The Late, Great Red Robinson
By Nick Krewen
If you think of the old adage, "Legends aren't born, they're made," nobody did a better job of carving out his legacy than Vancouver's Red Robinson.
A larger than life presence in everything he touched, the long-time radio personality, TV host, advertising entrepreneur, concert promoter, author and philanthropist was so widely respected that before he passed away on April 1 following a short illness, Robinson had amassed the following accolades: induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall, Canadian Broadcast, Rockabilly Hall and BC Entertainment Hall of Fames; membership in the Order of British Columbia; The Queen's Golden Jubilee Award; the Canada 125 Medal; the Vancouver music industry's Bruce Allen/Sam Feldman Legend Award - presented to him by Sarah McLachlan; the British Columbia Association of Broadcasters Broadcast Pioneer Award; an honourary doctorate from the University of Fraser Valley for his community and philanthropy work; Red Robinson Day in the city of Vancouver on March 17, 2017 - his 80th birthday; the preservation of his name in cement in front of the city's Orpheum Theatre and - for seven years in 2006 - Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, owner of Coquitlam's Boulevard Casino, opened the 1100-seat Red Robinson Show Theatre in tribute to his accomplishments and popularity.
And many of these honours were generated via his pioneering influence on the medium he loved most - and on which he spent 63 of his 86 years entertaining - AM radio.
"Picture a red-headed teenager, suffering from acne like the rest of the young men of his generation, listening to the radio as if it was bringing messages from another world," Robinson wrote recently on Facebook.
"I had been collecting every magazine on recording artists and deejays available and decided to create an interesting "show business" name for myself. There were two reasons: one, to create a catchy name that people would remember and two, to hide my identity from my school pals if and when I ever made it behind a microphone. I chose "Red" Robinson because of the color (sic) of my hair...I was totally hooked. I skipped school to learn everything there was to learn about broadcasting."
To say he was a fixture on the airwaves still undervalues his radio dominance in the Vancouver - and at the time, the US market: over the decades, he bounced from CJOR to CKWX to Portland, Oregon's KGW, back to CKWX, to CFUN, back to CJOR and a third stint at CKWX to 104.9funfm to CISL, where Robinson finally hung up his headphones in 2017.
But the stamp he left was indelible: Red Robinson was a trailblazer largely acknowledged as the first DJ to regularly spin rock 'n roll records on Canadian airwaves. He rubbed shoulders with all the greats of the day; Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers - and still holds the distinction of being the only person to emcee Vancouver shows with two bonafide trend-setting superstars - Elvis Presley at Empire Stadium on August 31, 1957 - and The Beatles at the same venue on August 22, 1964.
"I’m his biggest fan," impresario manager Bruce Allan told Jim JJ Johnston. "There’s no way I would be in this industry if I hadn’t heard and got to know Red. On the air, he went further than anyone dared to go with all the great rock and roll acts and the R&B stuff like James Brown that he turned me on to."
Born Robert Gordon Robinson in Comox, B.C., on March 30, 1937, the man known for his shock of red hair was a hustler from Day One, landing his first radio gig at CJOR in 1954 while still a teen attending King Edward High School Vancouver, reportedly calling the station and masquerading on air as actor Jimmy Stewart, who was in the city filming at the time.
On April 1, 1957, the 20-year-old DJ was scooped by Top 40 station CKWX - shortly before the station boosted its signal to 50,000 watts.
He ended up being temporarily lured away to host afternoons at Portland, Oregon's KGW, where he also landed on a new medium - television - as host of Portland Bandstand.
But there was an unexpected disruptor to his ascending career plans: the US Army drafted him for a year at a time when merely being a resident qualified one for a stint in the military. When he was finally discharged a year later, Robinson hightailed it back to CKWX and eventually jumped to the position of Program Director at C-FUN, transforming the station into a rock 'n roll ratings dynamo from 1962 to 1967.
In 1963, the year he met his beloved wife Carole, CBC-TV came calling and gave Red Robinson a national platform, first as the guest host of Cross Canada Hit Parade - and then as the host of the popular weekly music variety show Let's Go, which he hosted through 1966 and marked the first national exposure of such future Canadian pop and rock stars as The Guess Who, a pre-Poppy Family Terry Jacks and The Collectors, who would become better known when they switched their name to Chilliwack.
After becoming CJOR's Program Director in 1968, Robinson decided to conquer a new profession - advertising - and founded his own agency, Trend Advertising. Among his first major accounts was McDonald's - and Robinson even appeared in one of his client's TV spots.
