Gil Robbins: Musician in the vanguard of the 1960s American folk revival
Thursday 21 April 2011
Gil Robbins, who played and sang with the Cumberland Three, the Belafonte Singers and the Highwaymen, belongs to a side-strand in the American folk music movement that includes the Brothers Four, The Kingston Trio and the Journeymen. Despite theirs being music that shaped a generation's appreciation and consciousness of US folk music in the civil rights era, it has come down as "collegiate folk", square and uncool – as celebrated and spoofed by the never-were Folksmen and New Main Street Singers in the mockumentary A Mighty Wind (2003).
Born in 1931, Gil Robbins grew up in Los Angeles, the family having moved there when he was a baby. He took up music seriously at high school, playing percussion with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra before joining UCLA's marching band. After dropping out he enlisted in the USAF in 1951, his national service included playing band music and conducting.
Before joining the Highwaymen in 1962 he was with the Cumberland Three, best remembered for their Rebel and Union Civil War repertoire. A "manufactured" folk trio, they also included John Montgomery and John Stewart, the singer-guitarist who went on to perform in the Kingston Trio and write the Monkees' hit "Daydream Believer". Robbins went on to perform with the Belafonte Singers – Harry Belafonte's big band – and accompany the folk singer Tom Paxton.
Robbins joined the Highwaymen as bassist and baritone vocalist. They had already scored an international hit with "Michael", an adaptation of "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore", in 1961. Impressively for the time, he also played the unfretted, plucked, six-stringed guitarrón. More accurately, guitarró* mexicano ("Mexican large guitar"), it is associated with Mexico's folk and mariachi music, though it later figured in the sound of the Scots folk-pop band Fairground Attraction. After Robbins left to manage the Greenwich Village folk haunt, the Gaslight, the band enjoyed several revivals, including opening for the next Highwaymen – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson – as compensation for stealing their name.
Robbins made cameo appearances in several films with family connections including the political satire Bob Roberts (1992), which featured a folk-singing, right-wing Senate candidate, Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999); these films also featured his daughter Adele. His son David became a composer with credits for, among others, Dead Man Walking, Cradle Will Rock and King of California (2007), while his actor, director and musician son Tim acted in films including Bull Durham (1988), The Player (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Mystic River (2003).
Gilbert Lee Robbins, musician, singer and actor: born Spokane, Washington 3 April 1931; married 1952Mary Bledsoe (two sons, two daughters); died Esteban Cantú, Mexico 5 April 2011.
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