Friday, May 21, 2010

Wrapping Things Up In Wisconsin ... With A Robbs Reboot

I thought it might be fitting to wrap up our week-long salute to Wisconsin Rock by rerunning part of our Local Hits feature on The Robbs, one of the most popular bands to come out of this era ... and area ... in the '60's.

We've featured The Robbs several times before over the years in Forgotten Hits ... in fact, after we spotlighted the band in our very first Show Me Your Hits / Local Hits Feature, zeroing in on their Wisconsin chart success, we were genuinely surprised to hear that these guys had charted a few singles on the local charts elsewhere around the country despite never scoring a National Top 100 Hit ... and that these charted hits weren't even necessarily the same songs in all cases. And, we were even more surprised to find out about their career on the OTHER side of the recording glass with Cherokee Studios.

Here ... in '60's FLASHBACK style ... is what we're calling The Robbs ... Revisited ... highlights from our last series along with several of your comments. Enjoy!

In the liner notes for the recently re-released album "The Robbs", drummer Craig Krampf jokes that "We were the kings of 'bubbling under'" ... and, to a degree, he's right!

The Robbs "bubbled-under" on Billboard's Top 100 Chart with the tunes "Race With The Wind" (#103); "Rapid Transit" (#123); "Movin'" (#131); "Last Of The Wine" (#114) and "I'll Never Get Enough" (#108) and fell to the same fate when, as Cherokee, they released "Girl, I've Got News For You" (#116 in 1971). In addition, we found out that their song "Bittersweet" (which never even got THAT far) topped the charts down in San Antonio, Texas back in 1967.

As we learned last time around (thanks to a little bit of help from FH list member Jean Theel), these guys were from Oconomowoc (not Milwaukee), Wisconsin, where they enjoyed a pretty loyal following. Consisting of three brothers (David, Robert and George Donaldson), they assumed the identities of Dee, Bruce and Joe Robb respectively and recorded a couple of local singles for the Argo, Todd and Score Record Labels under various monikers like Dee Robb, Robby and the Robins and Dee Robb and the Robins, all without success. They played musical chairs with the drummer's role until 1965 when Craig Krampf (quickly dubbed Craig Robb) came on board. (It was assumed / promoted that he was their cousin ... which, of course, he wasn't ... but nobody was about to deny anything that might slow down the promotional machine!)

These guys CERTAINLY were given fair consideration at a shot at pop stardom ... Dick Clark heard them at a performance here in Chicago (at The Teen World's Fair) and signed them for an appearance on his hit television series "Where The Action Is" and "American Bandstand". (He was also instrumental in securing a recording contract for the band with Chicago's Mercury Records, who quickly issued their first single, "Race With The Wind".) In fact, The Robbs became pretty much semi-regulars on "Where The Action Is" and Dick Clark held nothing back in his efforts to make them the next big thing. Their pictures were soon in all the teen magazines yet, despite ALL of this publicity, they STILL never cracked the National Top 100!

Locally here in Chicago, "Race With The Wind" shot up to #16 on the WLS Chart ... and did even better back home in Wisconsin. We featured it as part of our Chicagoland Local Hits series back in 2004 ... and were then surprised to hear from a couple of other readers who ALSO knew a thing or two about The Robbs! (Seems that a couple of their other releases achieved Local Hits status in various parts of the country ... including a #1 showing in San Antonio, Texas, with their single "Bittersweet" ... yet, collectively, they could never build enough momentum around any one song to break through on the National Top 100.)

A few months ago, I spoke with one of the reissue labels about releasing a “Best of the Robbs” CD. The response was basically: “Did they have any hits?” I knew I had just lost that battle. The war is not over and now, thanks to the people at Collectors' Choice Music, here are the vinyl transfers to prove the case for a Robbs compilation CD.

In many cases where bands did not reach the coveted “Hot 100”, there are not enough releases to have a compilation CD. The Robbs, however, had many 45’s and a terrific album to choose from, as well as many unreleased gems. Beginning in the early sixties and living on through the present, via Cherokee Recording Studios in Beverly Hills, the Robbs’ history covers forty years! This CD focuses on the Robbs’ “glory years”, bittersweet (sorry) as they were. With early successes in their Milwaukee home area, the group gained fans quickly. Eventually, Dick Clark “discovered” them and the group became regulars on his ABC-TV mid-60’s afternoon teen band show, “Where the Action Is”. With the national TV exposure, they landed a national recording contract with Chicago’s Mercury Records label. Their self-written first single, “Race With the Wind”, got promoted nicely by Clark’s “Action” and “American Bandstand” TVers, and began selling across the Midwest, roaring into Milwaukee’s top 10 and reaching a respectable #16 on Chicago’s 50,000-watt AM juggernaut WLS radio “Silver Dollar Survey”. With all this going, plus their pictures plastered all over the teen magazines of the day, it seemed the Robbs were destined for stardom.

Two more single sides did not equal the success of their debut in sales, but were nonetheless great records. “Next Time You See Me” hit #1 on Los Angeles’ KRLA “Top Requested” chart, while their cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Bittersweet” (issued with the typically cheesy Mercury records black and white picture sleeve) failed to get much public reaction.

April of ‘67 brought us their only “two-sided winner” (in Milwaukee) in “Rapid Transit” and “Cynthia Loves”. With “Transit” sounding much like the new hit, “Western Union” by the Five Americans, maybe there was an oversaturation of “dit-dit-dit” songs for the public’s taste, although both are great songs. “Cynthia” sounded much like Tommy Roe’s hits of the day and led them towards their last Mercury 45, the bubblegummy “Girls Girls”. Released at about the time Mercury put the bands’ 45s onto LP, “Girls” failed with sales again.

Oddly enough, the album would make the Billboard Top LP chart in January, 1968 after the band had been dropped by Mercury!

It was during this time in ‘67 that the Robbs began producing other Milwaukee bands like the Destinations. Eventually, they would become full time producers, but not before more attempts at recording stardom. A move to Atlantic Records in early 1968 brought changes in the Robbs’ sound. Early in ‘68, the American Breed’s “Bend Me, Shape Me” was a huge hit, relying on a brass foundation. The Robbs’ May 45 release, “I Don’t Want to Discuss It”, used a similar style in their most upbeat release yet. November saw “Changin’ Winds” become not only their new single, but also their long-term move towards the country-rock field. Neither song did much outside the upper Midwest and Atlantic dropped the Robbs at year’s end.

From 1969 into the early 70’s, the Robbs would record for Dunhill / ABC Records. One of Dunhill’s biggest artists were the Grass Roots and the Robbs’ singles would reflect their stablemates’ sound with two equally great poprockers, “Last of the Wine” and “I’ll Never Get Enough”. Again, only the upper Midwest seemed to hear these great releases.

The Robbs were recording enough material for a new LP, but without a hit 45, Dunhill never released an LP. Their 45 “B” sides were great country-rockers and would lead to a name change to “Cherokee” in the early 70’s. Now on Dunhill’s parent label, ABC Records, “Cherokee” started out with a 45 and album release. In retrospect, it seems many of the hot 60’s rockers moved to country-rock in the early 70’s. Unfortunately, the public usually didn’t notice. Same was true for “Cherokee” and after another 45, the group called it quits. However, the name stuck for the group’s recording studio and has been quite successful producing music for top artists over the years since.

For all the great music, publicity and accolades the Robbs have garnered, their success was, indeed, “bittersweet”. Sales always eluded the group and thus, it seems, has kept them from a current day CD compilation release, as well. This CD brings their best from all four record labels, as well as highlights of their Dick Clark years, as well as some later unreleased gems. Hopefully, someone will take up the charge for the Robbs and get a CD comp made someday, but in the meantime, dig the “Robbs: Bittersweet Years”!

-- Clark Besch, 2003

This excellent report was filed by Tom Diehl as part of our Local Hits Comments Page ... Clark Besch, now a regular contributor to Forgotten Hits, wasn't even on our mailing list yet at this time. Tom also sent me a copy of the aforementioned CD (excellent, by the way ... there are even a few excerpts from the old WCFL "Most Requested" Countdown where a couple of uncharted Robbs songs figure prominently.)

After our original piece on The Robbs ran in 2004, we received nominations for a couple MORE Robbs songs to feature ...

Bittersweet by the Robbs was a FABULOUS folk / rock song that was a # 1 hit in San Antonio in early 1967.


I always liked RACE WITH THE WIND ... but my very very favorite Robb song is BITTERSWEET! To this DAY I still play the 45 a lot.


Their best years came after leaving Milwaukee. The band bought a home in Encino, CA. After evolving into a country-rock group, Cherokee (and still failing to chart), they decided that their main calling was engineering and producing. The guys built a studio in their ranch and one of the first LP's they ever worked on was "Pretzel Logic" by Steely Dan. They went on to engineer many other big name groups and recording artists like David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, John Mellencamp, Aerosmith and Guns 'n' Roses. (The list of musicians that they have worked with is certainly impressive.) Drummer Craig Krampf even co-wrote a song for Journey lead singer Steve Perry's solo album called "Oh Sherrie". This song went to #3 on the charts and has won BMI awards, including the prestigious "Million Broadcast Performances" award. Craig also co-wrote three other songs on Perry's "Street Talk" album. The Robb brothers are now award winning producers / engineers of countless platinum-selling artists.

-- Jean Theel

From left to right: Joe Robb, Craig Krampf, Bruce Robb and Dee Robb.

