Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson (March 6, 1936 – September 29, 2011) was an American singer, musician, record producer, and record label executive. She was best known for her work as founder/CEO of the hip hop label Sugar Hill Records. She is credited as the driving force behind two landmark singles in the genre; “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
She was born as Sylvia Vanderpool (aka Vanterpool) in 1936 in Harlem, New York. She began recording music in 1950 for Columbia Records under the billing, Little Sylvia. In 1954, she began teaming up with Kentucky guitarist Mickey Baker, who then taught her how to play guitar. In 1956, the duo now known as Mickey & Sylvia, recorded the Bo Diddley and Jody Williams-penned rock single, “Love Is Strange,” which topped the R&B charts and reached number eleven on the Billboard pop charts in early 1957. After several more releases including the modestly successful “There Oughta Be a Law”, Mickey & Sylvia split up in 1959 with Sylvia later marrying Joe Robinson that same year. Sylvia restarted her solo career shortly after her initial split from Baker, first under the name Sylvia Robbins. In 1961, the duo reunited and recorded more songs together for various labels. They’re most noted during this period for singing background on Ike & Tina Turner’s hit single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”. In 1964, frustrated with the music business, Baker moved to Paris.
In 1966, the Robinsons moved to New Jersey where they formed a soul music label, All Platinum Records, the following year, with artist Lezli Valentine, formerly of the Jaynettes, bringing the label its first hit with “I Won’t Do Anything”. In 1968, the duo signed a Washington, D.C. act named The Moments, who immediately found success with “Not on the Outside”. Within a couple of years and with a new lineup, the group scored their biggest hit with “Love on a Two-Way Street”, which Sylvia co-wrote and produced with Burt Keyes and (uncredited) lyrics by Lezli Valentine. Other hits the label and its subsidiaries, including Stang and Vibration, would have included Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame”, the Moments’ “Sexy Mama” and “Look at Me I’m in Love” and the Whatnauts/Moments collaboration, “Girls”.
In 1972, Robinson sent a demo of a song she had written called “Pillow Talk” to Al Green. When Green passed on it due to his religious beliefs, Robinson decided to record it herself, returning to her own musical career. Billed under simply Sylvia, the record became an instant hit reaching number-one on the R&B charts and crossing over to reach Billboard Hot 100 #3, plus also reaching #14 in the UK at the beginning of 1973. She was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May 1973. Robinson would record four solo albums on the Vibration subsidiary and had other R&B hits including “Sweet Stuff” and “Pussy Cat”. “Pillow Talk” has been called an early example of prototypical disco music and went on to sell two million copies. The vocals are replete with moaning and heavy breathing, predating Donna Summer’s orgasmic moans on “Love to Love You Baby”. The drumming rhythm would reappear in 1985 on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”, then again in 1987 on Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love”.
In the 1970s, the Robinsons founded Sugar Hill Records. The company was named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem, in New York City, known as a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid 1900s.
She co-wrote and produced Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s most successful single, “The Message”, which is credited as the rap song that brought socially conscious lyrics into hip hop. She persuaded the group to record the song while it was still an estranged demo recording, surprisingly created by a studio percussionist for the Sugar Hill Gang. By commercializing the market for rap records, Robinson is credited as the mother of modern hip-hop. The song “Rapper’s Delight”, which was performed by The Sugar Hill Gang, brought rap into the public music arena, and revolutionized the music industry as it introduced the idea of re-using existing compositions, a practice that later became known as “sampling”. Sylvia’s song, “Sunday”, was sampled by Moby in his 2002 album 18. Later acts signed to Sugar Hill Records included all-female rap/funk group The Sequence, featuring a teenage Angie Stone (recording as “Angie B”), who had a million-selling hit in early 1980 with “Funk U Up”.
After Sugar Hill folded due to changes in the music industry and the presences of hip-hop labels Profile and Def Jam and due to financial pressures in 1985, Robinson, who had by now divorced Joe Robinson, continued her efforts as a music executive, forming Bon Ami Records in 1987. The label was noted for signing the act The New Style, who later left and found success as Naughty by Nature.
Robinson died on the morning of September 29, 2011, aged 75, at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey from congestive heart failure.
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