While never achieving the commercial success of many of his contemporaries, the Rev. Cleophus Robinson was a prominent figure on the gospel circuit throughout the better part of the post-war era, perhaps best known for hosting a coast-to-coast gospel television series which ran for a quarter century. Born March 18, 1932 in Canton, MS, according to family legend, Robinson suddenly sang his first gospel song, "Who Will Be Able to Stand?," at the age of three; from that point on, he sang regularly while working in the cotton fields, influenced in great measure by his mother Lillie, a gospel shouter in the tradition of Mahalia Jackson whose own vocal prowess was renowned throughout the region. As a teen, Robinson gave his first solo recitals at St. John's Church of Canton; in 1948, he moved to Chicago, where he performed in a variety of area churches and appeared with the Roberta Martin Singers alongside Jackson herself.
Through Evelyn Gay of the Gay Sisters, Robinson was introduced to Miracle Records chief Lee Egalnick, and in September 1949 he went into the studio to make his debut recordings. Credited as Bro Cleophus Robinson, he issued the single "Now Lord"; sales were unimpressive, and he soon relocated to Memphis, where he moved in with his uncle, the Reverend L.A. Hamblin (who in 1968 recorded the sermon "When God Walks Out of the Field" for the Jewel label). After finishing high school, Robinson began his own weekly radio show, The Voice of the Soul, and began regularly appearing with famous gospel artists as they passed through town, among them Brother Joe May, who became something of a mentor to the young singer. During the same period he began collaborating with pianist Napoleon Brown, who played with Robinson both on record and at live dates for the next several decades.
In 1953, Robinson signed to the Houston-based Peacock Records, soon issuing the single "In the Sweet By and By"; he released several more efforts for the label, none of them hugely successful, before deciding to pursue a career as an actor. After enrolling as a drama major at Leymole College, he frequently found himself called away from his studies to promote his records; his grades suffered, and after a year he returned to music full-time. By 1956, Robinson's gospel career was in a rut, and he had yet to score a hit record; that all changed upon the release of "Pray for Me," a duet recorded with his sister Josephine James. A year later, he moved to St. Louis to accept a position with the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, resulting in an erratic recording schedule which ended with the 1962 release of the LP Pray for Me. Throughout the decade, Robinson also hosted his Hour of Faith weekly radio program; beginning in 1964, he also starred in his own gospel TV program.
In 1962, Robinson signed to Battle Records, a subsidiary of Riverside, and there recorded a number of tracks backed by the Gospel Chimes before returning to Peacock in 1964. His first release after going back to the label, "Solemn Prayer," was that rare sermon record which became a major seller. Later that same year, he moved to Savoy, scoring another hit a year later with "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by God"; by the end of 1965, he had again returned to Peacock, where his music adopted a bluesier flavor. After touring Europe, Robinson made yet another label change in 1969, this time jumping to Nashboro; there he scored his biggest hit ever with "Wrapped Up, Tied Up, Tangled Up," a crossover hit with white audiences as well. It led to a return engagement with Savoy in the '70s, and in 1975, he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Robinson's pace slowed in the years to follow, although in 1980 he sang at the White House and in 1986 notched another hit with "Save a Seat for Me." ~ Jason Ankeny