During our various tribute features on The Robbs, we have featured "Race With The Wind", "Bittersweet" and "Rapid Transit" ... we've also featured the band in both of our Show Me Your Hits / Local Hits Series.

The last time we covered The Robbs we told you that by the time Mercury Records finally got around to releasing an album by these guys, The Robbs had already left the label!!! Even at that, the LP was pretty much just thrown together, consisting of all eight sides of their first four singles, not a chart hit amongst them ... and then a couple of new songs of filler. But THIS may be where Mercury missed their calling. One of those "new" tracks was a tune called "See Jane Run", and it's got "1967 Pop Hit" written all over it! As part of today's Robbs Recap, we'll feature all four of these tracks one more time.
For a little bit more on the impressive history of The Robbs, you may want to check out their Cherokee Studios website! Cherokee Studios

DIDJAKNOW?-1: When The Robbs first went into the recording studio to cut "Race With The Wind" here in Chicago, they didn't have a bass player. According to drummer Craig Krampf, "Our configuration was, at the beginning, sax, guitar, drums and Hammond Organ. Bruce played the foot pedals, just like The Rascals, so that was our bass for live gigs. We never had a bass player. But, much like The Doors did on later things ... and The Rascals did also ... we would bring in a bass player to play on the records. A little sidelight for "Race With The Wind" was that Pete Cetera (later Peter Cetera of the '70's and '80's super-group Chicago) was the bass player." (Producer) Lou Reizner knew Pete from around the city and invited him to play on the session. "But it didn't work out well at all. I mean, he did not play well and basically we brought my brother Carl up from Milwaukee ... who's a psychologist but also was a musician ... and Carl played on "Race With The Wind". We ended up erasing Peter Cetera's bass playing ... which was kind of cool!"

DIDJAKNOW?-2: During my interview with Bruce Mattey, guitarist / vocalist for The New Colony Six for our special spotlight series on THAT band, Bruce told me that he toured on and off with The Robbs during the mid-'60's while also fronting his own band, The Revelles.

During my time with The Revelles, I continued playing off dates with other groups. In fact, many people wondered which group I was a member of. You see, I just played. Period.

I was then approached again by the Robbs, whom I had worked with several times prior and during the time I was in the Revelles. I joined up with the Robbs and was to take over for Dee who played guitar and fronted the band.At this time the Robbs were still working, booking any date they could through a guy named Con Mertin out of New York. He'd pop up every so often and always had the next few gigs set up. Reaction to the band was always good. During this time, we were doing original tunes and lots of early Blood Sweat & Tears along with some Buffalo Springfield.

One gig took us to Columbus, Ohio where we headlined. Opening act was Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a GREAT soul band from Chicago. I knew who they were, but the others didn't have any idea who they were. So Huey opened and I was floored. We also had horn men and they were wowed. On the other hand, the crowd could have cared less. We went on and the crowd came to life. Not saying that Baby Huey was a better sounding act than us, but I guess it was not what was happening at the time. Sometime, I believe about a year later, Baby Huey passed away.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Baby Huey and the Babysitters were one of the most popular club bands to play around the City of Chicago back in the mid-'60's ... they played EVERYWHERE!!! Not a week went by when you didn't hear advertisements for the band on the radio ... yet, despite an incredibly loyal club following, they never scored a local hit on the charts. kk)

Anyhow ... The (brothers) Robbs' Dad owned an company in Wisconsin that he was going to sell and then contribute dollars to a studio project that was then in the talking stage. (Later to become Cherokee). The family also had grandparents with some big bucks, which they planned to borrow from and, along with Dad's help, seal a deal on an old sound lot owned by (I think ) Universal. We were on the road and Dee asked if I'd be interested in relocating to CA.

I was just about to get married (5/1969). The boys owed me back pay for several gigs and I had doubts about what would happen in CA. So I proposed that I'd come out after they paid the back monies owed. Needless to say, I never received the check and we parted ways.

I went back to Chicago, bought in as a partner in a Clark Gas Station to produce income while putting together The "Creative American Rock Ensemble," better known as C.A.R.E. That became my next venture while The Robbs went on to produce quite a few hits out of Cherokee Studios in California.

I think about all the guys I've had the pleasure to have ever played with during my life. Although many of us haven't talked for years, there remains a fond place in my heart for each of them. This includes the Donaldsons, too (Robbs) and the Bear - their cousin who was the Best next to Dee. The "Mega Big" time wasn't in the stars for many of the Chicago bands, but we didn't do too bad. We were able to do what we loved. Making music, having fun and bringing a few others along on the trip with us.

My Favorite Line: Oh, Rock and Roll I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life. (Mac Davis)


Bruce Mattey

Rapid Transit

Race With the Wind


See Jane Run