Spike Robinson

August 30, 2012

Jazz tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson always played with relaxed and seemingly effortless skill, imbuing his playing with charm, wit and understanding, qualities that matched his off-stage manner. He loved engaging in conversation with fans, and, obviously, preferred talking music, in the course of which it quickly became apparent that he had encyclopedic knowledge of the classic pop repertoire. Like many (perhaps all) leading jazz instrumentalists, he knew the lyrics to all of the songs he played. Indeed, there were times when his improvisations were at least as moving as performances by singers who sang the words.

And if the subject of music should ever pall, mention of motorbikes would certainly liven things up.

Spike Robinson sketch

He was born Henry Berthold Robinson, on 16 January 1930 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While in his teens, he started out playing clarinet and alto saxophone but soon realized that making a living playing jazz was a tough row to hoe. In 1948, he joined the US Navy as a musician and at the start of the next decade found himself in the UK. This was a perfect time for a musician already versed in bop. London’s Club Eleven, Downbeat Club, and Studio 51 were hangouts for leading lights, among whom were Tommy Pollard and Victor Feldman. Spike was heard by Carlo Krahmer who recorded him for Esquire Records, sides that would later become much-treasured examples of this fine musician’s early flowering. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last and Spike was transferred out of the UK, somewhere along the way exchanging his saxophone for a motorbike. Eventually, he left the navy and tried the music scene again, this time in Chicago where things were just as tough; indeed, in some respects they were worse and he would later recall how discouraged he was as drugs made inroads into the jazz scene.

Determined to avoid that path, Spike decided to suspend all thoughts of a music career and taking advantage of the GI Bill Of Rights, he studied engineering. He then found a job in Colorado, which he held for most of the next three decades. Even so, he was not completely cut off from jazz.

Spike-Robonson-CD

Hep Records CD2098

After a while, he began playing again, this time tenor saxophone, in local clubs and a recent find has resulted in a CD recorded in Boulder around 1974.  In the early 1980s, Spike was urged to re-visit the UK and from 1984 he toured regularly and successfully. This prompted him to take early retirement and begin what he had always wanted, a full-time career in music. From hereon,  Spike toured clubs and festivals throughout the UK, Europe, and various parts of the USA. In 1989, he became a permanent resident in England where he was capably managed by Susan May, whom he later married. Although he never again took to the saddle, he did not lose his early love of motorbikes and he was especially delighted when a gig on the Isle of Man fell during the TT races; adding to the pleasure, he could see the course from his hotel window. 

Spike-Robinson-CD

Hep Records CD2056

Throughout these later years, Spike made a succession of superb albums, as leader and co-leader, appearing with leading jazz artists who included Louis Stewart, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Al Cohn, Roy Williams, Elaine Delmar, Ellyn Rucker, Claude Tissendier, Scott Hamilton, and Ken Peplowski. Throughout these memorable albums, Spike explored the classic song books, and in some instances his earlier recordings were reissued, among them a 1981 date with Victor Feldman that paid tribute to songwriter Harry Warren to which new tracks were added.

Critical and public praise for Spike, who died on 29 October 2001 in Writtle, Essex, England, was universal. His bop beginnings allied with his love for the classic popular songs, had provided a solid foundation upon which he built his later career as a consummate ballad player who lovingly explored the endless archives of the Great American Song Book. His instantly identifiable rhapsodic, breathy style and the effortless loping swing he brought to everything he played helped make Spike Robinson one of the outstanding tenor saxophonists of his generation.

 

Spike Robinson
oil on canvas
Copyright©Bruce Crowther

 

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