BEING CRIPPLED by polio as a child didn't stop James Brown-Robinson from pursuing a successful career as a doo-wop and soul singer, and enjoying life to the fullest.
"He had the sunniest disposition," said Robert Bosco, local music historian and writer. "He had a tremendous joy of life."
Maybe James' musical group, the Guytones, never attained the fame and fortune of other singing groups, but he loved singing and performing, and the group's records are now collectors' items.
"His voice was sparkling and clear," Bosco said. "The music was joyous and exuberant."
James Brown-Robinson, who spent his life on crutches or in a wheelchair but whose skills and determination made him a valuable employee of a Philadelphia electrical-resistors firm for 30 years, died Tuesday of complications of cancer surgery. He was 78 and lived in Southwest Philadelphia.
"He was the hero; he was the king," said his daughter Vickie Gilmore. "He worked hard to take care of his family. He raised everybody, and everybody has a story to tell about him. He was a righteous man who always stayed on track."
In 1957, James and a group of other young crooners got together in the Queen Village neighborhood and harmonized wherever they could get a location.
They were heard by local DJs Cannonball and Irv Timbers, "who both loved the sonic beam of young ensemble's united voices," Bosco wrote.
The DJs arranged an audition with Cincinnati's De Luxe Records. Along with co-lead singer Stanley Evans (who died last week), Floyd Richards, Joe Tiggle, Arthur Hunter and Eddie Beasley, the Guytones went to New York City, where they recorded 12 sides for De Luxe.
The Guytones were greatly influenced by a popular R&B band, the 5 Royales, out of Winston-Salem, N.C.
"Man, when we heard them chant, 'Baby Don't It,' we wanted to be a hip, bouncy outfit that sounded exactly like them," James told Bob Bosco in an interview in 2006.
"That's why we did so many bounce tunes for De Luxe and at our many personal appearances. We got a kick out of seeing the kids jitterbugging to our tunes. That was what we were all about."
Actually, in Bosco's view, the Guytones were better than the 5 Royales - "far less gospel-influenced, which always hampered the superstar group down through the years."
One of the songs the group recorded for De Luxe was "Your Heart's Bigger Than Mine," written by James Brown-Robinson.
When the boys got to New York, they were given some songs to sing, besides those that they had brought with them. So they repaired to a bathroom to rehearse.
"We came all the way to New York City," James said, "and it's just like high school all over again, singing in a toilet."
But out of the session with De Luxe came such doo-wop classics as "Ooh Bop Sha Boo," "Young Dreamer," "Hunky Dory," "She's Mine," "This Is Love," and others. Many can be heard on the Internet.
In one of those nasty twists of fate, the group got a contract from Decca Records, which was looking for a Guytones-type group in 1959. But the unsigned contract accidentally was put in a closet and not discovered by the boys until it was too late. Decca hired another group.
Meanwhile, James went to work for the resistor company, then at Broad and Callowhill streets, in 1957 to support his wife and seven children.
"He went there temporarily," his daughter said, "but they liked him so much they kept him on."
James was born in Philadelphia to Louise Brown and Charles Robinson. After he was stricken with polio, which paralyzed both legs, he was sent to Widener Memorial School, from which he graduated.
James was married to Estelle Henderson, also a singer. They met when both were singing at a club in Philadelphia and married in 1965.
"He sang himself into her heart," his daughter said.
James' brother, the late Sam "Little Sonny" Brown, was a leader of The Intruders, a soul-music group identified with the "Philadelphia Sound" of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
James was a big fan of the Phillies and Eagles, and knew so much about the teams and their records that he was sought out for sports trivia.
Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by four other daughters, Donna Connor, Yvette Smith, Carol Robinson and Cynthia Robinson; two sons, Kevin James Robinson and Cynthia's twin, Craig Robinson; a sister, Louise Connor; 22 grandchildren, and 30 great-grandchildren.
Services: 10 a.m. May 28 at Ever Abundant Life Church, 121 Ridge Ave. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Fernwood Cemetery.