History was made on August 31, 1957 when Elvis Presley stepped onto the Empire Stadium stage to perform a rock ‘n’ roll show in Vancouver. Not only was it his first and only live show in Vancouver, it was the last time Elvis would ever grace a stage outside of the U.S. The Master of Ceremonies that evening was Vancouver disc jockey Red Robinson.
Then a very young man himself, Red remembers: “It was a glorious night. What a feeling to stand on that stage. I’ve never forgotten it. Imagine a kid at 20 years old, and there are 26,000 people out there. This was all new and for the first time. To experience it, stepping out there, the crowd yelling, ‘We want Elvis!’”
The people got what they wanted. Pandemonium reigned during the brief performance and subsequent escape by Elvis. But before he did, Red Robinson spent some quality time with the King. “He was a good guy,” recalls Red. “He was 22 and I was 20. We spent an hour in the dressing room alone just talking about cars and women and cars and women and movies and the music scene. And out of it I found out Elvis loved different singers. Who would think he loved Mario Lanza? But he did. You can hear it in songs like ‘Surrender’ and ‘It’s Now or Never’. In the rhythm and blues, he loved Clyde McFadder and Roy Hamilton. Their roots were in gospel and that’s what Elvis was. All he ever wanted to do was the gospel music.”
The next day, Red made a huge mistake, one he would never repeat in his more than 50 years on the radio. “Earlier in the day, before the show, I went downtown to meet him. I went on the air the next day, after he left town, and told my listeners that I even got to go up to his room. He stayed in Room 1226 in the Georgia Hotel. [Listeners] even climbed up the hotel fire escape to steal souvenirs. Our station manager wound up paying a large bill.”
Red claims that contrary to popular belief, he was not the one who brought Elvis to Vancouver. He would write letters to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, but Red claims the replies he received all said that Elvis would not be coming up to Vancouver. “A man called Zollie Volchuk in Seattle brought Elvis in along with Hugh Pickett,” says Red. “The word from Colonel Parker was that Red Robinson is going to emcee that show because I went after him and supported him.”
How was this young disc jockey fortunate enough to put himself in such a position at such a young age? It wasn’t on purpose, at least, at first. Though he was born in Comox, March 30, 1937 and lived for a few years in Fanny Bay, Red grew up and went to school in Vancouver. He attended King Edward High School, where fellow students included Jack Cullen and Jack Wasserman. While going to school, Red dreamed of becoming an illustrator and took art courses to help prepare him for that career.
Along the way, he became sidetracked and never went back. “I was a great radio listener. I phoned one afternoon to a teen show when Jimmy Stewart, the actor, was in town. So, I phoned the radio show and said to the host, Al Jordan, ‘Ah, this is Jimmy Stewart’ impersonating the actor. The next day Jack Wasserman wrote in his column that it was very nice of Jimmy Stewart to call the kids' show!”
“I phoned back a few days later as a character actor called Peter Lorre and impersonated him. Al Jordan asked me if I had called as Jimmy Stewart, and when I told him I had, he invited me down. I went, and they made me a regular part of the show.”
After several months of this, Al Jordan took a job at a radio station in Hamilton and Red continued to work with Al’s replacement. He lasted about three months and the station was considering cancelling the show when the replacement didn’t show up for work one day.
“So they said, ‘Red, you take over the show,’” he recalls. “I was still going to high school, so the principal had to give me a slip to get out early because I had no car. They gave the show to me November 12, 1954.” Fortunately, Red knew what the kids wanted – rhythm and blues. He took over the show and started bringing in his own records; something he claims was common practice at the time. To say he was a smash success would be an understatement.
“By the spring of 1955, the show was sold out, and radio in those days was desperate because nobody was buying ads,” says Red. “Nobody was going to the movies, either. By 1956, I had a rating, they call it a share, that you would never hear of today, of 54, which means of all the radios on in Vancouver, 54 per cent of them were listening to my show.”
Since Red worked with a live audience, after a period of time, kids were lining up for blocks to get in.
