As a teen-ager broadcasting Canada's first rock 'n' roll radio show, Red Robinson had to buy his own 'race' records by black performers in the 1950s, carrying them out of the store in brown paper bags 'like pornography'. Along the way came personal and public triumphs - interviews and friendships with greats like Bill Haley and Roy Orbison, induction into the rock 'n' roll halls of fame in Canada and the United States - and the pain of watching his contemporaries fall one by one to self-destruction and the pressures of fame.
Looking back on the eve of his final broadcast earlier this month, the 63-year-old Robinson sounded again like the freckle-faced 17-year-old who first put needle to vinyl on his own show 46 years ago.
'Rock 'n' roll - when it was born, it was fun. You could sing to it, you could dance to it', he said, sitting back on a couch in his memorabilia-packed office. 'We thought this was a great big incredible roller-coaster ride and it was never gonna last. We were all kids having fun'. Much has changed since the days that Robinson calls the 'innocence' phase of rock 'n' roll, but the clock seemed to roll back at the last show of his daily radio career, held in a Vancouver hotel ballroom. Sitting at a simple desk with a single microphone and his everpresent headphones, Robinson's smooth voice and laser timing entertained hundreds of guests including old high school friends, business and charity partners, family and fans. Songs in the lineup included 'Marie' by the Four Tunes, the first record he played on his first program, on Nov. 12, 1954.
Longtime pals remembered a kid hooked on music.
'I thought he was a bit of a goofball. He was doing a radio show. He was only a kid', said Dean Regan, who wrote a musical about Robinson called Red Rock Diner. 'That's what rock 'n' roll was. Rock 'n' roll was a kid'.
Robinson, always known as Red because of his flaming hair, was a radio nut at age 10 who put on shows in his family's garage, charging neighborhood kids a penny to attend. Then he heard a local disc jockey, Jack Cullen, and everything became clear. 'He interacted with the audience. I never heard anything like it', Robinson said. 'I would go down and try to sneak into the studio to see him work.
I knew then that I really loved this business because it talked to me, radio talked to me'.
As his younger brother Bill, 61, put it: 'In life, there's perhaps one in 10,000 who finds a job for which he's ideally suited. He's one of those people that happened to get the perfect job for him.
He couldn't help but be successful'.
When actor Jimmy Stewart came to town in 1952, Robinson telephoned an afternoon radio show titled Theme for Teens on station CJOR and did his best impression, apparently convincing host Al Jordan it was authentic. A week later, Robinson said, he called again and tried a Humphrey Bogart. Jordan figured out the hoax, but instead of being angry, he invited the 15-year-old to come help out on the show.
Robinson spent afternoons after school doing the odd impression, writing material and performing production tasks. When Jordan left the show in 1954, program director Vic Waters gave Red a shot.
'You've been on this show, why don't you run it yourself?' Robinson remembered Waters telling him. 'You've got a lot enthusiasm, why don't you try it?'
Waters, now 82, recalled it differently, describing Robinson as 'sitting there like a dog looking at a bone' until Waters told him to take over. Robinson 'leaped across the control room, sat down and ... never looked back'.
'The rumor that I gave Red his first job is wrong. Red gave Red his first job', he said.
It was an exciting time, with the new music reviving radio audiences after stars such as Jack Benny and Milton Berle had gone to television. The same age as his listeners, Robinson became a celebrity, signing autographs and often serving as master of ceremonies for big shows and promotional events.
One of the biggest was the Beatles, who attracted a frenzied crowd during their 1964 visit to Vancouver. At the request of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, Robinson went on stage during the set to tell the crowd to back up because the platform was shaking. Lennon cursed at him to get off.
Robinson's prominence gave him access to top performers who came to town, and he tells endless stories about his times with Holly, Presley and others.
Calling himself the first disc jockey to play Presley music in Canada, he credits Elvis for cementing the popularity of rock 'n' roll, ensuring its transformation from fad to industry. Before that, the thrill was just being around the scene and the performers. 'Not because at the time they were spectacular, but because we were kids and it was exciting and we thought it wouldn't last long', Robinson said.
He refers repeatedly to an October 1957 interview in which he asked Holly how long rock 'n' roll would last, and Holly answered, not much past Christmas.
It wasn't all fun. Robinson said playing music by black artists could bring trouble back during segregation.
'You'd go in to buy it and honest to God they'd put it in a brown sack, and under the counter.
You had to know what to ask for. It was like pornography', he said. 'Look at early rock albums by black artists.
There's no pictures of black artists on them.
There's pictures of dancing and teen-age parties, but no pictures of black artists themselves'.
Then there were the slurs and threats.
'I had phone calls, and I'm going to use their words. Nigger lover. OK?' Robinson said. 'Why are you playing that devil's music? It was no joke - I mean, I'm a kid and it scared the hell out of me'.
Robinson's career also included publicity stunts, such as false news reports on the night of March 31, 1958, that a whale had washed ashore in Vancouver. By the time midnight brought April Fool's Day, more than 10,000 people had jammed the waterfront hoping for a sighting.
When Robinson announced the prank by playing a record of Kirk Douglas singing 'Whale Of A Tale', an angry crowd pounded on the doors of the radio station. Robinson also had a stint in Portland, Ore., where he did his radio show and a television show called Portland Bandstand. He served in the U.S. military, then returned to Canada in 1961 and became program director at CFUN.
By 1969, with the classic rock era gone and the scene increasingly dominated by drugs and volatility, Robinson left the microphone to become operations manager back at CJOR. He later started an advertising company, but always returned to the studio, doing a morning show at CKWX for more than 12 years.
After another break, he went to CISL in 1993.
On his farewell show, he began by talking over the opening guitar run of 'Last Train to Clarksville' by the Monkees. 'All aboard', he said. 'This is my last ride and we're going to Clarksville'.
His schtick included timeless puns of the trade - 'This is the vinyl frontier' - and topical comments, such as this joke about Texas Gov. George Bush's post-election plans: 'Win or lose, he'll need a designated driver'.
That style made Robinson seem like a part of daily life, said Lorna Dysart, 56, a fan who came to his farewell show. 'When I come back from vacation, I turn on the radio to see what Red's up to and what's been going on', Dysart said. Asked if she'll listen to Robinson's successor, formidable rock 'n' roll deejay Tom Lucas, she said: 'I've been wondering that myself. I do like the music, but Red was a big part of it, the way he did his show'.
Lucas, attending Robinson's final show, pulled out a worn child's autograph book full of signatures from radio personalities, pro wrestlers and others. On the first page is the most prized of his collection - Red Robinson - obtained decades earlier. 'When I was a kid, I idolized him', Lucas said.
Robinson refers to himself as one of the last of an era, with radio moving more and more to a pre-programed format. His green eyes saddened when he remembered contemporaries who fell victim to the drinking and drugs of the rock 'n' roll scene, or the inevitable toll of the years.
'I feel very honored to have been a survivor', he said. 'All my friends are dead. It makes me sad.
All these great talents are gone'.
That includes most of the 82 broadcasters, including Robinson, who were inducted into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Asked what was best about that day, Robinson chose words that summed up his career.
'Just being part of the whole thing', he said, 'seeing what had developed from the rudimentary start which was now billions and billions of dollars as a huge industry, and to mingle with people like Ben E. King and Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry'. By Tom Cohen, Associated Press Writer