The Story of Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson
inThe Artistson December 27, 2017
Born in Detroit in 1938, Frank Robinson started playing the piano at a very young age. His natural talent playing the blues was immense, winning him a local talent show at the age of three. In 1946, Sugar Chile, as he came to be known, played for Harry S. Truman at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Sugar Chile’s career took off, and he became an incredibly famous child star selling out theaters and breaking box office records and was among the very first black child stars ever to be. Sugar Chile signed a deal with Columbia Records getting him on the Billboard RnB chart and in 1950s began touring with Count Basie and his orchestra. Time went by and Sugar Chile’s career faded out, as most child stars do, and he decided to got to school, playing small jazz gigs every now and then. Sugar Chile’s influence on America is immeasurable.
Taj Mahal says that, “Sugar Chile was at the pinnacle of talent during that time, I remember my parent’s talking about him! Back then, there was no Oprah or BET so to have a black person on the movie screen seen by millions of people was really amazing.”
In 2016, Sugar Chile was invited to the Whitehouse for another Correspondents Dinner with President Obama, marking his 70th anniversary since performing there for President Truman. Sugar Chile was honored to meet the President…again, but he returned home to crippling health issues and great financial struggle. A couple weeks ago, Music Maker’s Program Manager Aaron Greenhood received a telephone call from a friend of a friend that said Frank had fallen on hard times.
Suffering from debilitating health issues and living on a few hundred dollars a month, Frank and his niece had been sharing a small furniture-bare apartment. Having lost all their belongings in a house fire, they and had been sleeping on blow up beds for the past five years. Frank did not have a piano or keyboard to play, and each month they struggled to figure out how to pay their bills by the end of the month.
Music Maker called Frank and assessed his needs. Immediately, we were able to send beds and put him on our monthly sustenance program. We also connected with Music Maker supporter and Detroit local Larry King, who was able to mobilize the community to get a keyboard for Sugar Chile and bring them bedding. The local churches have also mobilized to take up collections for Frank, and to provide him and his niece with prepared meals. Frank’s community has rallied around him and his family, and a new musical community has sprung up as well.
When Larry set up the beds that Music Maker purchased for Frank, he brought Detroit musician Buddy Smith with him. Buddy, who is three years younger than Sugar Chile, was inspired as a boy to take up music when he heard Sugar Chile perform at the Paradise Theater in the late 1940s. Buddy was instrumental in getting a keyboard for Sugar Chile. Yesterday afternoon, Frank called Music Maker to give an impromptu performance for the office on his new ax. He sounded thrilled to be at the keys again, and he played the hit song from his youth with groove and style. We are now working to help Sugar Chile get access to disability social security, so that he can stand on firmer ground in this new chapter of his life.