Don Robey Built His Gospel Empire With Ruthless Street Tactics
Houston's Don Robey turned Peacock Records into one of the nation's preeminent gospel labels by pursuing a ruthless business strategy. Roscoe Robinson, who in 1960 replaced Archie Brownlee as lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi -- one of Peacock's cornerstone talents -- after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road.
"After our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said 'no,' so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago," says Robinson, now 86. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in '62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated.
"He said he would cut us in on a lot of money [Peacock sued Chess for $450,000] if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group," says Robinson.
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Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B; he later had a minor hit in 1966 with "That's Enough."
By all accounts -- and I do mean all -- Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was his rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (These were disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)
In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke (reportedly using a Colt. 45 as a bargaining chip), Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin's first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.'s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.
The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as "The Temptations of Gospel," recorded the spiritual hit "Ain't Got Long Here" at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in '62 and Live at the Music Hall in '67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Ala., was an acolyte of Brownlee and Sensational Nightingales lead singer Julius Cheeks, taking Peacock's anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band's soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.
Little Richard was also on Peacock Records for a spell, in 1953, with his band the Tempo Toppers. In an interview with Dave Booth, Little Richard recalled that his signing was not voluntary.
"I wouldn't sign that contract," Richard said, "and I ended up signing it because he beat me so bad. I had ran away from home...and he took advantage of it."
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By the early '60s, Peacock had so many gospel artists on the roster that Robey started a new religious music subsidiary Song Bird, which also expanded on Peacock's focus on male quartets. Some of Robey's earlier competitors, such the Specialty, Apollo and Gotham labels had become inactive, so he was signing just about anyone he wanted and at one point had 109 acts under contract, according to Ray Funk's 1990 history of Peacock's gospel division that ran in Rejoice! magazine (an invaluable source for this article). The biggest act on Song Bird was Inez Andrews, formerly of the Caravans. Even when Robey's R&B and pop records experienced dry spells, the gospel records always kept the cash flow going.
The gospel side paid unexpected dividends when Tennessee native O.V. Wright, a former member of the Sunset Travelers, had a huge secular hit in 1964 with "That's How Strong My Love Is" on the Goldwax label. Robey discovered that Wright was still under contract to him, so he claimed the rising R&B star for his Back Beat label and had big hits with "Eight Men, Four Women" and "A Nickel and a Nail." If there was money to be made, Robey didn't miss a trick.
By the late '60s, he was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos on other horses. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tying.
When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several hundred co-"written" by Deadric Malone, his pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was short-lived.
The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. He made a lot of money that's probably all long gone, but also a lot of records that will last forever.
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