From stage to page: The rockin’ Robin story
From Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant to arena-filling blues behemoth Joe Bonamassa; a tiny club in Bilston has welcomed them all. The Robin 2, in Mount Pleasant, has been dubbed The Marquee of the Midlands. It’s welcomed some of the world’s biggest rock and blues stars for intense, hot’n’sweaty shows in a venue where fans hang onto every note.
And the club has been the vision of one man: Mike Hamblett. Across 26 glorious years and two Black Country venues, he has welcomed some of the biggest names in rock; from local heroz Slade to Hollywood actor Steven Seagal, from Dudley comedy-cum-singer Lenny Henry to Rolling Stones star Bill Wyman, and from 80s stars like T’Pau, Toyah, Martin Kemp and Go West to Ben E King, Glenn Hughes, Roy Wood, Billy Ocean, Peter Green, members of 10cc, The Zombies, Three Degrees, Ronnie Spector and Martha Reeves.
The Robin has become the most important blues, rock and soul club in the UK.
Hamblett was a man who refused to accept the life laid out for him. Born in Cradley Heath and seconded to GKN as a technical apprentice in the early 1970s, he ought to have been punching the clock on the production line, living in a neat two-up, two-down and enjoying occasional nights at the pub every once in a while. Instead, he tore up the script and aimed for the stars. And across 26 years, he’s created a little bit of history by transforming The Robin into an unequivocal success story.
“If you’d stopped me when I was a teenage technical apprentice back in the early 1970s and told me I’d one day be writing about running a rock venue for 26 years, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Opening The Robin R’n’B Club at The Robin Hood in Brierley Hill as I have said many times was a fluke. I had nothing planned. It was just the sort a golden opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime. I grasped it with both hands and it changed my life completely.”
Noddy Holder, a mate of Mike’s who has visited the club more times than he cares to remember, has nothing but praise for the Black Country club owner.
“Mike founded The Robin as a music venue and has kept it rocking for 26 years. In rock’n’roll terms, that’s a bona fide success story. It’s the same length of time that I was with Slade.
“I’m not sure why the area’s been synonymous with great rock bands – but it has. Our neck of the woods has helped to shape rock music the world over. It’s had a massive influence and, of course, I’ve been proud to play my part.
“The Robin 2 is all part of that Midlands music heritage. It’s got an international reputation. The world’s best rock and blues bands all know about it. I was the compere on the opening night of the Robin 2 and introduced the legend that is Roy Wood along with his Big Band. It was a proper hot and sweaty gig that was to typify future nights at the Robin.”
The story of the Robin is a story of triumph over adversity. Along the way, Mike’s survived recession, found a gun beneath the floorboards, risked his shirt to bring his favourite bands to the Black Country and stayed afloat when his first club – opposite Merry Hill – was bulldozed to make way for a car park.
Mike had demonstrated his commitment to hard-work and his entrepreneurial flair at an earlier date. His father was a crisp van delivery driver at Taylors Crisps in Quarry Bank, so he spent many years as a young child in his van going pub to pub. He helped his father clear out the hare rail at Cradley Heath Speedway while also helping his nan at a local shop, where he’d chop wood and help serve customers.
Mike started the Robin after leaving his steady job at GKN, founding a record company, putting out a Christmas single by Emlyn Hughes, Suzanne Dando & The Kingswinford Junior Choir in 1985 – true story – and founding his own PA hire company. His first premises were the Robin R’n’B Club at the Robin Hood in April 1992. It was a huge risk as he’d never promoted gigs before but it worked.
He booked all manner of bands, including The Australian Pink Floyd, who now sell out arenas. But after a decade, he was forced to move on as the building was demolished to make way for an expansion at Merry Hill Shopping Centre.
The Robin 2, in Bilston, took flight. He bought offices next to the venue, opened a restaurant inside, built further premises to create a hotel and continued to build the venue’s reputation.
Bands from around the world flocked to play. The venue’s reputation spread far and wide and acts would literally fly in to play. Mike also found love while at the Robin 2 and enjoyed a true Black Country rock’n’roll wedding.
“In 2004, I’d got my life organised and all my business was in Bilston. That’s when I met my wife, Natalia. We met and got married within six months. We met abroad. She couldn’t speak a word of English. She was the director of a travel agency in Siberia. That in itself is a story. The fact that my wife, Natalia, was born in Siberia, couldn’t speak English and I’m from Quarry Bank and have a club in Bilston – you couldn’t make it up.”
With retirement age imminent, Mike has taken a step back from the day-to-day running of the club and is working with a new management team to help the venue continue to grow. He’s committed his experiences to print in a new book – Keepin’ Music Live – which chronicles the many thousands of gigs he staged.
“It’s been a remarkable ride and I’m proud that I’ve done it all in the Black Country. I’ve enjoyed looking back and writing my story. It’s meant the world to me. Keep on rockin’.”
Keepin’ Music Live, by Mike Hamblett, will be launched at a star-studded event on November 24 and tickets are free from The Robin 2, in Bilston.