Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sugar Chile Robinson (Child Prodigy Boogie Woogie Pianist, 1940's-1950's)

Good morning!

I'm glad you all enjoyed my retelling of my trip to the taping of Antiques Roadshow as much as I enjoyed going! Now everytime I watch it, I'll be looking for those starstruck little antiquers in the background with a bit more empathy than upon previous viewings. Today, what I've got for you is this pint size piano player, "Sugar Chile" Robinson, who is almost as cute as he is talented. And that's saying somethin' on either front! 

I was looking up videos of Sammy Davis, Jr. as a child performer when I came across a video labeled "Little Richard as a Child". "Huh," says I, "Wonder how he stacks up!" Upon opening the video, it turns out the performance was mislabeled-- the tiny guy on the keys was actually Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson playing his hit recording of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" with all the ripsnorting alacrity of a grown boogie woogie player. 


The clip was from 1946's No Leave, No Love, starring Van Johnson, but it was apparently far from Sugar Chile's first brush with fame...I was able to pull up this 1945 Life magazine article about bantam bluesman when he would have been all of seven years old. Take a look:

Ugh! Tiny baby in a sailor suit! With a rascally backwards glance at the Life photographer, Sugar Chile made his first appearance in the news as boogie woogie's first child prodigy...roll over, Beethoven! If Mozart could do it, why not Frank Robinson? While the tone of the article is a little squeamy for the minstrel-y dialect attributed to the kid, I'll give it a pass for the fact that the editors dedicated a full fledged profile on the boy in this November issue. Read all about it:

I just can't get over the idea of that part of a little baby's brain being that hyper-developed for his age. Seven years old, probably can't do much on his own yet, but set him in front of a keyboard and he can out play people twice, three times his age. To be that preternaturally talented! Notice they mention he was on his way to be in that Van Johnson movie, and that the rest of his six siblings don't have any particular interest in music or share his gifts. His father, Clarence, goes on to talk about the first time Sugar Chile played the piano at the age of three, stunning Clarence and a family friend with a pitch perfect rendition of the Glenn Miller classic "Tuxedo Junction":

How freakin' cute, that last line, "Come on, let's get this over with. I gotta play hide-and-seek." Whether he said it or not, that's adorable. Here he is playing out on his porch for neighbors. Can you imagine, in those pre-Youtube, pre-tv, pre-Internet days, how amazing it would be to see something like this in real life? Me, I'd be like, "Yeah, yeah, your kid can play the piano, COME SEE your kid play the piano, I've got stuff to do better than to-- OH MY GOD, LISTEN TO HIM!"

How good was Sugar Chile? Berry Gordy, Motown records founder and producer par excellence, actually competed in another boogie-woogie contest like the one mentioned in the first paragraph, and lost to Robinson. He recounts in his memoir, To Be Loved:

Wouldn't you have done the same? It was probably a hard knock being beat by a five year old!! Check out this pair of newsreels of Robinson, in which you can see more of the ivory tickling that made him a star. I can't get over his sweet face, and his tiny limbs as he pounds fists, elbows, and fingers across the piano:



In 1946, Sugar Chile was granted an executive audience, playing for President Harry Truman, a known piano man himself, at the White House. It was at this event that Sugar Chile introduced his catchphrase, "How'm I doing, Mr. President?", which, along with "Greetings, people of Earth", is about the best line you can enter a large crowd or public speaking engagement with. Robinson went on to play to audiences across the US, and in 1950, appeared in a short film called Sugar Chile Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet. Not bad company to share a bill with, huh?

Some photos from his career (if you're ever looking for somebody who doesn't show up on Google Images very much, try tracking down publicity photos on Ebay, it feels like the Chicago Tribune or someone is ALWAYS selling original press pictures from their archives...excuse the watermark, and you can buy these photos for yourself via this link):

With bandleader Frankie Carle (2 Frankies 2 Furious)

As he grew older, a professional career in show business wasn't in Robinson's long term plans. This photo was taken in 1954, showing a sixteen year old Sugar Chile, focusing on school work. The caption reads:
Although he still plays boogie-woogie, 'Sugar Chile' Robinson, now age 14 [sic] and a high school student in Detroit, Mich., is more deeply interested in plans to become a doctor. Here he does his homework. He gets A and B marks in all his subjects. His professional piano playing is now restricted to holidays and vacations. He made about $1,500 Thanksgiving week at the Apollo Theatre in New York. He thinks that by the time he is ready for college he may have ended his musical career.
Unlike many child performers of his generation, Robinson was able to attend and complete college, having saved a comfortable amount of money from his time as musician. Ebony magazine did a "Whatever Happened To..." feature on him in 1971, where we got this update on the terminally cute kid's life since he left professional music behind:

Can you believe he's still that tiny? And TWO DEGREES, thankyouverymuch, in a time where a lot of people didn't complete high school, much less secondary education. Robinson made scattered appearances at festivals in the 2000's, including this British performance from 2007. At sixty-nine years old, he's still got it! 

So! Take a listen and tell me what you think! Isn't he adorable, AND THEN so enormously talented? I know we get a glut of little kid wonders on shows like X Factor and the like these days, but I was charmed to see so sincere and precious of a performer way back in the forties' getting his slice of the pie. Do you have any novelty acts of the forties' or fifties' that are near and dear to you heart? What have you haphazardly discovered on Youtube lately? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I'll catch you back here tomorrow for a special Photo Friday! What could it be? Tune in Friday to find out! Take care, til then.


  1. This is awesome!!! I love hearing stories about people from yesteryear-thank you! Going to watch the videos now! xox

  2. Wow!!! This is great. I'm glad that peaking early didn't destroy the rest of his life - a child star's story with a happy ending! Nice!!!

  3. That Caldonia video is one of my favourite ever youtube videos! I must have watched it at least 100 times - I just can't believe such a young child can be so incredibly talented!!! What a little cutie! I also can't believe that he grew into such a tiny adult! It was really interesting finding out what happened to him, great post! :)



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