Rappin With Red:
The Red Robinson Interview
Vancouver, January, 1972
By Rick McGrath and Mike Quigley
Published in The Grape, Volumes 2, 3 and 4, 1972.
The first time I ever saw Red Robinson in person was at The
Beatles concert at Vancouver's Empire Stadium in August, 1964. He was the
emcee, and was already famous as one of Canada's first rock 'n' roll DJs and
impressarios. By 1972, Mike Quigley and I had left the Georgia Straight
to toil for its collective spin-off, The Grape, and we had decided to
concentrate less on the big international acts, and instead pour some ink on
the local scene. What better place to start than the man responsible for
bringing rock to Vancouver -- the legendary DJ Red Robinson. In those days the
heavy FM station was CKLG FM, (later re-named The Fox) and Mike and I used to
hang around with some of the jocks, especially the ultra-cool JB Shane. In 1972
Red worked for LG, and it was pretty easy to track him down for an interview.
We talked with him in one longish session in the radio station's locker room,
and walked away with a detailed overview of early rock radio, performers, the
players, and the action of this unique period of musical history. And why not?
Hey, this was a guy who had rubbed shoulders with all the very early rock 'n'
rollers, who had hung with Elvis, pissed off John Lennon, and who had basically
provided the soundtrack to Vancouver's first youth culture. You can keep current with Red at his
In 1995 Red was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio as a pioneer disc jockey, one of only three from Canada and 90 overall.
McGrath: How did rock 'n' roll start out in Vancouver?
Red Robinson: All right. Here's what happened: I'm going to King Ed (a local high school), and radio in Vancouver at that time was ending an era of soap operas, syndicated transcripts, and network. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was very strong with two networks going at the time -- the Dominion network of the CBC and the Canada network. Most private stations featured so many hours of this programming. They had to - it was the law - because the CBC was the law. We didn't have an independent body; they were our bosses.
So, anyway, as these shows were dying, I was at CJOR as a kid, 16, just bumming around because it fascinated me. You know, the fact that you could communicate ideas, because I was on my way to a commercial art thing, but radio fascinated me. I thought, "I love this kind of music", so what happened was this: a guy had a show on afternoons on CJOR, Hal Jordan, and in 1954 he's one of the best commercial announcers in the city. It was sort of a half-hour teen thing. In those days everything was labelled "teen". But you have to relate to the era. There was no such thing as a youth culture because that culture grew with the music. A teenager was between twelve and twenty. You were a kid, an adult, or in this funny little nothing middle group called teenager. But as we talk through this thing, don't ever forget the significance of the youth culture growing and the youth attitude grew in conjunction with music. That is the really interesting part of it all.
So, getting back to this half-hour show that Hal Jordan hosted. It was his own and it was the only thing you listened to because it was aimed at you if you were in that age group. But this half-hour show was really going nowhere. Jordan quit, and went to Hamilton, Ontario. They gave me the half-hour show and I started inserting Wyonie Harris and some of the things that you feel are happening with your age group. And the show grew. It grew from 30 minutes to an hour to two hours, and these were the days when a disc jockey show being two hours was (gives a long whistle).
Red & Buddy Holly
There was only one real disc jockey in town - Jack Cullen - who
is now sort of a legend. But the fact is that he was the only jock that anybody
really knew. But I never listened to Canadian radio. I listened to American
radio. And there were things happening. There was a guy on the west coast in
Los Angeles called Al Jarvis, who was one of the first people to get into this
kind of music. You could actually hear him at night, because the dial wasn't
crowded. Then, about late 1954, a guy called Bob Salter went into Seattle on
KJR and started doing the same thing. And I was doing it in Vancouver.
Remember, in the west we think north and south, not east west. I started injecting
more and the show grew and no one knew what was going on. The next thing I
know, while going to King Ed, within a year, I had two and a half hours in the
afternoon, 3:30 to 6:00, then 9:00 to 9:30 at night, and then a break for
another Dominion network show, and then 10:00 to 1:00 in the morning. OK, so
why would a station allow that? Because as these old shows were leaving, and as
the old salesmen couldn't see what to sell, all of a sudden there was this
market opening up.
And in radio, they found that advertisers were interested in selling merchandise to the youth market. But it was a fight to even say that they had any money. They used to say, "what do they buy, bubble gum and pop?"
