Weepin' Willie Robinson 1926 - 2007
by Marc Sheforgen
The both triumphant and turbulent blues life of Boston singer Weepin' Willie Robinson ended tragically Sunday, December 30 after a cigarette Robinson had been smoking in bed caused a fire that engulfed him in flames. Robinson was 81.
The triumphs of Robinson's musical career were numerous, beginning with an unlikely start prompted by the urging of none other than B.B. King. Robinson, who was born William Lorenzo Robinson, had been working as an emcee and comedian in a Trenton, New Jersey nightclub in the 1950s when he befriended King. King, who had heard Robinson singing to himself, encouraged Robinson to take the stage one night when an opening act failed to show. Robinson confessed that he only knew three songs and that all of them were B.B. King covers. But King instructed Robinson to memorize a handful more, telling him that he had the talent to make a living as a singer.
Robinson took King's advice to heart and ended up performing for the rest of his life. He was nicknamed Weepin' Willie because of the bags under his eyes. While his fame may have been limited to Boston, where he moved in 1959, he had no shortage of it there. Robinson is cited numerously in that city's publications as a legend and as the elder statesman of the blues. Some of his higher profile engagements included work with Bonnie Raitt and with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame as well as a headlining spot at the 2000 Blues Masters at the Crossroads concerts at Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas.
But perhaps his biggest triumph – and the one that will preserve his legacy for posterity – was his long-overdue recording debut, at the age of 73. Aptly titled At Last, On Time, Robinson recorded in 1999 for APO Records at Blue Heaven Studios. The record features the guest appearances of two Boston musicians Robinson influenced – Susan Tedeschi and Mighty Sam McClain. Both were thrilled to participate in the project, saying at the time that they saw it as a chance to give back to a man who'd been so important to their musical lives.
Robinson did endure plenty of turbulence in his 81 years. He was raised in a sharecropping family that picked cotton and fruit up and down the East Coast. Instability persisted throughout Robinson's adult life, and as recently as 2005 he was homeless. When the Boston blues community finally learned that their patriarch was living on the streets, relief was organized and Robinson became the first recipient of a grant from the Give Us Your Poor organization. He found shelter at the rest home where he died Sunday. Despite painful arthritis and a failing memory, Robinson continued to perform regularly right up until his death.