In 1945, Charlie Robinson scored his first guitar gig, playing Saturday night dances at The Diamond Springs Hotel, in the heart of California’s Gold Country, for $5 a week.
“The band was booked to play from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., but I could only play until midnight because of the child labor laws,” Robinson said during a recent phone interview. “I was only 12 years old at the time.”
Robinson played thousands more gigs in the intervening eight decades and has taught the instrument for more than 60 years, earning a reputation as the North State’s preeminent axeman while inspiring and instructing generations of players. Though primarily a jazz musician, Robinson is accomplished in other genres and is well known for carrying guitar duties on the old Moriss Taylor country-music variety television show.
As he prepares to celebrate his 89th birthday this month (Dec. 10), a number of fresh efforts celebrating his contributions to local music are underway, including a sold-out tribute show at the Chico Women’s Club (Dec. 2), newly remastered recordings made available on the internet, and a Facebook group (Charlie Robinson Friends and Fans Page) chronicling these efforts and highlights from his storied career.
“Charlie has been a huge inspiration for my teaching and playing,” local musician and educator Peter Berkow said. “A lot of other people in town have also been inspired by him, musically and as a human being. He lives life right.”
Berkow is part of a group of Robinson’s fans/friends/fellow musicians spearheading these efforts, along with other local music luminaries Bob Littell, Bruce MacMillan, David Elke and Tom Haber. Berkow credits Haber with the original idea of paying tribute to the venerated Robinson and said the group came together with a few phone calls, with each man bringing expertise and ideas to the table.
The Dec. 2 event, presented by Chico Concerts, will feature the men spearheading the tribute as well as dozens of other musicians Robinson has shared the stage with, including several of his students. Berkow said many participants will be traveling from all over the country to perform. Several more Robinson devotees have volunteered to emcee the event and record the audio and visual action.
The Facebook page, launched in mid-October, features photos and video footage from Robinson’s career as well as personal reflections from those who know him. Local musician Kevin Killion is an administrator on the page and is helping to curate that portion of the efforts.
Elke began taking lessons with Robinson in the mid-1990s and for several years taught guitar at Butte College—the same classes that Robinson himself taught during the school’s early days, at its original Durham campus. Elke developed and heads the school’s recording arts program and figured his skills were best directed toward preserving and sharing Robinson’s music.
“I realized that, after all these years, I didn’t have any recordings of Charlie,” he said, “so I went on a mission to find everything I could.”
Elke started at online music depository/marketplace Discogs and found a vinyl album from 1982 called The Fusion Trio, featuring Robinson with bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Lew Langworthy. A call-out on social media led to people handing over “all kinds of random cassette tapes and old CDs.”
He eventually gathered six albums, which he re-recorded in order to enhance the sound and remastered to high resolution. Then, he enlisted the help of his partner, Lisa Langley, to do new artwork for the albums, which have been uploaded to YouTube and Archive.org and are available to stream or download.
Elke said he also found some live recordings of Robinson and crew playing a dance at a local venue and of what seem to be practice recordings for some of the albums. He doesn’t plan to release those but also has uploaded to YouTube videos of Robinson giving lessons and being interviewed by Elke.
Considering Robinson’s unquestionable skill and busy performing schedule in years past, it’s not a large body of recorded work. Elke credits this to Robinson’s relatively shy and modest demeanor, qualities that led Moriss Taylor to nickname him “Bashful Charlie.”
“Knowing him for 30 years, from what I understand, he just cares about playing guitar,” Elke said. “He didn’t care about being in a band or trying to get famous or playing with famous musicians; he just wanted to play guitar and practice all the time. He just wanted to get better and better at guitar. And he did.”
Robinson’s legendary modesty remains intact. Asked how he feels about these recent efforts, he let out an “Aw, shucks”-chuckle and said, “I haven’t even got the words to say how much I appreciate it, man.”
“He always goes, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe they’re doing all that,’” the guitarist’s daughter, Ja-Key Robinson, said. “He’s never been really demonstrative with his feelings, but he has these little catchphrases that let you know he’s really tickled by all of it.”
Ja-Key is far less stoic: “To us he’s just our dad,” she said. “We forget sometimes what he means to the community, and it’s wonderful to be reminded. It’s huge, and it’s overwhelming, and it brings me to tears.”
She said the support and appreciation for Charlie comes at an important time, as her father faces functional decline at his advanced age. Still, he kept teaching lessons at Music Connection until August and continues to give online lessons—despite the fact he finds it harder and harder to play the instrument he’s devoted his life to.
Yet, he has no regrets: “I can satisfy myself with that because I’ve had a good 80 years with it, and not too many guys have that. … I’m really appreciative of the time because I’ve learned so much, I can’t even believe it, so much good stuff about music.
“It’s so much fun, it a great outlet, and you learn a lot, about music and about people. I tell you, if you want a lesson in life, man, just play music.”
Charlie Robinson Tribute Night, featuring performances by former students and fellow musicians.
Dec. 2, 6:30 p.m.
Pre-sale is sold out; limited number of standing-room-only tix at door.
Chico Women’s Club
592 E. Third St.