Saxophonist and singer Paul “Fat Man” Robinson, a key figure on Boston’s postwar nightlife scene, was the city’s leading exponent of the jump blues, that lively mix of jazz, blues and boogie popularly identified with Louis Jordan. Although Robinson made his mark playing R&B and jazz, he could play any style of music for any audience. His band was one of the city’s busiest. And they rocked the joint wherever they went. As an ad for a Robinson engagement at the Palace Bar proclaimed: “There’s Life Here!”
Paul Robinson was born in Louisiana on June 8, 1918, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His later music clearly showed he heard the music of the church as well as jazz there. At some point he started playing saxophone and clarinet. Robinson entered the army in World War II, and played in an army band, but the details are lost. (Sadly, many such details are lost. Much of Robinson’s personal history was destroyed in a fire.)
Robinson moved to Boston after his army service. He’d heard Louis Jordan and organized a quintet to play in that style. There were others around town playing jump blues, notably Sabby Lewis and Jimmy Tyler, but they were strictly instrumental. With his vocalizing, Fat Man Robinson stood apart. And a band with a vocalist was readily employable.
Robinson, a relative newcomer to the city, filled out his quintet with established Boston musicians. Best known was trumpeter Oscar Dunham, a veteran of the bands of Sabby Lewis and Blanche Calloway. Pianist Henry McCoy’s own wartime band, the Jitterbugs, were regulars in the South End clubs. Drummer Clinton Jackson started with Tasker Crosson’s Statesmen. Bassist Bill Tanner was a longtime member of Clarence Jackson’s Four Notes of Rhythm. It was a solid, hard-working group.
Starting in 1948, Robinson worked regularly in clubs in both the Theater District and the South End, the two centers of Boston nightlife. His personality was exuberant, his philosophy was “let the good times roll,” and his music was boisterous. So was his audience. In those years, the Boston Navy Yard overflowed with sailors and marines, and they flooded the Theater District clubs—drinking, battling the Shore Patrol, and rockin’ with the bar bands. The action centered around the corner of Tremont and Stuart, at the Petty Lounge, the Rio Casino, the 1,2,3 Lounge, the Knickerbocker Cafe, the Silhouette Room. Fat Man played them all.
The Singular Year of 1949
Fat Man Robinson’s Quintet had a big year in 1949. They started with a six-month engagement at the Rio Casino (located in what is now the Charles Playhouse). The Rio had not featured a black band as its headliner since the Billy Eckstine fracas in 1946. The owners, Ben and Jack Ford, were wary. But Fat Man did business for them. Early in the engagement, George Clarke, the influential columnist in the Daily Record, promoted Robinson as “a combination of Louis Jordan and Fats Waller,” and that certainly didn’t hurt the turnout.
In the summer, Robinson was on Revere Beach, at the Red Roof, playing seven nights a week for the big seasonal crowds. On the weekends, he’d open for the name bands—Erskine Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Johnson. Weeknights were his. One night a week his show included a talent contest, with volunteers stepping up to sing with the band. That’s how Fat Man met his wife, Barbara—she was one of those singers, and she did it more than once, even sitting in on drums when the band’s drummer was late.
Nineteen forty-nine also brought Robinson into the recording studio. He released four sides on the Motif label, a small Boston independent. One, the gospel-flavored “Lavender Coffin,” about a gambler’s dying wish, became a regional R&B hit. Robinson followed with “Fill That Gap in Your Mouth with Teeth ‘Cause Daddy’s Tired of Kissing Gum,” in which a frantic Fat Man pleads with his girl to invest in some false teeth. Next came two sides for Savoy’s Regent label. Finally, in November, the quintet recorded six sides for Decca, with “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” proving most popular. Pianist Charlie Cox, who joined the group about that time, later said the Decca sides languished because Louis Jordan also recorded for Decca, and the label pushed its established star.
Of Higginbotham and the Hi-Hat
Fat Man’s domain included the South End, with its predominantly African-American audiences. Two favorite spots there were Wally’s Paradise, run by his friend Wally Walcott, and the neighborhood’s top club, the Hi-Hat.
