January 21, 1996
WILLIE ROBYN’S 101ST BIRTHDAY PARTY
by Tim Brooks
How do you give a surprise party for a man who is 101? Carefully, it would seem, unless the man is 1920s recording artist William Robyn. On November 25, 1995, I had the honor of attending Robyn’s 101st birthday party, at the home of his cousin Dr. Herschel Flax, on Long Island. The guest of honor may move a bit more slowly these days, but he was as friendly and gracious as ever.
Robyn, whose real name is William Rubin, will be known to Graphic readers as one of the more prolific recording artists of the 1920s. A Latvian immigrant, he performed in vaudeville in the 1910s, made his first tests for Victor and Columbia in 1918, and later recorded hundreds of popular and ethnic songs for those labels, Cameo, Emerson, Brunswick, Okeh, Pathe and ARC. He recorded exclusively for Victor from 1920‑1923 and for Cameo from 1923‑1927.
More than 50 family members and close friends from Robyn’s later years as a Jewish Cantor attended the party. Among them were Cantor William Wolff, who succeeded him at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York; Rosemarie and Joseph Lamont, who now care for Robyn at their home in New Jersey; and, from Texas, the families of two nephews (now deceased) whom Robyn was responsible for bringing from Russia to America in the 1930s and 1970s. One of the latter spoke movingly about how she literally “owed her life” to the diminutive, self‑effacing man. Although most of the reminiscences were about Robyn’s later life as a cantor and a friend to many, his recording career was not forgotten. A number of his records were played, and he was presented with a large cake decorated with an attentive Nipper. A tape provided by Graphic editor Martin Bryan of a long‑lost test recording, made for Brunswick in 1933, was a particular treat; Robyn identified it as a Yiddish comic song he had used as an encore at concerts. He had not heard it in 60 years!
Robyn’s biography and discography, by this writer, appeared in the ARSC Journal in 1992. Although details of his early life in Latvia are necessarily sketchy, his “official” birthdate is November 28, 1894.