“The police got worried, so I went to the station manager and suggested I take the show to the Kitsilano Showboat,” says Red. “I promoted the Friday show starting on a Monday, just me playing records. Ten thousand kids showed up. That’s when my career and rock ‘n’ roll were cemented. Right there. It was massive. It was an amazing time.”
Red claims that rock ‘n’ roll saved the both the radio and movie industries. “The movie industry was on the ropes, radio was on the ropes, because of television,” he says. “All of the old radio shows like *Jack Benny* and *Dragnet* went to television, leaving a void in radio. Radio was really in trouble and couldn’t even give away air time. The golden era of radio had ended. You’ve got movies dying; you’ve got radio dying and along comes rock ‘n’ roll at the confluence of a youth generation that had money. When I started my show, I was told the kids have no money. I said, ‘You’re wrong’. I was going to a school where the parking lot for the students is bigger than the teachers’.”
At the time, everybody was working. Kids had money and we were a large group. When the entertainment industry discovered that, Hollywood noticed rock ‘n’ roll.
“They saw the crowds that turned out for *Rebel Without A Cause* with James Dean in 1954,” says Red. “Then came *Blackboard Jungle* with the theme song ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and it just took off. It was an amazing moment in history. The youth generation was an explosion we’d not seen the likes of before.”
Both rock ‘n’ roll and the radio industry needed each other, and Red was one of the pioneers, bringing it to the youth of the day. He claims it was a west coast phenomenon, spreading up to Vancouver from Los Angeles and Seattle, and he laughs when he hears that a radio station in Toronto claims they were the first to play rock ‘n’ roll in Canada in 1957. “I was on the air in 1955 as a disc jockey 55 hours a week playing rock ‘n’ roll!” says Red.
Red is quick to give credit to Allan Freed, the Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey who would invite both black and white kids to the same show that also featured white and black acts sharing the same stage starting in 1952. “This was unheard of!” recalls Red. “This disturbed the traditional record companies greatly. America was a divided country. Allan created a furor but we didn’t care. The kids took people at face value. It just happened that all the roots of [the music] were black or country.”
In 1962, Red interviewed Ray Charles and wondered why Ray’s best-selling album was a country record. Ray told Red if Elvis and other white singers hadn't made money by singing black music, he would have been restricted to black radio stations. Ray never would have made the kind of money he did, or enjoyed the kind of fame he did.
“Elvis was the catalyst. He had it all. He was probably the handsomest man I ever saw in my life,” says Red. “He had charisma. His stage presence was unbelievable. But what blew me away, as opposed to today, he had talent. He was a great guy, very down to earth.”
Red has had an extremely successful career and he is still working as a disc jockey today, though not for nearly as many hours as he did when he was young. The industry has changed. When CJOR gave him his first radio show, disc jockeys sank or swam on their own. “A disc jockey could bring his own music in and create a rating,” says Red. “If you got ratings, the money followed. If you failed, you were on the street. It’s no different than for a performer. I liked living on the edge like that. I always have.”
In 1957, CKWX went after Red and wanted him to do afternoon and evening shows. What motivated him to move was not the money, though it was good. It was the lure of 50,000 watts, making them the most powerful station west of Winnipeg and north of Portland. “I could carry my message to more people.”
Born Robert Robinson, named after a recently deceased uncle, Red did have fiery orange hair as a young man, though that is not where his name came from. “I was sitting in a study hall at King Edward School,” he recalls. “I had all my dreams and vision. I don’t want to go on as Robert Robinson. It didn’t hit me. Could I do Rusty? No. And then I thought, ‘What about Red? Like Red Robin. Like a red robin flying in. It will catch on.’ And so, when I went on the air I called myself Red Robinson.”
For more than half a century, Red Robinson has been spinning records at various radio stations, almost exclusively in Vancouver, hosting television shows, interviewing musicians, introducing musical acts to appreciative audiences and working in the advertising and marketing business. At 72, some might fade out of the spotlight, but not Red. “It’s been a great ride,” he says, “and I’m still doing it, not for money but because I love it.”
Catch *The Red Rock Diner* on the air every Sunday, 8 a.m. - 2 p.m. on 104.9 Clear FM. Red will also host a Beatles tribute band at the PNE on Saturday, August 22.
JULY 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER
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