Red’s rock and roll radio revolution

Legendary disc jockey recalls the beginning of an era

From the Red Robinson collection “I was the first one to break ‘That’ll Be The Day

From the Red Robinson collection “I was the first one to break ‘That’ll Be The Day

Barry Coulter

At the moment John Lennon swore at Red Robinson on a stage in Vancouver, the Beatles and all involved with their first ever Canadian show in 1964 were facing chaos, riot and tumult the like of which had never seen before.

But by that time, Red was used to that kind of situation.

Red Robinson, the legendary Vancouver DJ, spoke to the Cranbrook Daily Townsman in advance of the Arts Club production of Red Rock Diner, the musical revue based on his groundbreaking 1950s radio show, playing at the Key City Theatre Nov. 14. Robinson is credited with being the first disc jockey to play the new music of Rock ‘n Roll in Canada. Along the way, he became associated with some of the giants of that era.

Radio was a whole different animal from today, when Red broke into the business as a teenager, and started bringing R&B sounds to the Vancouver airwaves.

“There was a station in Seattle, called KJR, and they played a lot what we called R&B before it morphed into Rock n’ Roll — artists like Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter — and I started playing it.

“I was going to high school. I never really worked anywhere but Vancouver from the time I was 16, 17.

“I was appearing on a show (on CKWX) because I did voice impersonations — Jimmy Stewart and everybody. But they gave me my own show in 1954, and all I did was say, “okay, what are they listening to up at the Oakway, which was a little diner at Oak and Broadway.

“The guy had stuff on the juke box by (R&B singers) Wynonie Harris and Lloyd Price, and I said ‘when you’re finished with those (45s) can I have ‘em? I want to play them on the air.’ He said ‘sure, take ‘em, I don’t want ‘em.’”

Along the way, Red became a concert emcee, introducing artists at their Vancouver concerts. Then 1957 came along, and with it a revolution. Elvis Presley arrived, to play the third — and last — concert he would ever play outside the U.S. (the other two, that same year, were in Ottawa and Toronto).

“Then in August he came here. The circuit for his tour was running up the northwest, so it made sense.”

Vancouver’s first rock and roll show had taken place a year before, when 6,000 turned out to see Bill Haley and the Comets — introduced by Red. Four times that number came out to see Elvis.

“Vancouver, out of that whole 1957 tour, created the biggest stir and the biggest audience,” Red said. “We were up to 26,000 people — I mean, this is unheard of in 1957. No one rented stadiums for shows. No one, before Elvis. It was an amazing day. I’ve never forgotten it.”

By this time Elvis had recorded eight No. 1 singles in two years, had made three movies and was about to release ‘Jailhouse Rock’ as his latest single. Pandemonium ensued when Red introduced him on stage.

“Because it was so new, as rock and roll was, the police didn’t know how to handle it. They didn’t have enough cops. They brought in air cadets. Can you imagine? 15-year-old kids, trying to hold back the girls who are screaming and going crazy, and the ones who had the poor tickets coming down on the field — it was chaos.”

Red remained friends with Elvis’ band members Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, who in later years recounted that “they said were so scared they just got out of there. And the stage was jerry-built, it was like balsa wood, it was shaking, the crowd was surging forward — it was terrifying.”

The whole concert lasted 22 minutes. And as for Elvis himself:

“He had no conceit, none,” Red said. “He had vanity — he cared how he looked — but if you were sitting in a room with him, he’d talk and ask you questions. He wanted to know about people — he was a good ‘people’ guy, very laid back.”

Still, there was the sense that the world had changed — that something big had arrived. And by the time Red introduced the Beatles at their first ever Canadian concert, 1964 in Vancouver, that something had  become earthshaking. Red recalls:

“After I said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles,’ I got down to the edge of the stage. The kids start surging towards the stage, and I went ‘here we go again,’ and flashed back to Elvis. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager says ‘Red, you gotta get up there and tell them to move back or we’re going to cancel.’ I said ‘What are you talking about, you don’t interrupt an act,’ and he said ‘you’re going to interrupt an act!’ Bud Errington, the police inspector, said ‘you’re the emcee, it’s your job.’

“So I go up there after one of the songs — ‘Twist and Shout’ — and as I’m walking across the stage, the cacophony was insane; even when the Beatles aren’t playing it’s so loud. And John Lennon looks over at me and says ‘Get the f— off my stage, nobody interrupts the Beatles.’ And I walk over to John and we’re yelling at each other, not because we’re mad but because we can’t hear each other. And Brian Epstein’s giving the high sign from the edge of the stage, and John says, ‘Oh, carry on, Mate!’

“You don’t forget stuff like that.”

The radio personality of that era — the AM disc jockey — an exciting, artistic voice in its own right, hardly exists anymore. Programming is tightly controlled, and the human element is generally fading. Red cites two radio stations he listened to on a recent trip to Palm Springs.

“Except for station breaks and a couple of commercials, there’s no traffic, no human being on the air except pre-recorded, no intros to records, they don’t tell you who it was. It was a jukebox, period.

“In my time we were nutty and did what we wanted. I loved it. What happened in those days, I’d go on the air and do a show. If I got ratings I kept my job, if I didn’t I was gone. But that’s fine — that’s show business!

“We were entertainers, we were also your pal. Eighty per cent of radio listening, even to this day is done in a car. You’re driving along and you want company. I don’t want wall to wall.

“The kids with earbuds, they don’t want to know about (radio of yesteryear). But if they knew how good it was, they’d love it.”

The musical “Red Rock Diner,” coming to the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook, Nov. 14, captures the excitement of the era, and Vancouver’s burgeoning rock and roll scene as related by Red.  The show’s narrative is five teens come of age while DJ Red Robinson plays the biggest hits of the time.

“It’s basically a time capsule of when I first started out, believe it or not, on CKWX, which is now a news station, but it was the rocker in Vancouver (in the 50s). There’s a DJ, and as he introduces a record, the groups come out and perform them. It’s interactive, it’s just a riot, it’s so much fun, so fast with so much energy that I’m proud to have my name attached to it.”