Willard Robison was born into a Missouri family with a long line of preachers. He broke with tradition, to the consternation of some family members, and pursued a career in music. But he carried his religious values and the love of small-town, rural America into his songs. He was heavily influenced by Negro spirituals, and his early songs often had religious themes such as “Religion in Rhythm,” “The Devil Is Afraid of Music” (which the sheet music calls “a syncopated sermon”), and “Truthful Parson Brown” which appeared in a 1929 film, The Broadway Melody. He played piano, participated in college musicals, and formed his own band in 1917, The Deep River Boys, which toured the Midwest and Southwest. Paul Whiteman heard Robison in Omaha and signed him to a three-year contract.
In New York Robison recorded piano solos and vocals and made piano rolls for the Duo-Art Company. His singing style was straight-forward--like a Johnny Mercer or Hoagy Carmichael without the southern accent. He also played with Busse’s Buzzards, a group led by Whiteman trumpeter Henry Busse. Robison developed his own radio show, “The Deep River Hour,” on WOR in New York. By 1931 the show was running three times weekly. He signed a contract with the distinguished William Grant Still, one of the country’s foremost composers often referred to as the Dean of American Negro Composers, to write orchestrations for the band. Trombonist Jack Teagarden, who had played with the band in Kansas City in 1924, occasionally joined them to record. But after seven years Robison felt that commercial demands compromised his music and he quit the radio show.
Robison wrote the theme song for the Jack Tremaine Orchestra, “Lonely Acres,” and Whiteman’s first theme song, “Peaceful Valley.” In 1962 Teagarden recorded an album of Robison’s songs entitled Think Well Of Me, and he included two Robison tunes on Mis’ry and the Blues, including “Guess I’ll Go Back Home Again (This Summer)” written with Ray Mayer. In 1976 vocalist Barbara Lea recorded a Robison tribute album, The Devil Is Afraid of Music. The lyrics of the title song express Robison’s optimism: “When there’s music in the heart, you won’t find room for evil.”
Robison’s contributions to the jazz standards include “Old Folks,” written in 1938 with lyricist Dedette Lee Hill, which is the title cut of a Walter Bishop, Jr. CD, and 1929’s “A Cottage for Sale,” written with lyricist Larry Conley, which became a million seller in 1945 for Billy Eckstine and was memorably recorded by Chris Connor in 1956 (who also recorded “Old Folks”). In 1948 Peggy Lee had a hit with “Don’t Smoke in Bed” which was also frequently performed by Nina Simone. The song is variously credited to Robison or to Lee, her husband Dave Barbour, and Robison.
Although Robison often wrote of the simple life, his music was quite sophisticated. His arrangements, in which he often used strings and oboe, had a symphonic flare. He also composed the eight-part “American Suite” in the ‘20s, “Six Studies in Syncopation” for piano, and the five-part “Rural Revelations.”
We wish to thank Pamela Brooke, Willard Robison’s granddaughter and an artist who lives in Oregon, for her assistance in compiling this biography and supplying the Metronome cover sketch of him.
- Sandra Burlingame