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Weepin' Willie Robinson smoked his last cigarette in bed yesterday morning at a Jamaica Plain rest home. The cigarette sparked a fire that ended the legendary blues man's rich and textured life.
Robinson, 81, had been a sharecropper, an Army veteran, a friend of famous entertainers like B.B. King. He had been homeless and then was rediscovered as a treasure who played with the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, and Bonnie Raitt and won local music honors. Even when he was homeless on the street, too tired to stand, or losing his memory, Robinson never stopped performing.
"He was truly the elder statesman of the [Boston] blues. He was our godfather. He was the most dear man," said Holly Harris, host of "Blues on Sunday" on WBOS radio.
When he sang, "you knew he meant it because he had passion," Harris said.
Born in Atlanta in 1926, Robinson picked cotton and fruit with his family up and down the East Coast. After spending some of the 1940s in the Army, he wound up in Trenton, N.J., as an emcee and doorman at blues clubs, according to friends, a biography posted on his website, and a 2005 interview with the Globe. There, in the 1950s, he rubbed shoulders with King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and other luminaries.
King suggested he try singing, but Robinson shot back, "I don't know but three songs and all of them are yours," according his biography.
Robinson sang with King's 21-piece orchestra and a career was born.
He played in several Northeast cities before settling in Boston in 1959.
When the stage lights came up, Robinson found his place. Nothing else mattered. He would sing standards like "Fever," original songs like "Weepin' Willie's Boogie Woogie," or "I've Got a Woman," the Ray Charles classic.
"A great smile would come on his face and he would be in his own little world, like he'd tune everything out," said his daughter Lorraine Robinson in a phone interview from her Trenton home. "He just, like, felt the music. It was so much in his soul."
Robinson played local clubs for decades. In 1991, he recorded a song he wrote called "Can't Go Wrong" as part of a compilation CD put together by Roslindale musician Chris Stoval Brown.
"Just because I'm over 60, don't think I'm a dirty old man," he sang.
Brown said Robinson updated the lyrics as he got older, but the spirit remained the same: a playful homage to the ladies, whom he famously loved.
Eight years later, Robinson recorded his first solo CD, at age 72. "At Last, On Time" featured Tedeschi and Mighty Sam McClain.
Even as he was playing gigs at local blues bars, Robinson never found a stable home life. His wife, Alice, died four decades ago. By 2005, he was living on the street and out of touch with his scattered family, according to friends. Local blues performers and promoters heard the news, held a benefit concert, and made sure he was eating and getting dressed.
Once he put on an Armani suit to perform in, "he looked pretty damn sharp, I got to say," said James Montgomery, who, along with Jim Carty, looked after Robinson in recent years.
He moved into the Mount Pleasant Home, a residential care facility in Jamaica Plain. Robinson continued to perform, in clubs, in the rest home's hallways, and with visiting performers who stopped by. He gave a Christmas performance for residents last week, bringing in a few players to help out. He said that singing helped to numb the arthritis in his knees, recalled Merlin Southwick, executive director at the home.
"Physically, he was a man who was starting to show considerable frailty. But his voice was in enormous strength," said Southwick. "You could hardly believe when you heard him sing that that voice was coming out of that man."
Montgomery booked Robinson for as many high-profile shows as he could find, including a benefit concert with Tyler and at two Boston Music Awards shows, one in 2005 and another earlier this month.
"The guy would forget my name. He would forget what day of the week it was. He had just gotten out of the [intensive care unit] two days before" the 2005 performance, said Carty, who hosts a blues radio show on WMFO. "But he got the only encore that night."
Robinson performed a Friday night gig a few times a month at a bar called Grumpy's Pub in Falmouth. "Even at 81 years old, he would get up and start walking around and singing to the ladies in the crowd," said Gary Barcus, a bass player with the group known as Weepin' Willie and the All-Star Blues Band.
Eventually, some women in the crowd would have a few drinks and start hanging onto him. "We'd have to defend him a lot of the times. . . . We were afraid he was going to get knocked over," Barcus said.