Cleophus Robinson left Mississippi as a teenager after working in the cotton fields outside his hometown of Canton. He carried a cardboard box with one pair of pants, a gray coat, and two shirts, and he had two dollars in his pocket. His travels took him first to Chicago, then to Memphis, and in 1957 to St. Louis, where he settled down as a minister and gospel musician. Robinson recorded dozens of albums and made national and international tours, all while working as the minister at the Bethlehem Baptist Church. By the 1970s he had at least two nicknames, the World’s Greatest Gospel Singer and the King of Gospel Singers, and by the end of his career, Robinson had recorded at least seventy-five gospel albums.
Born in Canton on 18 March 1932, Robinson made his first recordings in Chicago in 1949. After he moved to Memphis he lived and sometimes sang with an uncle, Rev. L. A. Hamblin. Robinson’s first popular single was “Pray for Me.” Early in his life Robinson saw the potential of the media, starting a weekly radio program, Hour of Faith, in 1959 and a weekly television show that ran from 1964 to 1989. In the 1970s Robinson toured France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland as well as numerous US locales. He was proud that he made a gospel album at the Missouri State Penitentiary and saw it a part of his mission to perform not only in elite settings such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, where he sang with his family and church choir in 1975, but also to all- or mostly black audiences in small towns in the South and Midwest.
Robinson came from a family of singers and raised a singing family. His mother, Lillie, was a gospel singer, and he sang a great deal with his sister, Josephine James. He married Bertha Lou Thomas, a native of Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, and she and some of their six children became musicians as well, with Paul playing drums and Cleophus Jr. becoming a singer and recording artist.
Cleophus Robinson mixed his own gospel compositions with other songs. Seeing himself as part of the tradition exemplified by Mahalia Jackson, Robinson never performed secular music. Like many gospel songwriters he combined the need for individual salvation and the glory, beauty, and kindness of God with the transforming power God gave men and women and the eventual beauty and relief of the afterlife. He sometimes recorded and released his sermons and often recorded gospel songs live, so the give-and-take with an amen-shouting audience was part of the recording. Robinson sometimes used his place as a popular gospel performer to adopt a prophetic stance. As the United States approached its bicentennial in 1976, he took out an advertisement in Jet that declared, “For the nation to stand on its feet, it must get back on its knees.” He proclaimed July 1976 a month of fasting in which people should eat only one meal a day and concentrate on prayer.
After the death of Cleophus Robinson in 1998, the Greater Bethlehem Baptist, with over five hundred members, called his son Paul Robinson to be its next minister.
- Jason Ankeny, Malaco Records website, www.malaco.com
- Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church website, www.greaterbethlehem.com
- Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (25th anniv. ed., 1997)