Mike Quigley: What was the audience reaction to your show?
Robinson: Unbelievable. The adult reaction was that some kind of a bad thing was happening. Really bad. And I was polluting the airwaves. I faced nothing but abuse, but I think anybody who is pioneering anything does. And some of my old scraps show columns which say riots at Vincent Massey High in New Westminster. I had gone there to do a noon hour thing, playing records, mind you -- no bands.
McGrath: Record hops?
Robinson: No, just a concert at lunch time. I'd play records and talk about the music... what it means, what they're trying to say. And the kids would clap their hands to the music and they called it a riot. It's funny now, but I faced all that abuse for years. Everybody putting it down, and the newspapers looking to grab you - "what is this? What is this guy doing and what is this music all about?" - I was sort of the pied piper leading the innocents over the wharf. Because anything new I think people are frightened of. They don't understand it.
McGrath: So after the show became popular, this showed there were a lot of kids in town who were really picking up on this new music, this rock 'n' roll. Obviously, the kids who were musically inclined were going to start picking up on it.
Robinson: Then the groups started. Well, you've got to back up. Because one thing, as Ray Charles told me in a great interview, the guy who made it all possible was Elvis Presley. Forgetting everything else you might think about him, because what he did, if you read Jerry Hopkins' book, he made it so interesting and fascinating to do the black thing. And he also faced all the abuse, you gotta go back and read - they said he was a pervert - it was unreal to watch. Elvis took compositions from people like Clyde Otis and Otis Blackwell and he made them popular. He had a natural way of presenting the black man's music so you couldn't originally tell if it was Clyde McPhatter or Elvis Presley when he sang. When you found out later that Elvis was white instead of black, then you were really zapped. Because you didn't believe it - you thought he was black. And this was his claim to fame. We were all influenced by the black man's music... it said something to you that nothing else had previously. For my generation, right? So he was the catalyst that made it happen. Because he became so big so fast and had so much influence it was now possible for others to come on and perform. He made it possible for the whole black world, as Ray Charles said, to be exposed to the white world. A whole generation. And there is a parallel here, because while Elvis was happening, so was rock radio, with guys like Alan Freed, Hound Dog Lorenz in Buffalo, and every little market. Of course, as the record thing grew, the jocks in each market were exposing more of it, and it became a thing, right? It swept the country in about three years.
McGrath: And then came all those horrible Elvis movies.
Robinson: Yeah, but you have to remember that rock saved the movies just like it saved radio. Without this music, radio was groping. The disc jockey was a new thing. The media opened up. It had to combat television and it simply became a matter of economics.
Quigley: How long were you at CJOR?
Robinson: I started there in 1954 part time and I stayed until March of 1957. Success is a funny thing. One reason I left CJOR is that for two and a half years I had 52% of the Vancouver radio audience when I was on the air. Because at that point everybody wanted to be a part of what was happening. It was so new.
Quigley: It was like an epidemic.
Robinson: It was like an epidemic because it was so much fun. And it provided a dance form, too. You have to remember that. Then it mattered. A new, exclusive generation dance that was not Glen Miller's. It was something their own.
McGrath: How did you format your radio show?
Robinson: Free form, basically, as you should in good FM today. You felt the mood of your show as you went along and you planned accordingly. You didn't really start tabulating sales and things like that until later on. You just felt it and then played it. And as people responded and you had more and more records, then you had to put some forms on it.
McGrath: What was the first group that you remember?
Robinson: The first group?
McGrath: Yeah.. that were actually playing rock 'n' roll.
Robinson: Well, it was always the black groups. And for every one of them you had a counter white group. You had the Penguins, and their white counterparts were the Crewcuts. And you had... well, there were so many... The Orioles...
McGrath: What about Vancouver groups?
Robinson: Right. We had a talent search - it was an idea of mine - in 1955, and, of course, part of the talent search was to find somebody who could sing like Elvis Presley. This was going on all across North America. Out of that talent search we found a band of different types of musicians who styled themselves after Bill Haley. So we took the lead singer, who was a Presley type, and put him with the Haley-type band. I was the first guy in this province, and in fact Washington or anywhere, to start taking the band and the music on the road. I'd go to Nanaimo and Prince Rupert and all the little towns up and down Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley and the interior and I'd expose all those kids to this kind of music. I'd take the groups in. As soon as you'd take a group in and you'd get a hall that would hold 500 and you'd get 1,500 in it, and a lot of the kids in the audience who were musically inclined decided, "Hey, why don't we get together and form a group". So you got a lot of groups.
