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American Recording Pioneers

Bob Roberts

By Allan Sutton

This article quotes historical instances of racially derogatory language,
which does not reflect the
views of the author or publisher.


Along with Arthur Collins, Robert A. "Bob" Roberts (1879–1930) was a leading exponent of the syncopated "coon" song on early recordings. But unlike the older Collins, who was primarily a creature of the recording studios, Roberts came from a theatrical family and was well-known on the vaudeville circuits.
    



Friendly rivals: Roberts and Collins performed the same sort of material for various labels,
but the similarities ended there. Roberts was a widely traveled vaudevillian who rarely
recorded with partners, while Collins was primarily a studio singer, many of whose
most popular records were duets with Byron G. Harlan.
(Courtesy of John Bolig)
      

Roberts' father, Nicholas "Nick" Roberts, was one of the more colorful characters in nineteenth-century American popular theater. A German immigrant and white-face mime, he traveled widely as a young performer and is known to have played Niblo's Garden (New York) with a partner as early as 1876. Within several years, Roberts assembled a full-fledged pantomime company featuring no fewer than forty clowns.1

Nick Roberts' son, Robert A. Roberts, was born in Cincinnati on April 27, 1879. At about the time of his son's birth, Roberts moved into management, as the owner and director of Nick Roberts' European Specialties & Clown Minstrels. The company's most ambitious production was Humpty Dumpty, which was described as "An extravaganza in three acts, with a prologue and nineteen scenes." The show opened at Tony Pastor's 14th Street Theater (New York) on October 10, 1881, ran for twenty-two performances, 2 then went on the road for many years.
 

An October 1889 Los Angeles Times advertisement for
Nick Roberts' production of Humpty Dumpty.
(Mainspring Press)


By the mid-1880, Nick Roberts was operating a successful stage management company in New York, in partnership with James B. Dickson and William R. Hayden. The firm was sufficiently well known in New York theater circles that its affairs were regularly reported in the press. Dissension eventually set in, however, and in September 1887, the New York Times reported that "disagreements between members of the theatrical management form...have culminated in open war." Roberts obtained an injunction preventing the other partners from interfering with his full management and possession of the company and its property, and petitioned the court for a receiver. 3

With the partnership dissolved, Nick Roberts again took to the road. Advertisements for his revivals of Humpty Dumpty appeared in local papers across the nation. The show even reached San Francisco and Los Angeles in the autumn of 1889. The Los Angeles Times reported, "The company is doing a good business up north and is well spoken of in the San Francisco press." 4

Whether Bob Roberts toured or performed with his father's clown troupe, as claimed in Jim Walsh's oft-quoted Hobbies magazine article, remains open to question. Although it is certainly likely that Roberts worked with the shows in some capacity, no program or playbill listing him as a member of his father's troupe has yet been reliably reported.

By the early 1900s, Nick Roberts had sold the rights to Humpty Dumpty to another production company, an event roughly coinciding with the start of his son's recording career. As with other studio performers of this period, the loss of some original company files makes it impossible to determine exactly which was a given performers' first record. However, based on known release dates, it is most likely that Bob Roberts made his first recordings for Columbia in the early months of 1903. Still, the dates of Roberts' first Columbia sessions are a subject of considerable debate, given both the loss of Columbia's files for this period, and the company's practice of remaking titles with different performers, without changing the original catalog numbers.

Roberts seems to have been especially favored as a remake artist by Columbia; thus, his name appears on remade recordings whose numbers were originally assigned as early as 1898–1902. For example, Roberts' name appears on a moulded-wax remake of brown-wax cylinder #7200-G ("Old Black Joe), which was originally recorded by Len Spencer on that number in 1898.

Roberts' earliest Columbia release that is clearly not a remake was two-minute cylinder #32132 ("I Could Never Love Like That"), issued in or around June 1903. His first Columbia disc that is known not to be a remake is "Truscalina Brown," issued in seven- and ten- inch versions at approximately the same time. Roberts was soon recording prolifically for Columbia, churning out remakes as well as new releases, and his Columbia discs were also widely distributed under Columbia client labels like Busy Bee, Harmony, and Standard, often anonymously. Columnist Jim Walsh once stated that Roberts warned Billy Murray to stay away from Columbia because he (Roberts) "did all the comedy around there." The story cannot be substantiated, and one has to wonder why Roberts (who, after all, recorded duets with Murray) was concerned only about Columbia, since he was recording just as prolifically for Edison and Victor.
    

