By Randal Hill
Editor’s Note: Randal C. Hill, Brandon, Ore., is a retired English teacher with a master’s degree. While attending college in Long Beach, Calif., he worked as a DJ at two radio stations. Later, he taught language arts at Fairvalley High School in Covina, Calif., where he offered “The Rock and Roll Years,” an elective fine arts class that featured invited guest speakers: Jan and Dean, Bobby Vee, Freddy Cannon, to name a few. He has extensive writing credits including the first three editions of the House of Collectibles’ The Official Price Guide to Collectible Rock Records, which was reviewed on NBC’s “Today” show. He has done numerous personality profiles of rock and pop artist for the record-collector magazine Goldmine.
By the early 1970s, Motown’s teenage brother group the Jackson 5 was regularly burning up the Billboard singles and album charts. Lead singer Michael Jackson later recalled, “It was (Motown founder) Berry Gordy’s idea that I should do a solo recording, and so I became one of the first people in a Motown group to really step out.”
And did he ever step out! “Got to Be There” established Jackson’s groundbreaking solo path. But his next offering of a kid-oriented “oldie” brought grumbles from those in the industry who felt the bouncy ditty too “lightweight” for any Motown artist, even 13-year-old Jackson. Young Jackson’s fans heartily embraced the single release, though, and bought enough copies to rocket it to Number Two on the charts.
When Jackson’s “Rockin’ Robin” was hot, the Jackson 5 issued another blast-from-the-past winner called “Little Bitty Pretty One.” As it turns out, both “Rockin’ Robin” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” had first been done in the late 1950s by the same little-remembered artist, Bobby Day.
Day was a fixture on the Los Angeles R&B scene for years, having first achieved success as the leader of the Hollywood Flames (“Buzz-Buzz-Buzz”). Day recorded for Class Records, a small-time label owned by brothers Leon and Otis René. Near the end of 1957, Day cut a minor hit called “Little Bitty Pretty One.” (Fellow L. A. singer Thurston Harris recorded a Top 10 cover version.)
Day’s next release in early 1958 would sell a million copies and become his signature song — and his only real success. Leon René had approached the musician with the idea of Day recording the tune for the teenage market.
The genesis of “Rockin’ Robin” was a rock ‘n’ roll story of legend. Leon René wrote the song after his wife complained about a bird keeping her awake at night. “She asked me to chase him away so that she could get some sleep,” Leon René explained.
“I told her I couldn’t unless I threw a rock at him. But the next night the bird flew into a tree outside my window and woke me up … and about 2 a.m. every morning thereafter.” (The culprit was actually a mockingbird, by the way, and not a robin.)
Leon René was a university educated, middle-aged musician whose songwriting credits included the classic “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” When he decided to turn his nocturnal annoyance into a pop novelty, he started with the term “mockingbird,” which morphed into “rockin’ mockin’ bird” and, finally, “rockin’ robin.” The song proved a godsend to the career of Bobby Day (whose real last name was — coincidentally — Byrd).
Leon René, though, would later admit, “I thought so little of the song I decided not to put my name on it. Instead, I gave it to my wife, Irma, and she put my mother-in-law’s name down as the writer — Jimmie Thomas.”
Leon René never renewed the copyright and no doubt lost a fortune in royalties when Michael Jackson sold a million copies of “Rockin’ Robin” in 1972.