Legendary black record label owner/gangster Don Robey died of a heart attack today (June 16, 1975) in Houston, Texas.
Don Robey owned the Peacock/Duke Records labels, which released sides by a number of legendary artists and songwriters, including Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller.
Don Robey launched Peacock Records in 1949, after he signed artist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
In 1952, Robey merged the Peacock operation with Duke Records in Memphis, Tennessee, but continued to operate out of Houston.
In the book “Burn, Baby! Burn!” legendary DJ Nathan “Magnificent” Montague discussed his association with Don Robey in the early 50s.
“Here was the thing about Don Robey: when he asked you to do something, you did it,” Magnificent Montague recalled. “You didn’t run an independent record company in those days, let alone a black independent record company, without being tough.”
Prior to entering into the music business, Robey owned a gambling parlor, a taxicab business, a nightclub and a record store in Houston.
“Robey was a very lightskinned man – I almost mistook him for a Cracker when I met him, till I heard the soul pouring out of his mouth,” Montague said. “You accepted Don on his terms. Little Richard had tried recording for Peacock when he was a nobody and got beat up by Robey. Richard is still complaining that Robey hit him so hard in the stomach and gave him a hernia.”
Robey fired a gun at Little Richard in studio and in a more humorous incident, smacked the legendary singer with a fish, after he caught the singer acting as a vendor on the street.
The Houston-based label went on to release hit records by Johnny Ace, Ruth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Five Blind Boys and Big Mama Thorton, who recorded the original version of “Hound Dog,” which later became a number one single for Elvis Presley.
Legendary songwriters Michael Leiber and Jerry Stoller wrote the original lyrics to “Hound Dog.”
In the pair’s autobiography “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography,” they comment on Don Robey and their compensation for “Hound Dog” at the time.
“Later we learned that Johnny Otis put his name on the song as composer and indicated to Don Robey, the label owner, that he, Johnny, had the power of attorney to sign for us as well,” Stoller wrote.
When Leiber & Stoller got wind of Johnny Otis’ scheme, Robey promptly issued new contracts, since the pair were under age.
“We got an attorney, and a new contract from Robey, which because we were under age, had to be signed by our mothers,” Stoller said. “Finally the paperwork was in order and we were given an advance check for $1200. The song hit the R&B charts, but the check bounced.”
Leiber also attested to Don Robey’s gangster ways and went as far as blaming it on the fact that
Robey was half Jewish.
“It now makes sense,” Leiber said. “No black man could be that dishonest and devious.”
The pair were bitter, and rightfully so. They had to sue Johnny Otis and “Diamond” Don Robey in order to get their names off the copyrights to “Hound Dog.”
During the 12-years that it took to get the rights back, Robey made out like a bandit and earned up to nine times more than Leiber & Stoller by exploiting the worldwide rights to both versions of “Hound Dog.”
Not everyone viewed Robey as such an unsavory character.
In his book “The Death of Rhythm and Blues,” Nelson George paints a slightly different picture.
George revealed that Robey regularly bought his artists Cadillacs when they asked for them, expensive clothes and cash advances, some of which were never repaid, if the borrowing artist did not have a hit.
“Robey was a pioneer who gave black talent a shot, a black surviving in a racist industry,” Nelson George said. “Robey, like the Chess Brothers in Chicago, Herman Lubinsky at Savoy and others, took the economic risks. They took the gamble. They deserved to benefit. No question.”