Rapper's Delight" with several more successful singles, including "8th Wonder," and Robinson and her husband signed several more talented rappers to their new label. These included the all-female South Carolina-born trio the Sequence, with a member calling herself "Angie B," who later went on to R&B stardom under the name Angie Stone. Other artists in the Sugar Hill stable included Funky 4+1, Spoonie Gee and, most important, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose brutally realistic "The Message" and pioneering sampling-and-scratching essay "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" gained wide popular and critical attention.
For Sugar Hill's youthful artists, Robinson played the role of mentor. "Even beyond the records, she groomed us as an act," Grandmaster Flash rapper Melle Mel told Steve Jones. Sugar Hill notched another success with the emergence of the Washington, D.C.-based band Trouble Funk, but by the mid-1980s the label faced heavy competition. A distribution deal with the large MCA label dissolved in an acrimonious lawsuit, and Robinson's long run of hitmaking was over. Rights to the Sugar Hill catalog were sold to the Rhino label in 1995.
Robinson faced other problems in her later years. In 1999 she launched a lawsuit against Blaze magazine, contending that the publication had unfairly accused her of cheating Sugar Hill artists out of their proper royalties. Joseph Robinson died in the year 2000, and she was reportedly devastated by a fire that leveled the historic Sugar Hill studios in 2002. But The Vibe History of Hip-Hop and other accounts of hip-hop's early days were beginning to take note of her pioneering role, rooted in decades of involvement with the African-American popular musical scene.
by James M. Manheim
Sylvia Robinson's Career
Recorded as part of duo Mickey & Sylvia, 1956-62; with Joseph Robinson, founded All Platinum label, c. 1967; recorded hit "Pillow Talk," 1973; with Robinson, founded Sugar Hill label and pioneered the idea of recording rap music, 1979; sold Sugar Hill rights to Rhino label, 1995.
- Selected discography
- Pillow Talk Vibration, 1973.
- Sylvia Vibration, 1976.
- (With Mickey Baker, as Mickey & Sylvia) Love Is Strange: A Golden Classics Edition Collectables, 1997.
- Pillow Talk: The Sensuous Sounds of Sylvia Rhino, 1996.
- Light, Alan, editor, The Vibe History of Hip Hop, Three Rivers, 1995.
- Daily News (New York, NY), March 4, 1999, p. 15.
- Independent (London, England), November 20, 2000, p. 6; August 29, 2003, p. 17.
- New York Times, June 15, 1997, section 13NJ, p. 4.
- Record (Bergen County, NJ), October 12, 2002, p. A1; October 15, 2002, p. A3; November 29, 2004, p. A1.
- USA Today, February 11, 1997, p. D6.
- "Sylvia Robinson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 21, 2005).
- "Sylvia Robinson," Soulwalking, http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Sylvia%20Robinson.html (May 21, 2005).
Visitor Comments Add a comment…
over 11 years ago
I hate plagiarism. Sylvia DID NOT write "Love On A Two Way Street" as she wrote only a few lines. According to the song's original vocalist, Lezli Valentine, she was a third contributor to the song writing most of the song's lyrics: Sylvia came into the office on the morning Two Way Street was created and said that she had a dream but that the only thing she remembered was "Love on a Two-way Street, Lost on a lonely Highway."--We went into Bert's office . . . Sylvia asked Bert to play what he felt (that became the melody) . . . I, Lezli Valentine, began to write the story line . . . "True love will never die, so I've been told but now I must cry, it is finally goodbye, I know . . . With music softly playing his lips were gently saying honey I love you". . .Sylvia wrote "he held me in desperation, I thought it was a revelation and then he walked out". . . I, Lezli Valentine wrote . . ."how could I be so blind to give of love the very first time, to be fooled is a hurting thing". . . Sylvia wrote "to be loved and fooled is a crying shame". . .Lezli Valentine wrote "while I bear the blame, as he laughs my name", the rest was completed, I recorded it; the lead sheets were hand delivered by one of the original Moments, John, who lived in DC. The original application was altered without my knowledge (omitting Lezli Valentine's name as a lyric writer . . . there are three writers on I Found Love On A Two-Way Street) Joseph Robinson, Sr. definitely knew this, (Joseph R.Robinson, Sr. said he would rectify this, evidently he never did. Each time I telephoned him on this he said he would take care of it) as did Ebert Mahon . . . AKA Bert Keyes and several recording artists in the Soul Sound Studios at the time! This was nerve wrecking and resulted in hospitalizations. Let's get the facts straight here. The Robinsons have robbed and plagiarized musicians, artists and its REAL writers and left the ACTUAL artists starving to death. To this date, Lezli and other artists and musicians are not being credited nor paid for their work. SHAME SHAME SHAME ON YOU!
over 12 years ago
This lady and the Sugar Hill gang should be nominated for the Rock Hall this year or next. They are long over due. LL Cool J should not have been mentioned before the first group to bring the sound to the masses. Silvia Robinson was a visionary and a street smart leader along with her husband Joe. I agree tho.. she never touched a bass in her life but she had a great singing voice.
almost 13 years ago
I am glad Sylvia Robinson is finally getting the credit she deserved from Love is Srange to Pillow Talk and the Moments to Sugarhill and discovering Angie Stone
about 13 years ago
I expected this story to make mention of the night club Sylvia ran called Sylvia Robinson's Blue Morocco on Boston Road in the Bronx, N.Y.
about 13 years ago
Slyvia Robinson was a real leader for women in the industry at a time when there weren't many at all. She had to vision to put ideas together that changed the way we listen to music no doubt. I met her and her family in Englewood back in the mid 80's. As for her playing bass on the Rappers Delight song...Thats a far cry from truth! Thats Comedy.
over 13 years ago
I did not Sylvia was part of that due with that hit "love is strange". I'm glad that to see that it is documented that Sylvia is a part of hip-hop history. Absolutely love pillow talk, and I wish that Sylvia recorded more sultry r&b/disco tunes during that time. It seemed like Sylvia would've had a good thing going with that. Is she still performing today? I don't see that she passed away.
over 13 years ago
Sorry but had to blow the BS whistle on this bit of history. Sylvia Robinson did NOT play bass on Rappers Delight!! Thats just absolute garbage! She hired a musician from North Carolina named Chip Shearin to play this line along with a group of musicians called Positive Force from Pennsylvania. The song was recorded for 15 minutes. No samplers! These guys stayed in the pocket the whole time and made history. Sylvia Robinson was a singer/business woman who put talent together constantly. She was not a bass player!!! This is factual information and can be checked online in various sources!
about 14 years ago
I was a fan of Sugar Hill records from the beginning and it was truly a pleasure to see how they put hip hop on the map. I have love for them, REST IN PEACE BIG JOE....and thanks
over 14 years ago
Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange" was the song that brought me and my first teen love together. We had so much fun singing the song, pretending we were the singing duo. Although I haven't seen my girl in 45 years, the song brings back so many fond memories. Thank you Mickey & Silvia for a sweet slice of yesteryear.