The first group was called The Stripes. (Red always wore a trademark red and white striped sports jacket). There was another group called The Prowlers, which was named after Jack Cullen's show at the time. When the action started, he decided to go rock and he did it, I think, for three years.
McGrath: Are any of these musicians still around?
Robinson: Les Vogt is. He used to sing for The Prowlers, and now he runs the Purple Steer night club. But I never see any of the others... none of them went on to any kind of prominence. One guy did... one guy is very prominent today who was the lead singer of the original Stripes. We found him on the talent search, and his name is Ian Tyson.
(Uproarious laughter from McGrath & Quigley)
Robinson: He's done all right.
McGrath: It's strange that there weren't more bands. The music wasn't difficult to play.
Robinson: That's right, but again - it's new. It's a new art form, and it was difficult to play because some of the kids who immediately wanted to do it were influenced by parents who may have come from the prairies and who were used to country music. You don't really have a large black community here, either...
McGrath: I guess instruments would be hard to find.
Robinson: Instruments, yeah. Try to find the right ones.
McGrath: Where would you get electric guitars and amps?
Robinson: You could get them, but the amps were the size of a small footstool. Little Fenders. But the talent thing really helped that. Seattle was the birthplace of a lot of the early west coast rock people, like The Fleetwoods. A lot of different groups, because rock went into five different starbursts. It started from R&B - you can call it soul - it's grown and they've embellished it, but basically it's the same sound, and then you had "plastic rock", which was the whole era of the early 1960s with Fabian and Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. There was really a lull, and it didn't get going again until the British said, "Hey, we really like the hard stuff". The Americans were waltzing to Bobby Vinton.
Here's a little story I'll give you quickly in sequence - Buddy Holly was a fantastic influence on English kids. I had met Buddy here in 1957, at a big show at the old Denman Auditorium, which is now ripped down. As a matter of fact, where the old Denman Auditorium was is now the Four Seasons Hotel. I had played Buddy Holly's first record, That'll Be The Day, and it hit number one here for eight weeks and nobody was playing it in the US. Then it became a hit in the US and it worked in reverse, so when he came up I got to talk with him. Then he got killed in that plane crash in 1959. But his influence in England was fantastic. And basically, when I did The Beatles show here in 1964, I talked with John Lennon about Buddy's influence and John said that Buddy really did a lot for them. Even to the name.
Anyway, The Crickets were on tour. Les Vogt and I had a booking agency and we toured the Crickets in 1963. Jerry Naylor and Sonny Curtis (members of the original Crickets) said "Listen to this record". It was called From Me To You and it was a hit for Del Shannon so I said why should I? And he said the group that originally did it was really big in England and that I should get on it. I was program manager at CFUN at the time. We played the record and about six months later nobody could even remember their names, and then six months after that She Loves You came out and the rest is history. What The Beatles provided, though, was the hard rock that was not being featured in North America. And it took the yanks about a year and a half to catch up.
McGrath: Right. I've thought about that trip a bit, and it seems to me the difference between the sound of The Beatles and The Stones and even The Dave Clark 5 was directly opposed to the self-centred, narcissistic adolescence of American pop songs. To me the Brits seemed extroverted in their sound.
Robinson: That's a good analysis. The Beatles included people other than teenagers. And by doing this, they solidified the listening audience - rock became cohesive again.
But this is getting away from it all. Let's go back to the radio show in 1954. The thing grows. I go out and do a remote broadcast from a shoe store which is advertised a week ahead. This is where you first get an indication that things are really happening. It was at a place called Copp's Downtown Shoe Store, which is still there, next to Woodward's on Hastings. The show was supposed to start at 4:00 and by four everybody was crammed in the store. Six hundred people were crammed so tightly they broke the showcases. The line went up the stairs, all the way past Woodward's, all the way to Army & Navy (about three blocks). That's unreal. In those days you gave away records and it was a big thing. I guess it was because there really wasn't too much money around. So you'd hold up a 78 and smack!, goodbye, because they broke on contact. Sometimes just eye contact.
