Taking Rock Back to Its Stones Age, Chris and Rich Robinson Are Atlanta's High-Flying, Low-Down Black Crowes
Buddha-like calm and Mother Teresa-like compassion will, no doubt, arrive in good time; right now, Chris, 24, and Rich, 21, are having too good a time sampling some of the lesser emotions and larger accoutrements associated with overnight success. The fact that their success seemed unlikely makes it all the sweeter. In the Vanilla Ice age. the Black Crowes generate laser heat with an old-fashioned, guitar-driven rock and roll sound that got them named Best New American Band in Rolling Stone's readers and critics' poll and pushed their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, past platinum and into the Top 10. The Crowes get airplay alongside hits made before Chris or Rich finished grammar school. As a clearly impressed David Letterman put it after they played their first single. "Jealous Again," on Late Night, "Isn't that rock and roll the way God wanted it to be? Turn-the-dump-over-and-go-home-with-the-waitress rock and roll?"
In velvet bell-bottoms, paisley shirts and hair down to here, the Robinsons look like time-warp refugees from a 1968 Haight-Ashbury head shop. In fact, Chris was 2 that year, and Rich was embryonic. Born in Atlanta, they are the only children of Stan and Nancy Robinson, partners in a local clothing business and former singers themselves. Stan, 51, saw his own pop career peak in 1958, when his single "Boom-a-Dip Dip" broke into the Top 40 for a few minutes. But after four low-yield years on the road, he quit music and settled in Atlanta. There, at a 1965 hootenanny, he met Nancy Bradley, a Nashville native with a clear-as-water country warble. "We used to sing Joan Baez and Bob Dylan songs every Saturday in the park." says Nancy, whose younger son, Rich, says he still thinks Dylan "is the wisest man."
"There wasn't a generation gap in our family." boasts Stan, who gave the kids open access to his rhythm and blues, gospel and "60s-rock records. Despite regular family sing-alongs, though. Mom and Dad balked when the boys wanted to pursue music careers. "I didn't approve," Stan says. "It's such a hard-ass life. Once it became apparent they were good at it and determined, we supported them, but we would have rather seen them become doctors or lawyers, of course." Nancy says she always imagined Rich practicing law and "Chris teaching school in New England and writing the great American novel." But in the early '80s, she bought the boys guitars, and within months they had formed Mr. Crowe's Garden—the name lifted from a children's fairy tale. "If I could make people feel the way some music made me feel," says Chris, "hell. I wanted to do it."
Rich was just 15 when the brothers played their first professional gig—at a Chattanooga, Tenn., club for $50. The check bounced, and Rich began a like series of rebounds—he did time in five different prep and public schools before finally graduating. "My parents thought I wouldn't get bored if I changed scenery," he says, "it never helped." Chris did a short stint at Georgia State University "to appease Mom and Dad. Basically. I went to the park and threw french fries at pigeons and talked to the bums. Then I'd go home and say, 'Oh, yeah, I learned a lot.' "
Finally, Chris was kicked from the cocoon. "Dad came in my room one morning and said, 'Look, Jack Kerouac, you want to be a rock star, you can sleep in the backyard." In other words, if I wanted to live a free lifestyle, I was gonna have to do it somewhere else."
His next home was a crash pad shared with drummer Steve Gorman, now 25. Together with Rich, still in the parental nest, and bassist Johnny Colt, now 22, they began working on a demo tape of original songs in 1987. "We weren't good enough to play covers." Chris says. But by 1989. after a name change and the addition of lead guitarist Jeff Cease, now 23, the Black Crowes were good enough to cut a record deal. Rolling Stones and All-man Brothers sideman Chuck Leavell added texture in the studio. "There's no doubt in my mind they'll endure." he says. "Because at heart they're an R&B band. They're for real."
To prove it, the Crowes have spent the past year opening concerts for their elders—Robert Plant, Aerosmith and, currently. ZZ Top. For now, the brothers' worldly goods sit in storage pending a move to L.A., but they are in no rush to put down stakes. "Going onstage. I lose my mind," says Chris. "I'm in ecstasy. It's euphoric. It's orgasmic."
Will it last? Fans will still love him tomorrow, Chris believes, because the Crowes plan to stick with their flight plan, nuts-and-bolts rock without rap posturing or superficial sentiment. "We made it 'cause we're good," he says. "In an age of fluff, we aren't very fluffy."