Robin Luke: Biography by Colin Escott
There was something strangely compelling about Susie Darlin'. Maybe it was the ukelele, or the production- which was quintessential 'garage' even by 1958 standards. Maybe it was because the record had the heart-stopping innocence of a first love letter. And, when it gradually became known that the singer, Robin Luke, was from Hawaii, it imparted a slightly exotic flavour to the record.
But that, as Robin Luke says, was his 'first life'. Now he is more likely to be addressed as Professor Luke in his role as department head of marketing in the College of Business Administration at Southwest Missouri State University. In stark contrast with many of his contemporaries, though, Robin Luke's 'first life' has left him with little rancor- and no desire to stake a place in today's popular music scene.
We're getting way ahead ourselves, though, because Robin Luke was not born in Missouri, nor even Hawaii; he was born in Los Angeles on March 20, 1942, “the first Robin of spring-I think that's why my mother named me that,” says Luke wryly. His father worked for Douglas aircraft (and, at the time of his death, was a company director). That necessitated relocation every few years; when Robin was six, the family moved to Atlanta, and then in 1953 they moved to Hawaii.
Luke learned the guitar and ukulele, and was appearing at a Punahou High School revue when he was spotted by a local entertainment personality Kimo McVay. It was McVay who placed him with Bob Bertram. Originally from Sharon, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1916, Bertram was a multi-instrumentalist, painter, sculptor, sometime magician and Doctor of Naturopathy. He began his music career on the West Coast in the early ‘50’s, forming the Lariat label which numbered Joe Maphis among its artists, and produced Eddie Dean among others for independent labels.
Bertram’s parents had retired to Hawaii, and in 1956 he went there to be with his mother after his father’s death. He like it, and decided to stay, supporting himself with a record rack-jobbing business and two labels, Polynesian (which specialized inhula records to sell to tourists) and Bertram International, where he nurtured the rock and roll dream. That rock and roll dream was, incidentally, something Bertram was still nurturing twenty years later when he cut an Elvis tribute record, Welcome Home Elvis, under the pseudonym ‘Daddy Bob’.
Luke was brought into the Bertram International studio, which was a bedroom belonging to one of the Laurence brothers, a rockabilly act on Bertram’s roster. The echo chamber was – you guessed it- the bathroom. Susie Darlin’, a song Luke had tagged after his little sister, was recorded on a primitive single-track tape machine that had the capacity for overdubbing. “It was what you call a positive overdub,” remembered Luke, “which meant that you erased the bed-track when you overdubbed. It took us months to get the final version because the bedroom was nest to one of the largest hospitals in Honolulu; so every time we’d get eight or so tracks done, an ambulance would go by with its sirens wailing, and we’d have to start from scratch. That’s Bob Bertram humming in the background, and the percussion was provided by the hitting together of two Sheaffer pens on a Capitol Records box. Oddly, the very poor recording gave it an even more haunting quality.”
In the interests of accuracy, it’s worth noting that Bertram’s account differs slightly. He recalls that the percussion was the sound of two sticks pounding away at a ball-point pen in his pocket. “We did 75 takes of ‘Susie Darlin’, he told Bill Millar. “My leg was black and blue. If we’d gone for take 76, I’d have been crippled for life.”
The record was released and it did very well locally, Two local deejays, Tome Moffatt and Ron Jacobs, spun it as often as every twenty minutes. Luke was already a local hero when Art Freeman, the Dot Records distributor in Cleveland, decided to take his wife Dorothy for a honeymoon in Hawaii. They heard the record in a local store and took it back to Randy Wood at Dot.
By this time, Luke was already the headliner on the local Show of the Stars. “The show ran every month,” he remembered, “and a local promoter named Earl Finch, and Ralph Yempuku, who owned the Civic Auditorium, brought in the est talent on record. When Suzie Darlin’ was a smash in Hawaii they invited me to close the show. I went out to the airport to welcome Don and Phil Everly. They were big with ‘All I To Do Is Dream,’ and I threw a lei over their necks and gave them a big handshake. We were driving back to the hotel and Don or Phil said, ‘When we finish the show tonight …’ and Tom Moffatt said, ‘I’m sorry, but Robin Luke is finishing the show tonight’. I’ll never forget them saying, ‘Who the hell is Robin Luke?’ Over the course of a year or year and a half, I fortunately met everyone who was anybody in rock ‘n’ roll on my own turf at that show, so when I went back to the States I knew many of the performers- like Ricky Nelson and Frankie Avalon. Rick and I became good friends because we were both a little shy, and overawed by it all.”
Randy Wood had problems releasing Susie Darlin’ because it was cut at a non-Union session. Luke takes up the story: “We went over to the United recording studio, which was state-of-the-art at that time, and we had some of the greatest talent in Hollywood working on ‘Susie Darli’’ with formal sheet music and the Jack Halloran Singers. It was absolutely beautiful – but it didn’t have that haunting sound, so Randy Wood slipped the original tape into production.”
Luke was yanked out of school and whisked into the promotional vortex. His father accompanied him on a two-week record hop tour that included Dick Clark’s Bandstand. The record quickly exploded on the charts, but –by this time – Luke was back in Hawaii; so he was brought back over for another tour in the New York area. He kept company with the Kalin Twins, who were riding high with When. More television appearances followed: the Dick Clark Saturday Beechnut show, the Perry Como show, and other local shows.
By that time, Susie Darlin’ was a spent force in Hawaii, and the follow-up, Chicka-Chicka Honey, was already on the market. Backing was provided by a groupof native Hawaiians, the Jolly Drifters, originally known as the Drifters before someone told them they had been beaten to the punch. The group backed Luke on his Show of Stars appearances, but didn’t follow him to the mainland.