And from there, as the thing grew, it was a matter of taking the music to the people. I would go to the Orpheum Theatre and we'd run Saturday things. They'd run some movie like The Lone Ranger Attacks an Indian Reserve in Thailand, and everyone would go bletch and at the intermission you'd bring on the groups. This is where we'd have a parallel thing going. Jack Cullen, who was the original disc jockey in town, was playing some rock and mixing it with the musical bag of the day: Frankie Laine singing The Cry of the Wild Goose, or Frank Sinatra singing I'm Over 50 and I'm Retired or whatever it was, and Jack, who was an enterprising guy, started booking acts in. In 1956 he booked in Bill Haley. Then I'd go out and book a different group. Then someone else would do a different group. Finally, Cullen realized he was over the hill, so he gave it up and went back to being Jack Cullen. But good things happened to the public as a result. We saw and heard people like Earl Bostick, who played fantastic sax, and Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
We used to have problems, too. Up in City Hall is a statute that reads, if I can remember it, "Anyone under the age of 18 is not allowed to attend a public dance without the permission of -- and this is where I get screwed up -- or in company with, an adult over the age of 21". What were you supposed to do? So we did it anyway, and, you know, you pay a $25 fine and all that jazz. Fortunately, we had a sort of neutral territory. We'd go to the PNE (Vancouver's summer fairgrounds), book the Forum or Gardens and get 2,000 to 3,000 out for a dance. Somebody would always get into a fight with a beer bottle, which was always the thing, because some guy in a '55 Chev would see some nice 21-year-old girl, ask her for a date, and then her boyfriend would hammer him. That and trying to get too many people into a small joint.
McGrath: So did each DJ have his own group?
Robinson: Basically, yes.
Quigley: How did Jack Cullen get his group together?
Robinson: He ran a contest on the air. If you could sing H-A-Double-R-S-O-N Clothes, which was the jingle for a haberdasher who's no longer here, and sing it like a rock song, you won. They became The Prowlers and I think they won $5 and a piece of cloth. Our group won a big trophy you could fill with gin. This is when I started the dances, and I couldn't hold them in Vancouver, so I went all over the Fraser Valley, anywhere where the bylaw didn't affect me. Then other groups started happening on their own. So instead of booking one group, I would alternate. People get tired of hearing the same band all the time. Pretty soon there were groups all over. Lots of these people are still around. Some very good guitar players came out of that, and I know it was an influence on the music. Garry Taylor used to be the drummer in a group call The Classics which became the CFUN Classics, which became The Collectors, which became Chilliwack.
McGrath: What was the record scene like then?
Robinson: In those days I could get a record out if I paid for the mastering, which would probably be done at Al Rossh's studio, called Aragon Records. Then, you'd ship the master back east and have copies pressed and then sell them ourselves. That was the only way we could get records out. That's how Cullen got The Prowlers out on records. Records came out and they did all right, but in comparison to the material which was coming out of the US, it was pretty bad, because in reality it was a copy. But it inspired other groups to try other things.
McGrath: OK, so you left CJOR in 1957...
Robinson: Right. Then I went to CKWX. I'll tell you why. CKWX at the time was going to 50,000 watts and it would be the only station west of Winnipeg to have a 50,000 watt transmitter. And I saw a chance to let more people be exposed to the music of my generation. So I went to WX in 1957 and again there was the situation of the unbelievable two-hour radio show. Within a year they converted WX into a the first 24-hour Top 40 station... although in those days in was Top 50.
I met the man who converted WX in 1958. He was quite old at the time. I guess he was around 60 and he had great foresight. He was called Tiny Alfie, and he was big, around 6'5", and he said, "This is where it's gonna be at". Market research in the US showed that when people went into bars they played the same song again and again on the jukebox. Tiny said, "Let's turn the station into a 24-hour jukebox". So Tiny took this multi-million dollar radio station, which was doing very well, and he made the decision that if rock was good enough for five hours a day, it was good enough for 24 hours. It was a huge success.
McGrath: What do you remember that was interesting or odd from those days?
Robinson: Everything ended in rhyme -- stacks of wax and all that stuff. A we had cute little one-liners that today would be on T-shirts. They're funny when you look back, but they were serious at the time. For example -- "A greater measure of listening pleasure"... pretty funny.
