Friday, November 14, 2008

After 21 Years Bobby Pedrick Jr. Sees #1 Through Sad Eyes

By the time Robert John scored a U.S. #1 single in 1979 with the radio friendly ballad ‘Sad Eyes’, he had already reached the legal drinking age of 21 in terms of the longevity of his professional singing career - not bad for a 33 year old.

If patience truly is a virtue, then Robert John would count among the most virtuous of pop stars over the last half century. He was born Robert John Pedrick in the heart of the New York City burrow of Brooklyn in 1946. Growing up amidst the doo-wop era of the 50s, little Bobby Pedrick soon started hanging around on street corners imitating the best doo-wop performers of the day. At the age of twelve he was signed to the New York label Big Top Records and made his debut on the U.S. national charts with the song ‘White Bucks And Saddle Shoes’ (#74) in November 1958, credited to Bobby Pedrick Jr.

During his teen years Pedrick fronted a local New York group called Bobby & The Consoles, who notched up a hit on the U.S. East Coast in the early 60s with ‘My Jelly Bean’, but the hit failed to bounce into the national charts. Following the death of his father, Pedrick quit his studies and went to work for a trade magazine as a production manager. But his dedication to music was unwavering and before long Pedrick, now going under the professional name of Robert John, struck up a song writing partnership with Mike Gately. The pair were signed to a publishing company contract, and before long came to the attention of Columbia Records staff producer Dave Rubinson. John sang the vocals on a demo for a song he had co-written with Gately called ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’. Rubinson felt John’s vocals were ideally suited to the song, and in 1968 the first single under the name Robert John was released, reaching #49 in the U.S. and #42 in Britain. It had taken John a decade to progress up from having a top 100 hit to cracking the top 50, but his career was still moving in an upward trajectory, albeit on a gradual incline. Columbia released an album by Robert John of John-Gately songs, but the song-writing partnership proved more lucrative penning songs for other artists, among them Lou Rawls, Bobby Vinton, and Blood, Sweat And Tears (‘I Can’t Move No Mountains’). Robert John cut another minor hit in late 1970 with ‘When The Party Is Over’ (US#71). But the party was far from over for John, in fact it could be argued it was due to start in early 1972 with a cover of a popular music classic.

In December 1961 The Tokens had taken the song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to a three week stint atop the U.S. charts. The song had previously been a #14 hit for The Weavers in 1952 under the title ‘Wimoweh’, and was first recorded in 1939 as ‘Mbube’ by the South African Zulu group Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds - so you could say the song had a considerable heritage. Robert John had tried, unsuccessfully, to further consolidate his recording career with a string of singles, and the album ‘On The Way Up’ with producer George Tobin on the A&M label. In late 1971 John was offered the chance to record a fresh version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. He was reportedly less than enthusiastic about doing a cover song, but wasn’t really in a position to decline. Under the production/arrangement prowess of former Tokens member Hank Medress, the Robert John, high tenor version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ awoke on the U.S. charts during January ‘72. The Atlantic Records released single had risen to #3 on the Hot 100 by March ‘72, around the time it debuted on the Australian charts (#31). A follow up single ‘Hushabye’ (US#99) bombed on the charts soon after. In a later interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Robert John recalled that despite the overwhelming sales for ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, Atlantic Records refused to offer him the chance to record a full album. With little prospect of another record deal, John withdrew from the music scene. He returned to the East Coast and for a period worked in New Jersey as a labourer on construction sites. Imagine the surprise that would arise for his workmates when John not only resumed his singing career, but wrote and recorded a U.S. number one song.

The opportunity for John to resurrect his career in music came via a call from his former A&M producer George Tobin. Through the success of a song called ‘My Angel Baby’ (US#13) by Toby Beau in 1978, Tobin sensed an opportunity for Robert John to score a hit with a similarly styled song. John sat down and worked on a song called ‘Sad Eyes’ over a three month period. Through another series of chance circumstances, he was offered a deal by EMI to record the song. In May ‘79 ‘Say Eyes’ made its debut inside the U.S. Hot 100. It took a marathon 20 weeks for the mid-tempo ballad to finally arrive at the #1 slot in October, equalling the then record longest climb to the top of the U.S. charts by a single (with Nick Gilder‘s ‘Hot Child In The City’ - see future post). By the time ‘Sad Eyes’ hit the top spot, it had been no less than 20 years and 11 months since Robert John first debuted on the U.S. charts (as Bobby Pedrick Jr.), setting another record at the time for the longest period between an artist’s first appearance on the Hot 100 and an eventual #1 (Tina Turner broke that record a few years later with ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’). ‘Sad Eyes’ brought a smile to John and EMI by also hitting #31 in Britain and #9 in Australia later in ‘79. George Tobin went on to produce several more major hits during the 80s, including Smokey Robinson’s 1981 US#2 smash ‘Being With You’.

Robert John was finally offered a much deserved break to record another full length album, with a self titled effort peaking at #68 in the U.S. EMI had the vision to follow ‘Sad Eyes’ up with ‘Lonely Eyes’ (US#41) in late 1979, but regrettably the rest of John’s album was a fairly uninspired mix of imitation dance styled numbers, that pigeon holed John as a poor man’s Bee Gee rather than a gifted vocalist (and song-writer) in his own right.

John’s 1980 follow up album ‘Back On The Street’, featured a mix of original and cover songs. The covers offered John some more chart action - ‘Hey There Lonely Girl’ (US#31) and ‘Sherry’ (US#70) - but nothing to shore up his long term tenure on the music scene. EMI dropped John from their roster soon after (it is undoubtedly a ruthless business), and the last the chart statisticians saw of Robert John came via another cover, this time with a US#68 version of ‘Bread And Butter’ (1964 US#2 for the Newbeats) on the Motown label. One final attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle came with John’s version of ‘Greased Lightning’ in 1984, but the song barely generated enough interest to power a light bulb.

Though the commercial returns on Robert John’s career as a singer could best be defined as sporadic at best, it’s worth pointing out that a relative few artists have the distinction of having scored U.S. Top 100 hits across four separate decades, and even fewer reach the summit of the charts along the way.

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