By 1951, Fat Man had expanded his band to include trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, then living in Boston. Higgy was in the band from roughly mid 1951 to mid 1952, and his presence undoubtedly sharpened the band’s jazz focus. It is probably no coincidence that most of Robinson’s bookings at the Hi-Hat came during Higginbotham’s time. The club offered continuous entertainment, so Robinson’s band would alternate with headliners like Erroll Garner and Slim Gaillard. When the club hired a single like Al Hibbler, Robinson’s band backed him.
After Higginbotham, Fat Man changed his sound again, adding a second saxophone, tenorman Sam Rivers, and sometimes he himself switched from alto to baritone. It might surprise some to find Rivers, then a stone bebopper and later a leader of the jazz avant-garde, in Fat Man’s band. But Rivers enjoyed the blues too, and later toured with B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. Sam Parkins told me, “he’d amuse the crowd by playing with his right hand behind his back, reaching around to grab the lower keys of his horn from behind.” Fat Man, the showman, loved it.
Rivers gave way to another one of Boston’s up-and-coming tenors, Andy McGhee, in 1953. During McGhee’s time (he left in 1957), the band traveled up and down the east coast, as far south as Miami and north into Canada. In the mid-1950s, Robinson’s band worked out of the Knickerbocker on the corner of Tremont and Stuart. The bar changed ownership in 1955, and given their house band status, McGhee thought that Robinson might have had an ownership stake in the club.
Bandleader and Businessman
If Robinson had such a stake, it wasn’t his only business venture. Another involved taxi medallions. In those years, white-owned cab companies routinely denied service to people of color. Robinson used some of his Decca money to buy taxi medallions, to ensure there were at least some friendly cabbies crisscrossing the city. Medallion owners might have refused to sell to non-white buyer, so Robinson’s white lawyer acted as his front man in order to complete the purchase (a not uncommon practice). Fat Man joked that his lawyer showed up at so many signings, people thought his name was Paul Robinson.
Robinson was his own booking agent, and he had to contend with the impact of racism in that role, too. Recalled his daughter Paula: “One Sunday a month, he’d have the musicians over. We had a big dining room, and the table sat ten, and once a month ten men came to the house to discuss the jobs that were coming up—who would play which job, how they’d get there, where they’d stay. You know, they’d work in all these different places, but they couldn’t go in the front door. They couldn’t stay in the hotels or eat in the restaurants. They couldn’t use the facilities! They’d stay in peoples’ homes or in rooming houses, that’s how it was. My father, as the bandleader, would make those arrangements. All this was discussed over dinner. Those men were of all kinds, they were all different, but they were all working hard to support their families, and face the moral challenges of the times.”
Things were slowing down for Robinson by 1956. Jump blues had faded by then. Already in 1955, Fat Man’s group was being advertised as a rock and roll band. The sound of the group changed, too. The trumpet and the acoustic bass gave way to electric guitar and bass.
And there was more. Andy McGhee told Fred Bouchard: “Fat Man was a nice guy, and a good business man too. I think he was one of the first guys who looked out for the musician, to the point where he made sure you applied for unemployment. Nobody did that. So he was a good guy. The problem with that band started with taxes. The guy who was supposed to be paying the taxes didn’t pay them. That was a beginning of the downfall.” Indeed, Robinson seemed to disappear from the scene in 1958-59, not resuming gigs until 1960.
Fat Man Robinson’s Boston days ended in the early 1960s. His marriage broke up in about 1961, and he returned to Cleveland while his family remained behind. His career in music was apparently at an end. Robinson died in that city in October 1979.
I’d like to thank Paula Robinson Deare for all her assistance in helping me prepare this article on her father.
Fat Man Robinson on Record
To the music, those 78s recorded in 1949. First up is the regional hit, “Lavender Coffin,” released on Motif. It’s a simple tune with a camp meeting feel.
“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” is a jump blues classic, with Fat Man’s alto solo and fine support by Dunham on muted trumpet. It’s my favorite. A 1930s blues tune, “Bucket” made several appearances on record in 1949—Hank Williams had a big hit with it on the country charts.
The quintet is in full jump mode on “Sophronia Jones,” made for the Regent label. In 1949, Billboard thought it was a little too exuberant.