Three years later, he returned for a third time to CKWX in the morning man slot, holding the position through 1983.
Shortly after Elvis Presley's unexpected death in 1977, ex-RCA promo man Raymond Ramsay said that Robinson suggested that RCA Canada release an Elvis Presley compilation album consisting of Canadian songs covered by the singer.
Elvis: A Canadian Tribute was released in 1978, and Robinson received a platinum plaque from the label for album sales of more than 100,000 copies.
From 1979- 1980, he doubled as host of another national CBC-TV series - Trivia - a game show that reportedly inspired some of its contestants to create Trivial Pursuit, the board game that has enjoyed sales of more than 100 million in 26 countries and has been translated into 17 languages.
Robinson's Midas Touch continued in the 1980s: From 1985 through 1993, he added the nationally syndicated Reunion Oldies Show to his portfolio and for Expo '86, successfully promoted the 40-act Legends Of Rock N Roll concert series that nabbed such headliners as Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Righteous Brothers.
Still flourishing in the ad agency space, his Vrlak Robinson Advertising firm merged with Hayhurst Communications in 1987 to form one of the Canadian West Coast's largest advertising agencies. According to JJ Johnston, the agency boasted a clientele of over $35 million in accounts when Robinson decided to exit the business.
And his south-of-the-border appeal continued to yield dividends: from 1989 to 2001, Robinson hosted Red's Classic Theater on Bellingham, Washington's KVOS-TV, interviewing such Hollywood stars as Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.
In 1993, Robinson returned to 650 CISL, hosting Vancouver's top-rated morning show and continued to host a show on the station on Sundays after he semi-retired in 2001. The CISL connection lasted until August 2017 - interrupted by a brief sojourn into FM radio at 104.9funfm from 2007 to 2011 - when Red Robinson finally called it a day on his outstanding radio career.
And somewhere in the midst of all this activity, Robinson found the time to help raise three children - daughters Kellie and Sherrie and son Jeff, whom he lost to Crohn's Disease in 2003 - as well as regularly writing for TV Week over 20 years and co-authoring a couple of books - Rockbound and Backstage Vancouver.
His life has inspired others in numerous ways: in 2014, Vancouver playwright Dean Regan composed a musical based on Robinson's early radio days called Red Rock Diner. One of the leading cast members during the show's inaugural Arts Club Theatre run was future global superstar Michael Bublé.
His definitive biography - Red Robinson: The Last DJ - was written by Robin Brunet (Harbour Publishing, 2016.)
On the philanthropy front, Robinson reportedly raised more than $75 million CAD as host of the annual Timmy's Christmas Telethon for the B.C. Lions Society for Children with Disabilities from 1976 to 1996.
On top of all his accomplishments, Red Robinson was regarded as an extremely nice man who was generous with his time.
"One of the things that's so wonderful about Red was just how giving he was. He didn't have to know the person if they wanted to stop and chat on the street," Robinson's close friend Michael Godin, radio host, producer and former A&R man for A&M Records of Canada, told the CBC.
Jim JJ Johnston was also charmed by Robinson, recalling their first Vancouver meeting.
"This guy is a giant in Canadian radio but acted like none of the fame, and accolades affected him in a bad way," he wrote. "I am five foot eight on a good day (five-ten with a faux hawk), but came away from that meeting walking eight foot tall."
That love and appreciation extended to his family life.
"Most people knew our Dad as a rock'n'roll DJ, a TV personality, an ad agency owner, a spokesperson, or through his philanthropic work. He was larger-than-life in a lot of ways, but to us, he was a devoted father and grandfather, a loving husband to our late mom Carole, and a loyal friend to everybody," wrote Kellie and Sherrie Robinson on Facebook on April 1 announcing their father's passing.
"Red's departure leaves a huge hole in our lives, as well as the lives of everybody he touched in the worlds of radio, TV, music and entertainment."
Pre-deceased by Carole in 2020 and son Jeff in 2003, Red Robinson is survived by his daughters Kellie and Sherrie and by his brother Bill.
A celebration of life will be announced soon. In lieu of flowers, donations to Red and Carole Robinson's favourite charity, The CH.I.L.D. Foundation at child.ca/donate, are requested. An invitation to sign and share memories on the family’s online Memorial Book of Condolences at myalternatives.ca has also been extended.
For further interest, more information on the life and extraordinary career of Red Robinson is available at redrobinson.com and his Twitter and Instagram accounts.
While the word "icon" is banded about these days, no man fully fits the definition more than Red Robinson.
There will never be another like him.