From movie "No Leave No Love" 1946
Frank "Sugarchile" Robinson
SUGAR CHILE ROBINSON (By Dave Penny)
Born Frank Robinson, 1940, Detroit, Michigan
The history of 20th century entertainment is littered with child prodigies; from Shirley Temple in the 1930s, Toni Harper in the 1940s and Frankie Lymon in the 1950s. On the whole, although precociously talented, child entertainers were usually saddled with inferior, childish material that, while perhaps cute at the time, were usually novelty acts that grew tiresome pretty quickly. Some couldn't handle the swift drop in popularity and turned to drink or drugs, while others retired gracefully and concentrated their energies in other directions. One such was that tiny bundle of Detroit dynamite, "Sugar Chile" Robinson. Born Frankie Robinson, the youngest of six children, in Detroit in 1940, "Sugar Chile" began pounding on the family piano as a toddler - he reputedly banged out a recognisable version of Erskine Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction at the age of two - and by 1945 he had been "discovered" by pianist and bandleader Frankie Carle. Within a year he was asked to play at a Whitehouse party for President Harry Truman, had guested with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra and even appeared performing the title song in the 1946 MGM romantic comedy film "No Leave, No Love". It was not until July 1949, however, that he made his first records for the Capitol label, when, in the consummate company of jazz veterans Leonard Bibbs on bass and drummer Zutty Singleton, Robinson took his first two releases into the Billboard R&B chart in late 1949; Numbers Boogie made it to number four, while Caldonia (What Makes Your Big Head So Hard) only reached number 14. His subsequent national tour broke box-office records eve rywhere and it is claimed that his appearance at Chicago's Regal Theatre remains the biggest one-week attraction of the theatre's entire history, easily beating the jazz royalty of the day like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Robinson toured with Basie in 1950 and made a celebrated musical short with the Basie Sextet and Billie Holiday in Hollywood in August to showcase his hits. The Christmas season of 1950 witnessed Sugar Chile's first European release and Christmas Boogie c/w Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer sold well enough to spark a European tour in 1951, including rave reviews for his spot at the London Palladium. He was a big hit on US radio and TV all through 1951 and then, while still in his pre-teens, Robinson's career was suddenly over; his last single release was issued in August 1952, shortly followed by a 10" compilation LP of boogie woogie that featured many of his 1952 recordings.
Apart from a few radio transcriptions and film soundtracks, "Sugar Chile" Robinson's complete recording career - a period of just under three years - has been reissued in its entirety on one 2003 CD compilation, "Chronological Classics 1949-52". If he really was only nine years old at the time, the performances from his first session such as Vooey, Vooey Vay, Caldonia and Numbers Boogie were quite astonishing. As with other child stars, like Toni Harper, Robinson was frequently burdened with immature material, but even nursery rhyme knock-offs such as Sticks And Stones, Christmas Boogie and (Rock-A-Bye) Baby Blues were transformed into entertaining performances with hip and clever touches. The youngster acquitted himself as a pianist exceptionally well on the few instrumentals, particularly Lazy Boy's Boogie, and for variety he occasionally switched to organ or celeste on later sessions.
Once the hits had dried up and he was released from his Capitol Records contract, there were one or two more reports in the trade papers of the day - he was reported in August 1954 as playing The Blue Note in Chicago with modern jazzer Gerry Mulligan (!) - and then nothing! What happened? Did his voice break? Did the novelty of an infant boogie virtuoso suddenly lose its appeal when he hit 12? Was he really found out to be an adolescent midget in disguise? Last year it was announced that a 62 year-old "Sugar Chile" Robinson had been rediscovered living in Detroit, where he has worked mainly outside music for almost 50 years (although he is rumoured to be the same Frank Robinson who co-owned the obscure Detroit-based soul label, Lando Records, in the 1960s) , and was brought out of retirement to pound the ivories once again at a music festival which celebrated pre-Motown music from the Motor City. The internet has been strangely silent since, so I am unsure whether the festiva l even took place. Does anybody know?
CD: The Chronological Sugar Chile Robinson, 1949-1952 (Classics 5052, released in 2003). 24 tracks.
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