SUGAR CHILE ROBINSON (By Dave Penny)
Born Frank Issac Robinson, 26 December 1938, Detroit, Michigan
The history of 20th century entertainment has been littered with the often ultimately tragic stories of its child prodigies; from Jackie Coogan in the 1920s, 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, usually resulted in the youngster being regarded as a flash-in-the-pan novelty act which grew tiresome pretty quickly. The fall from grace, when they reached adolescence, was usually brutal, and some couldn't handle the swift drop in popularity and turned to drink or drugs, while others accepted that their time in the spotlight had ended and retired more gracefully to concentrate their energies in other directions. One such was that tiny bundle of Detroit dynamite, "Sugar Chile" Robinson.
Born Frankie Robinson in Detroit on 28th December 1938, the youngest of seven children born to Clarence and Elizabeth Robinson, neither of whom were musicians, while yet a toddler "Sugar Chile" began pounding on the piano left at his house by an aunt - he reputedly hammered out a recognisable version of Erskine Hawkins' current hit "Tuxedo Junction" at the age of two and by the following year was allegedly able to copy any music he heard on the radio. His nickname was bestowed about the same time when he developed a liking for sugar cubes, which his mother gave him to mollify him when he was upset, and he became her little "Sugar Chile".
His father recalled:
In the early 1940s, aged about three, Sugar Chile Robinson entered and won the under 18s talent show at Detroit's Paradise Theatre, and for the next few years he was an infrequent visitor to that famous theatre and his fame began to spread. In 1945 - still only six years old - he played guest spots at the Paradise with Lionel Hampton's band and with Frankie Carle's Orchestra; Hampton wanted to take the child on tour with his band, but the US Child Labor Laws prevented it. Nonetheless, the seeds had been sown, and after guesting with Carle's band in October, before the month was out, he had been signed to a film contract by MGM and was on his way to Hollywood. While in Tinsel Town he filmed his cameo spot in the romantic wartime comedy film No Leave, No Love starring Van Johnson, performing Louis Jordan's then current hit "Caldonia". Reviews for Sugar Chile's 90 seconds on screen were glowing, and MGM tried to persuade his father, Clarence, to countersign another contract for seven years, but the future looked bright and Clarence refused to tie his son to such a long sentence…and the same was true for the many recording contracts which came his way in the mid- to late 1940s. While in Los Angeles in November 1945, however, Frankie hooked up again with Hampton, and was featured with the bandleader and with Harry "The Hipster" Gibson on several AFRS radio transcriptions.
In March 1946 Sugar Chile performed at a star-studded bill in Washington DC for President Truman, contributing four full numbers including his speciality "Caldonia" during which he shouted out, "How'm I Doin', Mr President?" which became something of a catch-phrase. 1946 was a halcyon year for little Frankie, with star spots on syndicated radio shows and his own revue at Detroit's Downtown Theatre. Within a week of playing for President Truman, he headlined for a week at Chicago's Regal Theatre and grossed over $36,000, a record that 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, and he began smashing box office records wherever he appeared; by August he was out in California, employing the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Dorothy Dandridge to appear in his revue! At the year's end, his earnings were reported as $148,000.
1947 was much the same, with guest spots on many popular radio programmes and even an operetta My Maryland, while touring the nation's theatre circuit with his father as manager and chaperone. Also in 1947 his success was celebrated with the filming of a seven-minute film featurette simply entitled Frankie "Sugar Chile" Robinson; a fine showcase for his talents, but still no contract resulted from the US recording industry.
Throughout the whole of 1948 the AFM strike meant that the recording studios were out of bounds to musicians. Not that that would have bothered Frankie anyway, as he was still too young to belong to the musicians union - Union boss J C Petrillo personally provided written consent for him to be included, making him the youngest ever member of the AFM at that time. With his special dispensation, in July 1949, he made his first records for the Capitol label in Los Angeles, when, in the consummate company of 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.
Robinson toured with Count Basie in 1950 and made a celebrated musical short with the Basie Sextet and Billie Holiday in Hollywood in September 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 two-month tour of the UK in the summer of 1951, including rave reviews for his spot at the London Palladium, guest spots on BBC TV and a Melody Maker interview. He was a big hit on US radio and TV all through 1951 and was asked to return to Britain for the summer season of 1952, but it was the beginning of the end.
He was growing up and was at that awkward age, as a teenager, when his novelty effect had worn off, but he was still too young to be seriously considered a jazz musician. He still received a lot of fan mail from Europe and Africa, but at home in the US he was struggling. He had also missed out on a childhood, and he begged his Father to allow him to stop the touring and go to school. He told music historian Dan Kochakian: "I stopped recording after the Capitol sessions in 1952. All during that time I had a tutor, so even on the road, I was studying. That wasn't what bothered me. I wanted to go to school…I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma. I was ahead of my age group in school. I graduated from Northern High School at age 15 and most of my friends were seventeen or eighteen when they graduated. I graduated from Olivet College here in Michigan around 1960. I have a degree in psychology."
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. There were one or two more reports in the trade papers of the day - he played four engagements in 1953, followed in 1954 by another three engagements, one of which, in August 1954, was at The Blue Note in Chicago with modern jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Now billed as Frank Robinson, he played just two engagements throughout 1955 and 1956 - and at the ripe old age of eighteen he retired from show business.
In the 1960s he got a job with WGPR-TV, selling TV commercials, and briefly regained some contact with the music business, by co-owning the Detroit-based Lando and Lendo labels, which released 45s by Rufus Wonder - cousin to Stevie - and Carl Carlton. On the strength of these minor successes, Frank opened his own recording studio and started the AutoCap label, which also enjoyed a minor hit with "Don't Walk Away" by The Superlatives.
Nothing more was heard of "Sugar Chile" for many years and the worst was feared, until July 2002 when the 63 year old former child star made a surprise appearance at a special concert celebrating the pre-Motown legends of Detroit music and then, in 2007 for the first time in fifty-five years, he was persuaded out of retirement to make the journey across the Atlantic to perform once again for his European fans at the "Rhythm Riot" weekender, where he delighted a generation of rock `n' roll fans who had spent the last thirty years dancing to his popular club favourites such as "Numbers Boogie", Whop Whop" and "Go Boy Go".
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