#239 And here’s to you, Mr. Robinson
Red Robinson: The Last Deejay
by Robin Brunet
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2016
$29.95 / 9781550177695
Reviewed by Lani Russwurm
First published Jan, 25, 2018
From vaudeville to punk rock, entertainment looms larger than it probably should in Vancouver’s history, considering the city’s dinky stature for most of its existence. One reason for this is the people who made show business their life and Vancouver their base. Ivan Ackery and Hugh Pickett come to mind, and, of course, Red Robinson.
Red Robinson: The Last Deejay is technically a biography, but it feels like Robinson’s memoir. To author Robin Brunet’s credit, he stays out of the way of his subject.
The book traces Robinson’s career in broadcasting, beginning in the 1950s as a teenager. Most Vancouver-raised boomers would enjoy this nostalgic romp through the rock ‘n’ roll era, but very few would relate to the life lived by the protagonist when radio personalities rivalled the music stars they promoted. Robinson rose to local fame as a radio disc jockey just as rock ‘n’ roll was bursting into the mainstream and he was still in high school.
Soon he was earning more money than most adults, driving a shiny new red convertible, hanging out with stars, and fending off teenaged girls. Not bad for a kid from a Comox Valley logging family still living with his mom in East Vancouver.
Predictably, the main strength of the book is that it contains numerous anecdotes about Robinson’s celebrity encounters. Brunet goes into considerable detail on Robinson’s time with Elvis Presley in 1957 during his first and only Vancouver show, which Robinson emceed.
Even in those early days of Elvis’s career, Robinson tells us, there was already a melancholy about him over not being able to live a normal life. For Elvis to enjoy amusement park rides back home, he told Red at the PNE, meant renting the entire fair grounds and making do with the companionship of his handlers (pp. 92-3).
Robinson’s own celebrity status was obviously on a vastly smaller scale than Elvis’s, but he too was somewhat detached from his peers in the 1950s, making things like dating extra complicated. But in Robinson’s case, the benefits seem to have more than made up for the isolation.
His talents aside, and as Red Robinson: The Last Deejay makes abundantly clear, he lucked out at being the right guy at the right time, and he had a blast.
By the late 1960s, the zeitgeist that had served him so well was leaving Red Robinson behind as rock ‘n’ roll mutated into the harder and psychedelic “rock music” that didn’t resonate with him. His subsequent forays into television, country music broadcasting, and into a second lucrative career as an advertising executive provide fascinating glimpses into the times and into the lesser-known chapters in his life.
For instance, Robinson and his colleagues at an advertising firm responded to gross mismanagement by quitting and starting their own agency. This “staff fire their boss” story was reported in the advertising industry press, and, according to Robinson, inspired an episode of the television series Mad Men (p. 171).
Brunet provides ample context and consults many of Red’s acquaintances for their points of view, including other deejays. He quotes extensively from music manager Bruce Allen (Michael Bublé, Bryan Adams, etc.), who criticizes Robinson for his modesty and lack of ambition.
Robinson’s own perspective is perhaps not always humble, but he comes across as insightful and genuine, and he isn’t stingy with giving others their due.
Red Robinson: The Last Deejay is a compelling biography of a local icon that does everything a book of this nature should.
Lani Russwurm researches and writes about Vancouver history for his Past Tense Vancouver blog. He is the author of Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013) and has contributed to numerous local publications and history projects, including Vancouver Confidential (Anvil Press, 2014).
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster