Bob Roberts -- Tenor
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries
Roberts, Bob (27 April 1879 - 21 January 1930)
Born Robert A. Roberts in Cincinnati, he was known to record buyers as Bob Roberts or Ragtime Bob Roberts. His father was Nicholas Roberts, proprietor of the Nick Roberts' Pantomime Company (he had emigrated from Germany). In his youth Bob traveled extensively with shows.
He apparently made his recording debut in 1902 with Columbia, cutting performances issued on early Columbia discs (seven-inch as well as ten-inch), black wax cylinders, and brown wax cylinders (the company continued to use brown wax for over a year after introducing its molded cylinders in February 1902). Early titles cut for Columbia include "The Same Old Crowd," "Congo Love Song," and "Goodbye Eliza Jane." Titles on brown wax cylinders from early 1904 (Roberts had already made some black wax Columbia cylinders) include "You're Always Behind Like An Old Cow's Tail" (32459), "Clarence, The Copper" (32461), and "Leander and Lulu" (32462). The last two titles also feature Albert Campbell. The two men worked together during sessions for Edison as well as Columbia. In the comic skit "An Interrupted Courtship On the El" (Edison 8731), Roberts plays a man who tries to propose to a woman (Campbell's voice) while they travel on an elevated train--he is constantly interrupted by the conductor who shouts out the names of stops. Later, Roberts and Campbell recorded for Victor several comic Irish skits concerning Patrolman Clancy.
He was most successful with comic numbers, especially "coon" songs. He covered for some companies material that Arthur Collins and Billy Murray covered for others. Though known for comic songs, he recorded a few plantation-type numbers such as "Old Log Cabin in the Lane" (Victor 4458). He sang duets with Billy Murray despite the fact that Roberts had warned Murray, when new in New York, not to get engagements at Columbia--"Because I do all the comedy around there," Roberts said. Murray recalled these words decades later for Jim Walsh. One successful Roberts-Murray collaboration is "Won't You Fondle Me?" (Victor 4301; 1905). In 1905 they cut for Edison four comic duets, including "Farewell, Mister Abner Hemingway" (8963).
His first Edison records, made in late 1903, were issued in February 1904. One of the two cylinders is Edison Standard 8617, which features Roberts singing Theodore Morse's "The Woodchuck Song," which asks in its chorus, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" Announcing the February release of Roberts' performance of Harry Von Tilzer's "Wouldn't It Make You Hungry" on Standard 8602, the January 1904 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly enigmatically calls this an "unusually characteristic coon song." Billy Murray recorded this for Victor on September 29, 1903--an example of Roberts and Murray cutting the same material for competing companies. They began recording within a year of each other. Roberts was first (with Columbia) though Murray had been making Edison cylinders for several months before Roberts worked for Edison. Edison executives probably viewed Roberts as an easy substitute for or alternative to Murray.
In March 1904, the Edison company issued Roberts singing Tom Lemonier's "I'm Just Barely Living That's All" (8644), which Roberts also recorded for Victor on January 11, 1904 (2623). The February 1904 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "This song tells of a coon's hard luck in speculation and in the Klondike gold fields."
Roberts was most popular on records from 1903 to 1907, his work being issued on major disc and cylinder labels as well as small ones such as Aretino, Busy Bee, Indestructible, D & R, and U-S Everlasting. He recorded often for Victor, beginning on October 1, 1903, and also for its subsidiary record label, Zon-o-phone (he began in early 1904 with nine-inch records). Titles for Zon-o-phone include "How'd You Like To Be the Czar?" (261), "Uncle's Quit Work Too" (422), and "Moving Day" (519--this was his last single-sided Zon-o-phone disc, and afterwards he was on three double-sided discs). Over half of Roberts titles on Zon-o-phone are "coon" songs. The July 1906 Zon-o-phone catalog describes "I'm Satisfied" (470) this way: "Relating the hard-luck experience of a negro, who has the usual failing of his race--chicken stealing--and tells how indifferent he is to the penalty inflicted."
Other Roberts titles include "By the Sycamore Tree" (Columbia 1617; Oxford 5768, Zon-o-phone 5768), "Back, Back, Back to Baltimore" (Columbia disc 1862 and cylinder 32564; Victor 4134), Morse's popular "The Woodchuck Song" (Edison 8617; Victor 2624; Oxford 5795), and "He Walked Right In, Turned Around and Walked Right Out Again, issued by several companies in 1906.
Recording activity dropped off after 1908. One of his most rare recordings is from late 1909. Columbia's matrix 4168 is "Heins is Pickled Again," never issued commercially. From 1909 to 1912 he worked only occasionally for Edison, Columbia, and Victor. In 1910 he cut titles for two small companies that made some of the first vertical-cut discs--Princess discs were made by the Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Company, and Phono-Cut discs were made by Boston Talking Machine Company. He cut "Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree" from the Follies of 1911 for Victor 16909. In 1912 Roberts cut the popular "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (Victor 17090).
His last Edison recording appears to be Blue Amberol 1632, issued in March 1913: "Fables," with music by J. Fred Helf and words by Jeff Branen. It was his sole Blue Amberol recording, and he made no Diamond Discs. By 1913 he had stopped working for the three big companies--that is, Victor, Columbia, and Edison.
From about 1914 to 1917 he performed for the Rex Talking Machine Company as Robert Roberts. Titles include "This is the Life" (5099), "20th Century Rag" (5101), "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" (5102), "Yum, Yum, Yum, Yum" (5103), and "Pray For The Lights To Go Out" (5409). Walsh states, "Osborne H. Parker...wrote to me that he had found a Rex hill-and-dale record, apparently made in 1914, containing a duet by Roberts and Elida Morris--a combination I have never heard of on any other brand. It may be that the comedian was persuaded to sign up exclusively with this short-lived company, and found no niche for himself with the other companies when it ceased to operate."
During the 1920s Roberts worked in radio. He was a member of the "Adolph and Otto" team, featured on WCKY in Cincinnati. Walsh reports in the May 1975 issue of Hobbies that Roberts operated a poolroom late in life. His death was sudden. He went to the radio station on January 21, 1930, but chest pains prevented him from performing. He hurried home to 3671 Vine Street and took medicine. A few minutes later his wife Katherine heard him fall over a chair. He died of a heart attack.