September 29, 2023

The Legendary Don Robey

By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.

Many people have heard of Motown Records founded by Berry Gordy, Roc Nation Records created by Jay-Z, or even Young Money Records created by Lil Wayne. These are just a few successful record companies who stand on the foundation of those who have come before them. However, there was one Houston businessman by the name of Don Robey, who was the founder of Peacock Records.

Don Robey was born on November 1, 1903, in Houston, Texas to a white mother and a black father. Research noted that he lived on a cotton farm with his mother during some of his teenage years and was a laborer who worked on the docks in Galveston.

It was his love for music that allowed him to establish multiple music businesses as well as other business ventures. Over the course of his life, he made many business connections that would set him apart from others. Although he had a love for gambling and questionable business tactics, overall, Robey was a successful businessman.

He spent majority of his life in Houston, but at one time he lived in Los Angeles, California for three years. During those years in the late 1930s, he operated a nightclub called The Harlem Grill, and even owned a handful of restaurants and nightclubs. Over the years, Robey made many partnerships including a partnership with Morris Merritt. Through this union they were unstoppable in promotion and management, bringing in “top-flight big band entertainment.”

In Houston, he opened a successful restaurant called the Peacock Dinner Club in 1945 and allowed elite jazz bands and different orchestras to play. From that business venture, he expanded and opened Peacock Records, which was named after his nightclub in 1949. Robey was able to add a phenomenal line of talent to his record label which included, Marie Adams, Floyd Dixon, Memphis Slim, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, “whose 1953 recording of “Hound Dog” was later imitated by Elvis Presley.” Shortly after, Robey was able to form a partnership with owners David J. Mattis and Bill Fitzgerald of Duke Records in 1952, and later became the sole owner of Duke Records, which expanded his company to Duke and Peacock Records. As the owner of Duke Records, he gained the recording rights of Johnny Ace, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, and Bobby “Blue” Band. He then formed Back Seat, a subsidiary label in 1957, which grew into a soul music label in the 1960’s. The success of these artists grew the business, and at one point, Don Robey had one of the “most successful black owned record business in America.”

On top of the success he already acquired, Robey launched a gospel division under Peacock Records with different artist, and even added a second gospel label called Songbird in 1963. Robey was also known at one point as the leading gospel company in the United States. At the highest peak of his career, he had over a hundred artists and groups signed to his various labels.

In the mid-1960’s, business declined for Robey, and on May 23,1973, he sold Duke and Peacock Records and his subsidiary labels to ABC-Dunhil. He signed an agreement with ABC-Dunhil stating that he would stay on as a consultant. Two years later, he died from a heart attack on June 16,1975. Although he is long gone, his legacy will remain through the work he did and the difference he made in the entertainment industry.

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