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Harvey Robbins: Still Movin' To The Rhythm

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2010-04-22-Robbins4_0509rgb.jpg Harvey Robbins turned off the radio in 1964 and, since then, has happily listened to music without it. Today, the music he loves has led him to a career as a producer, a Hall of Fame founder and a passionate fighter for historic preservation.

Growing up in Dorchester, MA, Robbins has loved music as long as he can remember. And, he recalls, his parents helped fan the flames of that love. "I was an only child and my parents were very much out there in terms of taking me places , like the Latin Quarter in Boston."

At that nightclub, he'd see entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr. "I was taken backstage to meet Pearl Bailey after her performance. When I met her, she said, 'My, y'all are handsome.' I was thrilled. That early exposure to music, to entertainment, probably had some influence on me."

The first record he bought was a 78 called Pink Champagne. His favorite song as a kid was the Mills Brothers' Smack Dab In the Middle. Shortly after that, he heard doo-wop.

This is music that grew directly out of its gospel and blues roots. It's characterized by vocal harmonies, wide range of voices in the group, the use of nonsense syllables ("doo-wop") to mark the rhythm and simplicity of instrumentation and lyrics. At first, in the 1940s, it was sung in African American urban communities in the northeast and Midwest. Doo-wop gained mainstream popularity in the 1950s and the sound was soon taken up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where Italian-American groups like Dion and the Belmonts, ("Belmont" from Belmont Avenue in the Bronx) were formed.

The doo-wop era in music ended with the British Invasion in 1964, the year -- as noted above -- Robbins turned off his radio.

In blues music, his favorites were Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. But, in doo-wop, the list is much longer -- the Five Keys, Flamingos, Orioles and Clyde McPhatter, "the greatest voice I ever heard in my life.

"And Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were great. Their early songs -- Work Me Annie, Annie Had A Baby and Sex Ways -- were all banned in Boston but were still huge hits. They also recorded the first version of The Twist."

In high school Robbins sang with some local doo-wop groups and got a journalism degree and covered the Boston Celtics for the Quincy (MS) Journal Ledger. During this time he bought a harness racing horse. "Soon after I purchased her," he says, "she became lame and I moved her to a farm, Prowse Farm."

The farm was situated on historic land. It was there Suffolk Resolves, a document whose ideas were incorporated into the Declaration of Independence was written in 1774. When the owner died intestate in 1975, a subsidiary of Motorola moved in to develop the land.

Together with NBA Hall of Famer and former Celtic, Dave Cowens, he formed the Friends of Prowse Farm, battling the state and, ultimately, incumbent governor Mike Dukakis to preserve the land. The battle was won after 18 years and, today, Prowse Farm is the site of an education center and a venue for a range of public events. Today, Robbins is still president of Friends of Prowse Farm.

In 1985, Robbins and Cowens joined forces to produce a concert to raise money for a New England Sports Museum. For the show, Robbins met many of the members of groups he'd admired growing up and that, in turn, inspired him to launch the Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame of America® in 2001. Among the first inductees were The Platters, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, The Drifters and The Belmonts. That summer he did his first show as a producer at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in MA.

[Note: The extra "p" was added to "doo-wop" when someone working with Robbins on the benefit concert objected to the original spelling, saying it could be an ethnic slur against Italian-Americans. Thus, Robbins added the extra letter and has spelled "doo-wopp" that way ever since.]

He also began producing the The Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame of America show and says, "Thirteen months ago I decided I wanted to come to Las Vegas. After all, it's the entertainment capital of the world." Thus, tomorrow and Saturday, the show makes its Las Vegas premiere at The Venetian.

Appearing are Jimmy Beaumont and The Skyliners (Since I Don't Have You, Pennies from Heaven and This I Swear); The Marcels (Blue Moon and Heartaches); George Galfo's Mystics (Hushabye); The Legacy of Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters with the son of McPhatter and the legendary Ruth Brown -- Ron McPhatter. He will perform Money Honey, Treasure of Love and A Lover's Question.) and The Royalty of Rock 'n Roll All-Stars featuring Billy Davis.

Singing with The Royalty of Rock 'n' Roll is Harvey Robbins. Billy Davis, the featured singer, co-wrote The Twist, was Jimi Hendrix' first guitar teacher and played on hit recordings by Jackie Wilson, the Isley Brothers and Joe Tex. [Robbins is second from left in the photo above. The rest of the group is Judy Teo, Billy Davis and Lee Mitchell.]

Robbins says the show draws audiences of varying ages depending upon the venue. "In Boston, it's people in their 50s and up. But there's a large element of younger people. They'll say, 'That's all I heard growing up. I love it!' This music endures and resonates today because it's great music."

And, since he stopped listening to the radio, what does Robbins do for music? He says, "I have CDs. I listen to only doo-wopp and the blues. I never did go past that era. When the British invasion came on, I shut the radio off. I have enough music without that."