Robey's empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers out on the "chitlin circuit" and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn't leave, like Austin's Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.
"He might've ripped me off," Gatemouth Brown told me in 2005, "but if it wasn't for Don Robey, nobody would've ever heard of me."
Such sentiments fueled impresario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII. What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn't matter as long as people were buying them. Robey had five labels in all, including Back Beat (Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" in '65) and Song Bird ("Lord Don't Move the Mountain" by Inez Andrews in '73).
As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known in its early years as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris and the Brooklyn All-Stars and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.
Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey's label and booking agency, Houston was gospel's second in command.
It all started with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday, "The Five Blind Boys" referred to the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937 as the Cotton Blossom Singers, included tenor Lawrence "Shorty" Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late '40s).
After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama -- and both acts ended up keeping the new names.
Story continues on the next page.