An anonymous Busy Bee issue by Bob Roberts. The record is a renumbering
of Columbia 3439, which was originally issued in August 1906.
(Author's collection)

     

Roberts' Victor output is far less problematic, thanks to the well-preserved recording ledgers. He recorded six titles at his first Victor session on October 1, 1903, probably in Victor's Philadelphia studio, four of which were issued. Two of them — "I'se Got to Go Now, 'Cause I Think It's Going' to Rain" (2489) and "Wouldn't That Make You Hungry?" (2490) were used for Roberts' first catalog listing, in the December 1903 monthly supplement. Roberts, the copy writer noted, "does not allow his 'coon' dialect to obscure his pronunciation in the slightest degree." 5

     

Victor announced their first Roberts releases in the December 1903
monthly supplement, a month after Billy Murray's first Victor releases.
(Courtesy of John Bolig)
   

Roberts' first Edison session probably also occurred in late 1903. Unfortunately, the only semblance of Edison recording files to survive from this period are the Studio Cash Books, which do not begin until April 1904, and which lack titles, catalog numbers, and other details. Roberts' lowest-numbered Edison cylinder, "Wouldn't It Make You Hungry?" (#8602) was released in February 1904. Given what is known of Edison's usual production cycle during this period, the recording was quite likely made in October or November 1903.

Roberts' first documented Edison session appears in Studio Cash Book #1 on April 25, 1904, by which time he was becoming well-established as a popular Edison artist. As with all Cash Book listings, titles and catalog numbers were not identified. Roberts' early Edison pay rates varied, but the Cash Books show that by late 1904 he was receiving a standard $30 per solo, the same as Murray, Collins, and other studio singers. For their Edison duets, Roberts and Murray received combined payments of $45. There is no indication that either man received royalties on sales of his Edison cylinders.

In addition to his work for Columbia, Edison, and Victor, Roberts free-lanced for many other American record companies during 1904–12, appearing on Lambert, Indestructible, and U-S Everlasting cylinders, Victor's subsidiary Zon-o-phone line, and the pioneering Princess and Phono-Cut vertical-cut labels. Unlike his counterpart Collins, Roberts seems to have largely eschewed the patent-infringing companies like Leeds & Catlin.

By 190910, Roberts' recorded output was dropping precipitously as he began devoting more time to stage work, but some of these later recordings are arguably among his best efforts. A particularly telling example is his 1909 recording of "The Boogie Boo" (Indestructible cylinder 1104). The expert timing and phrasing reflect a performer who has mastered the art of telling a story to a live audience, standing in marked contrast to Billy Murray's rushed, mechanical rendition of the song (Victor 16302).

Roberts' last session for Victor, for which he had recorded only sporadically since mid-1906, was held on October 8, 1912. It produced "Fables" (issued on Victor 17214) and an unissued recording of "You Won't Get a Nickle Out of Me." "Fables" would also be Roberts' last recordings for Edison and Columbia. Columbia recorded the title on September 20, 1912, but failed to release it; Edison issued its version on Blue Amberol #1632. The final entry for Roberts in the Edison Studio Cash Book is August 12, 1912, which is almost certainly the session that produced this recording
.

Roberts' decline in recorded output coincided with several extended periods traveling in vaudeville, and a growing reputation as a monologist — a talent that had been barely utilized by the recording companies. He seems to have spent a great deal of his time on the West Coast, and was a regular attraction at the Regal Theater (Los Angeles) beginning in 1911. In December 1912 he was a featured act in the opening of the Republic Theatre, which was the renamed Belasco Theater, in Los Angeles. In 1915 he was featured in a special act at the Republic preceding the screening of the silent film, The Squadron. 6 The Los Angeles Times described him as "a monologist of wide reputation." 7

Roberts' activities during the later 'teens and much of the 'twenties remain obscure. He resumed recording in 1914, but only sporadically, and always for small companies. Rex issued a number of his sides, including a duet with fellow vaudevillian Elida Morris, during 1914–17, under the name of Robert Roberts. By the late 'teens, however, Roberts' name had largely disappeared from the record catalogs.

By the 1920s, Roberts had settled in his hometown of Cincinnati. Jim Walsh stated that he ran a pool hall there and performed on a show titled Adolph and Otto for radio station WCKY, in the late 1920s. If the latter is correct, Roberts' tenure at the station was brief. The New York Times reported that the new station which was located across the river from Cincinnati, in Covington, Kentucky was rushing construction in order to begin broadcasting on August 1, 1929. 8 Roberts died at home on January 21, 1930.

 

References

1 Lawrence, W. J. "Pantomime in the Far West." The Gentleman's Magazine (CCLXVIII:1, January 1890), p. 39.

2 Norton, Richard C. A Chronology of the American Musical Theater, p. 301. Oxford University Press, 2002.

3 "City and Suburban News." New York Times (September 30, 1887), p. 3.

4 "Amusements." Los Angeles Times (October 29, 1889), p. 4.

5 Victor and Monarch Records, December 1903, p. 5. Philadelphia: Victor Talking Machine Co.

6 "In Vaudeville." Los Angeles Times (March 3, 1915), p. II-6.

7 "Up and Down Broadway." Los Angeles Times (December 20, 1912), p. III-4.

8 "WCKY in Kentucky Ready on Aug. 1." New York Times (April 14, 1929), p. 163.


Document History: Initial posting 01/27/2009; Current revision posted May 15, 2009.
 



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