Robert Gordon Robinson, broadcaster, television host (born 30 March 1937 in Comox, BC). A legendary pioneer and icon in Canadian broadcasting, Red Robinson was the first radio disc jockey in the country to regularly play rock ‘n’ roll records, and one of the first in North America. Considered by many to be “Canada’s Dick Clark,” he has been a fixture on Vancouver’s radio and television scene for sixty years. Robinson has been inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and was honoured as a legendary DJ by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Early Years and Career
While attending Vancouver’s King Edward High School in 1954, a 16-year-old Robinson made a few prank calls to the afternoon teen show on local radio station CJOR. His humorous impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Peter Lorre, along with his easy-going confidence and natural ad lib abilities, earned him an invitation from the manager to join the program. He soon took over as the show’s DJ and played his first record, "Marie" by the Four Tunes, on 12 November 1954.
Robinson became one of the first white DJs to play so-called “race records,” incorporating African American-derived rhythm and blues and rockabilly into his show, and received insults and threats from listeners for playing music by black artists such as Ruth Brown and Lloyd Price. He would buy most of the records himself across the border in nearby Bellingham, WA, rather than wait for them to be available in Vancouver.
With a 50 per cent share of the local audience, Robinson became a celebrity in his own right, promoting most major concerts in Vancouver and introducing audiences to the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis Presley. “These days, people can’t believe that kids would come out specifically to see the disc jockeys and get autographs,” Robinson told the Globe and Mail in 2000. “We were bigger than the damn recording stars.” In 1957, Robinson moved to Vancouver top 40 station CKWX. He would cement his fame there as the MC of Elvis’s concert at Empire Stadium.
After a brief sojourn in the US, he returned to CKWX in 1961, and then became a DJ and the program director at Vancouver’s CFUN Radio in 1962. While there, he helped turn the station into one of the most prominent rock stations in the country, and served as the MC when The Beatles played a packed Empire Stadium in 1964. In 1968, he returned to CJOR as operations manager, turning it into a successful talk radio station.
Robinson worked in sales for a year at CKLG and in 1971 he started DJ-ing the morning show at CKWX, which he continued until 1983. From 1985 to 1993 he hosted a cross-Canada oldies show called Reunion, and for Expo 86 he programmed and presented the Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll, featuring more than 40 big-name acts (e.g., Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, etc.) in 13 weeks.
In 1993 Robinson began working for CISL, hosting a top-rated morning show there until 2000. Although he officially retired in 2001, he continued to host a weekly program. A devotee of the AM dial for nearly his entire life, he moved to FM for the first time in 2007 with a show on 104.9 Fun FM, but eventually moved back to AM. He continues to play oldies and interview clips on Red Rock Diner on CISL every Sunday at noon.
In 1959, Robinson took a job with KGW Radio in Portland, OR, on the condition that he also host a TV show. He got his wish, hosting Portland Bandstand on KGW TV. However, because of American draft laws, he was also required to do a six-month stint in the US Army at Fort Ord in California.
After returning to Canada to work in radio, he became host of the CBC TV show Let’s Go/Music Hop in 1963. He introduced the country to such homegrown talent as The Guess Who, The Collectors (see Chilliwack) and Terry Jacks, until he left the show in 1966. He was a frequent guest host of CBC TV’s Cross Canada Hit Parade and hosted CBC TV’s Trivia Challenge (1977–79). He also helped raise over $100 million for children in BC as the host of the annual Timmy’s Christmas Telethon for 23 years. His prime time Sunday movie program, Red’s Classic Theatre, was broadcast to loyal audiences in both the Lower Mainland and Pacific Northwest by Bellingham station KVOS TV from 1989 to 2001.
Robinson also worked in the advertising world, founding Trend Advertising (later Palmer Jarvis Advertising) in 1969, which counted McDonald’s among its clients. Robinson helped open the first three McDonald’s restaurants in Canada and appeared in the company’s first Canadian TV commercial. He also co-founded Vrlak Robinson Advertising, which merged with Hayhurst Communications in 1987 to form Vrlak Robinson Hayhurst Communications Ltd., one of the largest advertising agencies in Vancouver.
At the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, in 1995, Robinson was one of a number of pioneering DJs honoured as having a legendary impact on rock ‘n’ roll. A play called Red Rock Diner, written about Robinson’s late 1950s career by Dean Regan, has had three runs in Vancouver, as well as in Toronto, and played many other Canadian cities as well as Kansas City.
The Red Robinson Show Theatre at Coquitlam’s Boulevard Casino opened in his honour in September 2006. However, controversy erupted in the fall of 2013 after it was announced that the theatre would be renamed upon the rebranding of the casino as Hard Rock Casino, Vancouver at the end of 2013. An online petition to stop the name change was supported by such Vancouver musical luminaries as Bruce Allen, Terry David Mulligan and Michael Bublé.
The Royal BC Museum in Victoria has honoured Robinson as one of 132 influential British Columbians. He has donated much of his memorabilia to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a passionate advocate for a museum devoted to Canadian broadcasting.
Broadcast Performer of the Year, BC Association of Broadcasters (1969)
CAB Quarter-Century Club, Canadian Association of Broadcasters (1981)
Inductee, Broadcaster Hall of Fame, The Record (1991)
100 Distinguished Citizens, North Vancouver Centennial Award (1991)
Canada 125 Achievement Medal, Government of Canada (1992)
Inductee, BC Entertainment Hall of Fame (1994)
Inductee, Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame (1997)
Inductee, Rockabilly Hall of Fame (2000)
Bruce Allen/Sam Feldman Legend Award, Vancouver Music Industry Association (2008)
Honorary Degree, DLitt, University of the Fraser Valley (2012)
Red Robinson and Peggy Hodgins, Rockbound: Rock 'n' Roll Encounters (Hancock House, 1983).
Red Robinson and Greg Potter, Backstage Vancouver (Harbour, 2004).