Houston’s Don Deadric Robey — half black, half Jewish, all gangster — beat Berry Gordy by ten years to become the first African-American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock and roll records of the 1950s and ’60s from a building in the Fifth Ward of Houston. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into jubilation than assimilation.
The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ’51, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records in 1949 after his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown didn’t get much promotion on two singles for L.A.’s Aladdin label. Peacock first made its name in the gospel field, then hit it big in R&B in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years.
After he acquired the Duke label in the early ’50s, Robey’s stable of acts contained not only Gatemouth, but Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.
Robey’s empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers, including B.B. King, out on the “chitlin circuit” and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn’t leave, like Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.
“He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2005, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.”
Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII. What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long as people were buying them. Robey had five labels in all, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73).
As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known in its early years as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris and the Brooklyn All-Stars and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.
Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s second in command.
It all started with Brownlee’s Blind Boys, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday, “The Five Blind Boys” referred to the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937 as the Cotton Blossom Singers, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).
After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama — and both acts ended up keeping the new names.
On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a cappella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.
Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.
Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.
Peacock’s other big signing in 1952 was the Sensational Nightingales, assembled in North Carolina by former Hummingbird Barney Parks a few years earlier. Besides Cheeks, whom Wilson Pickett acknowledged as a primary influence, the ‘gales added two other lead singers — Ernest James and Jo Jo Wallace — before making their Peacock debut in the summer of ’52 with “A Soldier Not In Uniform” b/w “Will He Welcome Me There.” The Nightingales’ most sensational number came in 1956 with the aptly-named “Burying Ground,” with Cheeks’ seismic vocals burying all contenders at the gospel “battles” that were popular at the time.
Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.
If anyone had a problem with Robey’s sketchy concept of renumeration, they weren’t on Peacock for long. Ira Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with the entrepreneur whose very name started with R-O-B.
“The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would,” he said. “If he could scare you down, he would.”
Roscoe Robinson, who in 1960 replaced Archie Brownlee as lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road.
“When our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” says Robinson, now 88. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated.
“He said he would cut us in on a lot of money [Peacock sued Chess for $450,000] if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” says Robinson.
Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B; he later had a minor hit in 1966 with “That’s Enough.”
By all accounts — and I do mean all — Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was his rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (These were disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)
In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke, Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.
The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live at the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Ala., was an acolyte of Brownlee and Sensational Nightingales lead singer Julius Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band’s soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.
By the early ’60s, Peacock had so many gospel artists on the roster that Robey started a new religious music subsidiary Song Bird, which also expanded on Peacock’s focus on male quartets. Some of Robey’s earlier competitors, such the Specialty, Apollo and Gotham labels had become inactive, so he was signing just about anyone he wanted and at one point had 109 acts under contract, according to Ray Funk’s 1990 history of Peacock’s gospel division that ran in Rejoice! magazine (an invaluable source for this article). The biggest act on Song Bird was Inez Andrews, formerly of the Caravans. Even when Robey’s R&B and pop records experienced dry spells, the gospel records always kept the cash flow going.
The gospel side paid unexpected dividends when Tennessee native O.V. Wright, a former member of the Sunset Travelers, had a huge secular hit in 1964 with “That’s How Strong My Love Is” on the Goldwax label. Robey discovered that Wright was still under contract to him, so he claimed the rising R&B star for his Back Beat label and had big hits with “Eight Men, Four Women” and “A Nickel and a Nail.” If there was money to be made, Robey didn’t miss a trick.
By the late ’60s, he was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos on other horses. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tying.
When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several hundred co-“written” by Deadric Malone, his pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was short-lived.
The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. He made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone, but also a lot of records that will last forever.
(This is a chapter of Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran, coming on TCU Press in March 2020. Preorder on Amazon.com
Here’s the chapter on Evelyn Johnson from All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT)
2 thoughts on “Don Robey: Gangster of Worship”
Hey Corky, if you need ‘em, I’ve got a couple of
photos of Evelyn Johnson and 2809 Erastus St
from the day when I interviewed her in 1972. She
Just gave the same not credible story about the
death of Johnny Ace. The real story is somewhat
Would love to see those photos. If they’re emailable, I’m at email@example.com