Coolest cat of rock ‘n’ roll

In the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, teenagers eager to distance themselves from the music of their parents were glued to local radio stations, grooving to the coolest – or craziest – guy in town. Radio DJs were local celebrities whose on-air antics made the kids feel part of a new, exciting and “with it” culture.Middlemen between teens and musicians, they had the power of airplay. If they spun a record, a song found an audience and often a performer found stardom. The DJs’ influence on the music industry was enormous and helped define a unique musical era.

Red began in ’52
In Canada, the coolest cat with the most clout was Vancouver DJ Red Robinson. Beginning in 1952, Robinson, now 63, was instrumental in introducing Canadian bobby soxers to the latest rock ‘n’ roll tunes from his studio at Vancouver radio station CFOR.

“The host with the most from the coast” has interviewed the Who’s Who in music, including Elvis and The Beatles. He’s been a successful television host, columnist, author, producer, promoter and advertising executive. And the beat goes on. Today, as morning man at Vancouver’s “oldies” station, CISL, Robinson continues to spinesterday’s hits from the 50s’ and 60s’ music makers — many of whose careers he helped launch. Ironically, this legendary disc jockey’s rock ‘n’ roll career outlasted many of the teen idols he promoted.

“Every decade a generation moves on and the next one wants to dissociate itself from what was once popular,” he says, theorizing about the career lifespan of the recording artist. “I think the secret of my survival is that my audience for oldies radio today is the same audience I had when I was young. We’ve all grown up together.”

Robinson has been married since 1963. He and his wife Carol, have three grown children.

Hall of Fame DJ
In 1995, Robinson was honoured as one of the Legendary DJs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. When a former chum from Vancouver’s King Edward High School heard about the award, he was inspired by Robinson’s successes and antics. Writer, director and choreographer, Dean Regan, decided to base his next play on his former classmate.

Regan’s tribute, “Red Rock Diner”, musically transposes the audience back to 1957 to relive a day in the life of this redheaded DJ. Productions have been staged in Vancouver, Kansas City, London, Ontario and most recently, Stage West Theatre Restaurant in Mississauga, Ontario. Armed with rave reviews, the producers plan to swing south and mount the show in 50 American cities next spring.

“Every time I see the show, it excites me,” Robinson enthuses.  “Just watching these energetic actors is a joy.”

Born and raised in Vancouver, Robert Gordon Robinson owes his radio career to a prank.

“I used to listen to a radio show on CFOR, called “Theme for Teens”. The host was Al Jordan,” he explains. “One day, Jimmy Stewart was in town. I phoned Al Jordan and imitating Stewart, told him that I really loved his show. Later that week, gossip columnist Jack Wasserman wrote, “Wasn’t that nice of Jimmy Stewart to call Al Jordan?”

“I was panic-stricken, but it didn’t stop me from calling Jordan the next week as Humphrey Bogart. It triggered his memory. He asked me if I was the one that called as Jimmy Stewart — then he invited me down to the station. From that, I learned how to operate equipment, started writing satirical skits, appeared on his show and did impressions. Later, when Jordan moved on, I was handed the show and attended high school at the same time!”

Time with Elvis
A highlight of his career was an LP Robinson produced for RCA in 1977, “Canadian Tribute to Elvis”, which went double platinum. And earlier this year, he released a CD on RCA/BMG titled, “Elvis: A Canadian Tribute”, consisting of Canadian-written songs Elvis sang, photos, interviews and a press conference hosted by the DJ himself.

Robinson met Elvis when they hung out before the singer’s concert in ’57. The disc jockey found the star to be a gentleman, but it was clear to him at the time the future king of rock ‘n’ roll was on a “trek of loneliness, a captive of his own fame”.

On that afternoon back in ’57, Elvis was bored. He asked Robinson to help him rehearse scenes from the movie, Jailhouse Rock.

“Elvis borrowed a policeman’s handcuffs, told me to put my hands on the shower rod, handcuffed me, threw the key across the room and said ‘Red, I guess I’m going to have to introduce myself because you’re all tied up!'”

Coincidently, Robinson discovered that his English mother-in-law’s maiden name was Presley. She says she’s a third cousin of Elvis’s father.

Canada’s Wolfman
Often referred to as the Canadian Wolfman Jack, Robinson tells a poignant story about his US counterpart.

“I interviewed Wolfman Jack about his book on a Friday. On air, he promised to send me copies. He died the next day of a heart attack. Monday morning, during my tribute to him, a package arrived by Federal Express. I opened it and found three autographed books from the Wolfman. It was eerie.”

While other specialty radio stations like new country are folding, golden oldies stations are thriving.

“I think oldies are still popular today because they evoke people’s memories. “Will it last”?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll make a prediction. We won’t be playing 50’s music five years from now. The memories will be for the next generation — the 70’s, then 80’s and 90’s. Oldies won’t go, they’ll just be different oldies.”

Oldies cross Canada
For those “Cool Cats” who want to bop till you drop to the golden oldies, there are a number of AM radio stations across the country devoted to this phenomenon. In Ontario, check out 1050 CHUM in Toronto, Hamilton’s Oldies 1150, Oldies 1090 out of Kitchener and Ottawa’s W-1310. In Halifax, turn your dial to CHNS 960 and of course, in Vancouver, start your day with Red Robinson on CISL 650.

The public broadcaster, CBC Radio, boasts a national rock and roll radio show. “Finkleman’s 45s”, hosted by Danny Finkleman, broadcasts for two hours every Saturday night on CBC Radio One at 8 p.m. local time.

And a number of FM stations have jumped on the oldies’ bandwagon with programming featuring the sounds of the 50’s and 60’s.