CHARLOTTETOWN (CUP) - Dutch Robinson's career has taken him all over the world, from the mean streets of the South Bronx to performing in the Bernard Shaw Theatre in England. But after nearly 30 years, Robinson's musical globetrotting has finally led him to settle in Amherst, Nova Scotia, of all places.
Now that he has settled on four acres of land there with his family, Life seems much simpler for the '70s R and B performer.
"It's a good place for me to work and write and for my child to grow up. It's safe and I don't have to look over my shoulder," he says. "I got Ducks Unlimited in back of me and a bird sanctuary in front of me. I'm surrounded by real animals. No more New York animals."
The peaceful environment of Amherst seems an unlikely home for someone with Robinson's experience and attitude, which has been shaped by years of struggling to succeed as a solo black artist in the music industry, and the street smarts needed to survive growing up in New York.
Robinson was exposed to a wide variety of entertainers and musicians during his adolescence in South Bronx. His father, a classical singer who performed on Broadway and Vaudeville, tried unsuccessfully to discourage his son from a career in show business, knowing firsthand how difficult it was for black performers to receive respect in the music industry. Dutch Robinson's experience has taught him that "the streets are mean in New York and the music business is even meaner."
During the late 70's, Robinson was managed by Tommy Mottola (Mariah Carey's ex-manager/ex-husband). This gave him an opportunity to work with many successful artists. He co-wrote songs with Darryl Hall, John Oates, Melba Moore, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Nettwork. Despite getting a record deal secured with RCA, an album produced by Bunny Siegler was never released. Mottola apparently once told Robinson that he really didn't know what to do with a black act.
Racial discrimination was not the only obstacle to Robinson's career in the music industry. "They discriminate against old people too. If they feel that you're too old for the business, they feel you're not marketable," says Robinson.
One lesson he has learned about the music industry is the value in hard work and performing. Being a talented songwriter, and having a powerful, five-octave vocal range was not enough for him to succeed. He says, "You got to go out and make a name for yourself. You got to make people stand up and appreciate what you're doing. Just sitting around those mean streets of New York and waiting for a record deal without having some people follow you don't work too well."
When he was just 17, he traveled back and forth from his home in New
London, Connecticut to New York trying to get deals and make contacts with people. When Robinson learned that the lead singer for the Ohio Players was drafted for the Vietnam War, he auditioned for the position and got the part.
Traveling with the Ohio Players exposed him to a lot of negativity in
southern United States like Alabama. Negative experiences on the road, and mistrust among his band members led him to quit the group after five years.
He said he left because he was worried that staying in the band would have lead to his self-destruction. But leaving the band and starting a solo career was not an easy transition. He battled depression, drugs, and the frustration of having to start a career all over again. "I had been in that situation for five years, and when I got out of the Ohio Players, I didn't know how to function," he says. "I had to find out what's it's like to have musicians work for me." He returned to New York and began using hard drugs, but he found the
strength to pull himself out of that situation before it destroyed him. His faith provided him with a new beginning. "Luckily for me, God blessed me enough to give me a reprieve from all the garbage that was going on around me, and made it possible for me to live again," he says. "I took advantage of the chance that He gave me."
Tragedy struck Robinson's family when his 19-day-old son, Ria, died of a fatal aneurysm. Robinson moved to Canada with just thirty-five dollars, leaving New York for good because he could not take the pressure of living in the city anymore. He had traveled to Canada before as the road manager for a group and fell in love with the country.
He made a fresh start in Montreal and started an acting career performing the lead role in a production about the life of Marvin Gaye, someone he is sometimes compared to. Despite being his first major acting role, Robinson did not find his experience in theatre much different from growing up in the streets of New York. "If you grow up where I grew up," he says, "you're an actor. Just living
life you got to be an actor sometimes." He continued, "In the situations I've been in, I've had to play the gangster and the nice guy. In New York you got to learn how to act. It's detrimental to your health if you don't."
Playing Marvin Gaye took him around the world from the Cotton Club in New York to the Bernard Shaw Theatre in London England, but the role began to haunt him. "I don't want to do Marvin anymore," he says. "That was hard for me having his spirit inside me. It seemed like I took on his persona."
People would mistake him for the legendary artist, and he felt like he was becoming Marvin Gaye, so he decided to stop. "I found myself sitting down and crying on a yacht and not wanting to do that play
After his experience in theatre, Robinson started acting professionally on televison shows like Black Harbour and Due South. While taking an extra role in Due South, he noticed that they had Canadian actors on a show that was supposed to come from Chicago. He pointed out to the producers that the actors would say their lines like, "You're under arrest, eh." When he told them a genuine, street-smart American (himself) was available, they began offering him roles.
Beginning another chapter of his life with his family in Amherst, Robinson is taking things a bit slower while already enjoying success in the Maritimes. Young people are discovering the soul singer for the first time, and he's performed to many standing ovations at major shows like the East Coast Music Award Showcase in Sydney, Nova Scotia last year. He has also signed an international record deal that allows him to do production work with other artists.
Listening to him, you'd think he was reborn. "I'm fifty-four and just
starting over." It seems as though it took the quiet setting of a small East Coast town for Robinson to settle down.