Weepin’ Willie Robinson on the mic at the Give US Your Poor concert, held last November at the famed Strand Theatre in Dorchester. (Photo courtesy of Jim Carty)
The squalling snowfall on a Sunday night didn’t deter the New England blues community from paying tribute to one of its own. Musicians, friends and fans gathered at Club 58 in Quincy in February for a “memorial jam” in honor of Weepin’ Willie Robinson, one of the local scene’s most revered figures.
He was also one of its most complicated. A steady stream of colleagues and friends, both at the memorial concert and in separate interviews, describe Robinson as a gentle, kind and beloved charmer. At the same time, other tales paint him as the proverbial “rolling stone,” a man who left his wife to raise their eight kids alone while he set out for a music career in the blues bars of Boston.
Where fact and fiction separate in Robinson’s life story is difficult to say. One thing that’s certain: Weepin’ Willie’s life paralleled the lyrics of the songs he sang.
A fond farewell
Known by many as Boston’s “elder statesman of the blues,” Willie Lorenzo Robinson shared the stage with music icons like B.B. King, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Bonnie Raitt during a lengthy career that only earned popular recognition late in his life.
In 1999, after more than 50 years of performing, he released his first CD, “At Last Long Time,” earning first runner-up honors in the Best Local/R&B Soul Act category at that year’s Boston Music Awards.
The next year, he received the Blues Trust Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and was named Outstanding Blues Act at the 2001 Boston Music Awards. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Hall of Fame Trophy in 2005 from the New England Blues Hall of Fame.
The decorated performer’s life ended in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 2007, after the cigarette he was smoking in bed sparked a fire in his room at the Mount Pleasant Home in Jamaica Plain. One of the home’s attendants found him when fire alarms and sprinklers went off. He was rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and pronounced dead when emergency personnel were unable to revive him. He was 81.
According to Merlin Southwick, director of Mount Pleasant Home, Robinson was not allowed to smoke at the home, but noted that people at the bars Willie would visit would give him cigarettes and buy him drinks.
“Cantab Lounge in Central Square, he was always there, [it] was like his second home,” said Diane Blue, a 40-year-old Watertown resident and blues singer who used to perform with Robinson at the lounge. “Everyone there was like family to him.”
A memorial message on Mount Pleasant Home’s Web site notes, “Robinson would forget” about the smoking policy. Robinson suffered from dementia.
The birth of a bluesman
The man The Boston Phoenix once called “a distinguished bluesman whose smooth vocals and delivery personify the grit, grace and elegance of the blues,” was born in Atlanta on July 6, 1926, to sharecropper parents that picked cotton for a living. According to an interview published in a 2005 edition of The Boston Blues News (BBN), the magazine of the Boston Blues Society, Robinson’s mother died when he was a young boy, a tragic event that marked the end of his formal education.
After her death, Robinson traveled up and down the East Coast with his father, picking potatoes, tomatoes and fruits.
“I got to get to the fourth grade,” he told the BBN.
As a young man, Robinson switched careers several times. He harvested produce, he sewed potato bags, he milked cows and washed dishes. During World War II, he drove a truck in the Army, and following his honorable discharge in 1948 after a three-year stint, he began delivering milk in the Princeton, N.J., area.
It was then, in the late 1940s, that Robinson started his musical career. As an emcee at the New Jersey clubs of the time, Robinson met blues legends like King, Bill Doggett and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Shirley Lewis, 70, remembers Robinson from his time in those Jersey clubs during the 1950s. Lewis, a poet, composer and jazz singer, met Robinson at the Dew Drop Inn in Morristown, N.J., when “he only knew three songs,” she recalled at the memorial jam.
Robinson will be remembered “for his gentleness, his kindness and his goodness,” Lewis said, noting with a smile that her favorite Weepin’ Willie song is “Soul Serenade.”
“He sang for hardly any money at all,” she added. “He just wanted to be a singer.”
“Five Long Years,” and nearly 50 more
James Carty, 37, said in a telephone interview that he met Robinson when he was in college, and over the years became one of the local blues legend’s best friends. He visited Robinson regularly at Mount Pleasant Home, where the singer lived alongside 40 other seniors.
“Willie was a proud black man,” Carty said, recalling how he helped Robinson groom himself after the singer’s stroke. “He was a best friend, a father, a grandfather, all rolled into one.”
Carty said his favorite Robinson song was “Five Long Years,” which tells the story of a sickly man put out on the street by the woman he lives with when he is ill. Carty says that’s exactly what happened to Willie, and how he wound up homeless at the Pine Street Inn and the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in 2005 at the age of 79.