After graduation in June 1959, Luke moved to California, and went to Perperdine University in the Hollywood area. From that point, he recorded in Los Angeles. The backings were immaculate. The studio groups featured Glen Campbell and jazz ace Barney Kessel on guitars, the Champs, and the Johnny Mann Singers and the Jack Halloran chorus, but – arguably – the island recordings were more memorable because they possessed an individuality and character that the Los Angeles sessions did not. The Bertram recordings had an elemental charm that Dot could never quite recapture.
Soon after Luke relocated, he was called upon to cover a fast-breaking British hit. This was an odd reversal – someone at Dot heard tell of Marty Wilde’s original of Bad Boy. “It was an overnight smash in Europe,” remembers Luke, “and Randy Wood got a copy of the single flown over. He got me into a recording studio at 1:00 AM, and we cut it by trying to emulate the sound on the Mary Wilde record. Our version was in Wallich’s Music City [record store] on Monday morning.”
Most of Robin Luke’s repertoire, though, was chosen by Joe Johnson. Originally from Nashville, Johnson was Gene Autry’s partner in Challenge Jackpot Records and several publishing ventures. He was Luke’s A&R manager and fed him a steady diet of copyrights he owned, including Well Oh, Well Oh (originally recorded by Wynn Stewart on Jackpot), and several songs from Dave Burgess of the Champs- another Challenge act.
Luke considers that one of the best recordings made in Los Angeles was All Because Of You. Like Bad Boy it was a cover version of a local hit; this one by Johhny Behrends. “It was one of Randy Wood’s favorite tracks,” said Luke. “He’d kill a local hit by getting one of his entourage to sing it. They got me into the studio in a big hurry, and we did a symphonic version, but it was a classic blunder – they put it out on Christmas Day. They released it, then withdrew it, thinking they might put it out again later.” Whether there were some pieces to the puzzle that Luke was not privy to is unknown, but the result was that neither Behrends nor Luke had anything approaching a hit with what was – for the time - a strong piece of material.
During his tenure at Dot, Luke’s de facto personal manager was Randy Wood, who was also nurturing Pat Boone’s career. Wood never took a percentage of Robin’s earnings, though. “He made sure that I got nice gigs,” remembered Luke, “and he made sure that I was available to go to school, and that I didn’t play lowlife gigs. I almost never did a show during the week.”
The final Dot session, in April 1962, was held in conjunction with Roberta Shore, who had been a Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club. Roberta’s mother had oodles of ambition for her, and landed a few television spots after she outgrew her Mousketeer uniform. Dot Records signed her and Luke was called upon to participate in her debut session. “It was kinda like ‘Bad Boy,’” Luke remembers. “I walked into Dot one afternoon, and one of the vice-presidents said that he had a song, ‘Foggin’ Up The Windows’ that he wanted Roberta and me to sing. I said, ‘Great! When?’ He said the session was in two hours, and I literally looked at the lead sheet and started signing. I thought it was a pretty feeble attempt at mimicking ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,’ but it was just before the summer break, and they thought it might sell, and I believe it did sell well on a regular basis.”
The other side of the record was a cover version of Stonewall Jackson’s A Wound Time Can’t Erase that Roberta Shore delivered solo.
After graduating from Perperdine University, Luke transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia and took an MBA (Master of Business Administration) and his P.H.D. there. The demands of graduate school sealed the fate of his entertainment career. Pepperdine had allowed him some latitude to go out on tour, but the University of Missouri did not.
Luke’s first academic appointment after postgraduate work came from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia (from 1972 until 1977), which was followed by a stint at the College of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, A.V.I. from 1977 until 1984, where he assembled their MBA and MPA (public administration) programs. From there he moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he is currently head of the Marketing department in the College of Business Administration at Southwest Missouri State University. By any yardstick, it has been an uncharacteristic career for a teen idol – or even an ‘idle teen,’ as his father often called him.
“Music was never anything I was going to pursue as a career,” said Luke recently. “It was just something we were going to enjoy while it lasted: my family and I, Randy Wood and I. We were going to ride it as long as we could.” Luke’s only stab at recording since he left Dot came when K-Tel offered to fly him and his wife down to Nashville to re-record Susie Darlin’. Luke accepted the offer because his wife had never seen an operating recording studio, although he knew that the original version was incapable of being replicated.
“Many of the people I dealt with in music during the ‘50s and ‘60s had no alternative but music,” he adds grimly. “My parents emphasized the importance of a college education constantly, and I’m endlessly grateful to them for that. I think of guys like Buddy Holly, dead at twenty-two. I remember sitting backstage at Dick Clark’s with Buddy, when he taught me the riffs to ‘Peggy Sue.’ The other night my son pulled a box off the top shelf, and the contents went everywhere. There were a lot of photos, including one of Sam Cooke and me. I really choke up when I saw it, and remembered how he’d died.”
“A lot of good friends died. There are so many sad stories connected ith rock and roll. Struggling musicians sometimes say to me that they wished they’d done what I’d done, but I don’t remember just the good times. I remember who’s not here anymore – drug overdoses, car wrecks, shot by girlfriends or whatever. It’s rough out there.”
It is however, the warm memories that Luke prefers to savour: “I treasure the memories of singing with those who are now considered legends,” he said recently. “I remember the joy given and received on-stage, and the contribution that my singing has made to my life.”
Colin Escott, Toronto, February 1991.