McGrath: Increase Records has released a series called A History Of Rock 'n' Roll Radio. Haver you heard them?
Robinson: Yes, I know the people who put that set together. It was fun. If you listen to old rock, you can tell it's not involved, which is probably a criticism today. But it was happy music and I don't think too many people got into the words. Probably you could interview 20 people on the street these days and only one would know the lyrics to any old song.
Quigley: Which station were you at when Elvis came to town?
Quigley: Who was on CJOR after you left?
Robinson: They ran a contest (laughs)... they had contests for everything. So they went to all the High Schools and they found Brian Forst.
Robinson: He became Frosty only at CFUN. In those days he was Brian Forst, Boy DJ. He was on for five or six months and then the ratings came out and they realized they couldn't fight a 24-hour rock operation. He lasted six months and then he went to work in Prince George. So he was my replacement, but he couldn't make it, so CJOR went back to... what? They vacillated right up to 1964.
Those were the days when there was a fan cub, not for me, but for the show. Everything was a show. I had 55,000 members. They all had cards, and these became a merchandising tool. It was an advantage to the merchant, and everyone else who got one, because you could get discounts. And because we were going 24 hours a day, it stretched the teen thing to young adults, who previously wouldn't admit they liked this music. And then the younger kids started digging it. But it really went like a hydrogen bomb when the transistor radio came in.
In 1959 I went to Portland to get into some television and I ended up at KGW radio in Seattle. I did a television thing and I lived there for two years and went into the US Army. I got a discharge and came back to town. Back to CKWX. But by that time, Tiny had died and they had lost the feeling. It turned really plastic... you know, 50-year-old guys playing rock. They were nice guys but they just weren't with it. And it was too obvious. CFUN had started up in the summer of 1960 when I was in the army, and they played rock using young guys. Dave McCormick, Brian Forst, Hal Jordan - and they took it and got the momentum away from WX. I worked for WX for a year, realized there was no hope, and then I had an offer from CFUN to go and be program director, so I went and stayed there. That was the greatest time, in my opinion, for rock. Those seven years I was there saw the music become a true art form. The guys there were young and aggressive and they created a lot of things, like the Soundathon, in which the 500 greatest records would be played for a whole long weekend.
Quigley: Was that idea original to Canada, or did it come from the US?
Robinson: Other stations had run Sound Spectaculars, but we were the first to have a Soundathon, with printed sheets of the top 500 songs we compiled from people's votes. No kidding, we'd get 50,000 pieces of mail that had to be tabulated. We'd get 200 or 300 high school students to help us out. It was fun. It was exciting. We'd do anything. A week wouldn't go by without us holding up a train... anything for a gag. Then we started the Kits Showboat concerts, and this generated more talent.
McGrath: How did you get the CFUN Classics going? Another contest?
Robinson: (laughs) No. We were a bit more sophisticated. We went out and got who we considered to be the best guitarist, the best drummer, etc. and we brought them together and called them The Classics. No, actually, they picked the name.
Quigley: When did CKLG come along?
Robinson: September, 1964.
Quigley: What were they before? A talk station?
Robinson: No, they had everything. They had a great show called "My Favourite Dish". Do you remember that? They had an Italian show and Horst Koehler - we called him Horse Collar... So they decided to go for broke.
McGrath: And they did...
Robinson: (laughs) And they brought a guy called Sam Holman in from New York.
Quigley: How did this affect you at CFUN?
Robinson: Initially, we died a thousand deaths... actually, there's always a part of your audience that's fickle. But nothing appreciable happened in the ratings until 1966.
McGrath: When they've got nothing to lose, they can usually start off being a tad more progressive and the established favourite.
Robinson: The novelty thing. They lasted but we actually gave it to them when CFUN had internal problems with the three guys who owned it. They lived in Welland, Ontario, and they left us alone. Usually. But all of a sudden they weren't getting along. So they sold the joint and divided the money up. And that, in effect, killed us. I quit in 1967.
This interview was found in the vaults by Harold Colson, an ace Librarian at the University of California at San Diego. Harold is researching the Stones 1972 North American tour, and he's found a bunch of my lost stuff in some special collections of underground newspapers. Thank you, Harold!