Robinson told the same story in an article published in the July 9, 2005, edition of The Boston Globe.
“She told me to get out. I did. I came here the same day,” Robinson told the Globe during an interview at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, where he had stayed for several months. “As we speak, I’m trying to find a place.”
After reading that article, Mount Pleasant Home’s Southwick contacted the veterans’ shelter and “within two weeks after that he was living here,” he recalled.
Not everyone agrees with that version of the story.
“He was homeless by choice,” Lorraine Robinson of Trenton, N.J., one of Willie’s daughters, said emphatically during a telephone interview.
A blues singer’s life can take a toll on a family. In 1961, Willie separated from Alice, his wife and the mother of Lorraine Robinson and six other children. The couple never divorced, but Robinson had four more children from two other relationships. After the split, Robinson moved to Boston to pursue his jazz career, said Lorraine Robinson, now 50.
She was 3 years old when her parents split and 8 years old when her mother died. Her maternal aunt, Lorraine Thompson, raised the eight children. Lorraine Robinson did not see her father again for more than a decade, until she was 19 years old.
How many children Robinson fathered is not certain. Willie is survived by Charles, Jackie, Ray, Deborah, Lorraine and Brian Robinson, all of whom live in New Jersey; Terri, who lives in Georgia; and Stevie and Willie Robinson, who live in Boston. His eldest son, Willie Lorenzo Robinson Jr., and a daughter from second relationship, Chanda Robinson, passed away, according to Lorraine Robinson. She said she recently found out about an older daughter somewhere in the South.
Even though Lorraine Robinson said Willie was an absent father who communicated only by phone, she said she will always remember her dad. When she turned 19, she said, she traveled to Boston to see Robinson for the first time since he left his family in the 1960s. He even convinced her to move to Boston, where she lived for a couple of years.
“I used to tell my father, ‘Why don’t you come up here and live?’ He did not want to come,” she said. “I think he found band members he used to run around with. So that was part of his life at that time.”
What’s past is prologue
Several accounts suggest a sobering symmetry between Willie’s absentee parenting and his own fractured childhood. In a telephone interview, Carty said that Robinson had been on his own since he was 13 or 14 years old.
It’s a story Robinson told in the BBN interview published in 2005, saying his father sent him to New Jersey with a friend named James Henry.
“He said, ‘I’ll be up in a couple of weeks,’” Robinson said. “That was 1939 — I haven’t seen him since.”
When Robinson was first starting out as a nightclub emcee, B.B. King became something of a mentor to him, according to Gary Barcus, who led Weepin’ Willie’s All-Star Blues Band. Barcus remembered one particular piece of advice that Robinson said the guitar legend imparted to the burgeoning showman.
“‘Always sing to the women, and the men will follow along,’” he recalled.
At the “memorial jam,” some of Robinson’s colleagues suggested that his 1961 split with his wife didn’t sidetrack him.
“Weep, he didn’t miss a beat in his younger days,” said Reginald Gaylord Grant, a 67-year-old Boston sax player who befriended Robinson during his time in Jersey.
“He was a ladies’ man. He dressed sharp,” said José Ramos, 51, a close friend and a blues and R&B vocalist who had performed with Robinson. The two met when Ramos was 16 years old. He considered Robinson family. “Sharper than a brand new razor.”
Barcus said Robinson had 20 songs in his repertoire — though he liked them all, his favorite, perhaps not surprisingly, was the Ray Charles hit “I Got a Woman.”
“It’s a real signature song with him,” said Barcus. “As he got older, we used to shout to him, ‘You mean you had a woman?’”
Barcus spoke fondly of his fallen friend. He recalled that Robinson’s favorite food was a chicken sandwich — no matter how fancy the restaurant, he always ordered a chicken sandwich. For his birthday, the band members always got him hats.
“The band itself is like a family,” he said. “We are very close.”
That closeness came out during Weepin’ Willie’s funeral.
Robinson “had all the military honors at his funeral service,” according to Reta Gilpatric, his band’s manager, and was buried at the Veterans Cemetery in Cape Cod, a favorite place of his.
At his funeral, Ramos placed a Snickers bar — something he says Willie bought “at the end of every gig” — inside the singer’s coffin. He said it was in case Willie got hungry on his journey to wherever it was he was going.
“He had to have a snack,” said a teary Ramos. “I am going to miss him a lot.”