Susie Darlin'

Being interested in music at an early age and spending his formative years in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, it wasn't surprising Robin Luke took up playing the ukulele. He also began learning guitar around the start of his teens, spurred on by all the emerging rock and rollers just a few years older than himself. Born in Los Angeles in 1942, his family moved quite a bit as a result of his dad's job with Douglas Aircraft. Island-bound since age eleven, Robin attended Punahou High on Oahu and often performed there; in 1958, local entrepreneur Kimo McVay (who discovered Don Ho a few years later) saw him perform and arranged with Bob Bertram, a longtime music promoter and label owner, to have him make a record. "Susie Darlin'" was written by Robin using the name of his five-year-old sister, a conscious decision to prevent any of the girls at his school from thinking it might be about one of them.

In May, Bertram hired a guitarist and bassist and recorded uke-strumming Robin in the closest thing they had to a studio: an apartment bedroom. Improvising the percussion with sticks and a ball point pen, Bertram supervised dozens of takes of the song and its flip side, "Living's Loving You" (also penned by the singer), then released it on his International label (in contrast to its name, distribution was limited to the Hawaiian Islands). KPOA deejays Ron Jacobs (later "Boss Radio" guru and co-creator of American Top 40) and "Uncle" Tom Moffatt (Hawaii's top-rated radio personality) played the record immediately and often. It was a smash that summer, which sparked the interest of a number of record companies on the mainland. Luke had become a top-billed act on his home turf; when Don and Phil Everly arrived to find they had to open for this guy they'd never heard of, the superstar siblings were more than a little miffed!

A deal was made with Dot Records and Robin flew to Los Angeles. Dot prez Randy Wood had him rerecord "Susie Darlin'" with top session musicians and backing singers, but the slicker production apparently lacked the intimate appeal of the primitively perfect bedroom recording. Wood wisely issued the original, which spent several weeks in Billboard's top ten from September to November '58. By that time Robin had returned home and taken part in another makeshift Bertram session featuring backing vocals by a Native Hawaiian act, The Jolly Drifters; "Chicka Chicka Honey" was rushed out on the renamed Bertram International label. The record was a no-show on Dot in the U.S., though the B side, "My Girl" (written by Bertram), slipped onto the Cash Box chart for a solitary week in November. Luke kept busy during this time, making new recordings for Dot while attending Pepperdine University in L.A., squeezing in time for cross-country red-eye flights for the purpose of performing and/or lip-syncing his hit on The Perry Como Show, Dick Clark's American Bandstand and Beech-Nut shows and many other TV programs in various cities.

Robin Luke and Susie

At some point he wound up with a nickname, "Rockin' Robin," which happened to be the title of a hit by Bobby Day that was in the top ten at the same time as "Susie Darlin'." His output on Dot from this point was much more polished and structured; mild rockabilly raver "You Can't Stop Me From Dreaming," "Five Minutes More," a teenish remake of the 1946 Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn song that was one of Frank Sinatra's biggest hits, and the even softer "Make Me a Dreamer," failed on the radio front and missed the charts altogether. Meanwhile in August 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state, though Robin's Pacific Island days were behind him. The new decade got under way with a cover version of Marty Wilde's U.K. hit "Bad Boy," which many felt couldn't miss...that is, until Londoner Wilde's original appeared on Epic and had a solid run in the U.S.

A strong spring '60 two-sider would seem to have the goods to put Robin back on the best seller lists. "Well Oh, Well Oh (Don't You Know)" could easily have been a success for any of the rockin' Johnnys (Burnette, Tillotson, Preston, et al); its flip, "Everlovin'" (written by Dave Burgess, who'd recorded it with his group The Chimes a year earlier), was a major hit...a year later when Rick Nelson did it. Other teen idol efforts "All Because of You" (soft and slow) and "Part of a Fool" (more upbeat) put Robin's Dot contract in jeopardy (he wasn't worried about it).

He was paired with Roberta Shore, who'd worked steadily as an actress since she'd turned 13 in 1956, appearing on TV shows including Disney's Annette series, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and Wagon Train, plus big screen movies like The Shaggy Dog, Because They're Young and The Young Savages; her singing career began in '59 with a "Shaggy Dog" single on the Disneyland label plus a couple on Buena Vista, followed by two Dot discs including the too-gimmicky "Rock and Roll Yodeling Guy." They duetted on "Foggin' Up the Windows" (Roberta got top billing!), a 'Makin' with the kissin'...' endorsement that met with indifference in the summer of '62. Luke's contract with Dot, and recording career, ended right there.

Ultimately settling in Springfield, Missouri, he established a career as a professor at Southwest Missouri State University, reliving the nostalgia of his teen idol period by occasionally performing for audiences. Realistic about the odds of sustaining any level of stardom, he'd never figured on having a long music career. Attending college while simultaneously making records had been the plan since that first day in Bob's bedroom studio; Robin Luke's one big hit was simply a welcomed perk. Though he'd been unable to strike twice as a singer, the song itself became a hit a second time; Tommy Roe's unique rendition of "Susie Darlin'" became a top 40 hit in the fall of 1962.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Susie Darlin'