26th July 1931 - 17th March 2021
Sonny Roberts set up the:
First black-owned recording studio in the UK
First black owned record company in the UK
First black-owned record store in the UK
"Sonny’s role in putting Chris Blackwell, David Betteridge and Lee Gopthal together was beyond propitious. he was a major catalyst in the story of Jamaican music, and its flowering throughout the world" (Bob Bell).
Clinton "Sonny" Roberts was born in 1931 in the rural district of Spice Grove, Manchester, on the family farm. At a very young age, Sonny had a keen interest in carpentry, he progressed onto making pieces of furniture for family and friends. As with many of his peers, the young 15-year-old Sonny travelled to Downtown Kingston in search of work, this was where he learnt the trade of cabinetmaking and experienced his first exposure to Jamaican music scene.
Everything changed in the mid-1950s, when an aunt secured Sonny’s passage across the Atlantic. He sailed on the SS Manistee, a banana boat which took 12 days to reach England.
Sonny settled in Ladbroke Grove. He found employment as a carpenter and set designer in Westminster and North West London and began building speaker boxes after hours for the country’s first sound systems, founded by Duke Vin and Count Suckle. Soon Roberts formed his own sound system, called Lavender, its success yielding better earnings than the day job.
Roberts pictured in 1960 with his sound system “Lavender”, entertaining guests at a wedding
Difficulty in obtaining music from Jamaica led Sonny Roberts to open his own recording studio. In 1961 he established the 1st Black owned recording studio in Britain.
Sonny pictured in his Planetone Recording Studio in 1961, (standing in the recording
booth) at 108 Cambridge Road, Kilburn, London NW6
Millie Small singer of the hit record “My Boy Lollipop” would visit Sonny’s recording studio in Kilburn. She was signed to Island Records.
Notable artists who recorded and did sessions at Planetone Recording Studio
Record labels owned by Sonny Roberts in the early 1960s
Lee Gopthal was born in Constant Spring, Jamaica, into a family of Indian origin. His father, Sikarum Gopthal, came to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and Lee moved to Britain in 1952. In the late 1950s he bought a property in Maida Vale, part of which he leased to record producer Sonny Roberts
By the early 1960s, he was representing Jamaican record producer Leslie Kong in the UK. In 1963 he set up a distribution company, Beat & Commercial Records, later known as B&C.
Sonny first met Chris in 1959, Sonny was appointed to do carpentry work at his residential flat. They became great friends and supported each others' projects in the music business, most significantly in the 1960s and 1970s.
A quote from Chris Blackwell's biography (published in 2022) The Islander - My Life In Music and Beyond:
Another label targeting British West Indians called Planetone had been set up in 1961 by a tall, slim, very gentle Jamaican carpenter, Clinton "Sony" Roberts, who'd arrived in the UK as a twenty-six-year-old in 1958, and his friend and fellow enthusiast Lloyd Harvey. Inspired by the Busters and Dodds, Roberts didn't want to merely import and sell Jamaican records; he wanted to record them. With homegrown enterprise, he got hold of a one-track recorder and some disc-cutting equipment and set up a makeshift studio in his flat off the Edgware Road.
Chris Blackwell founder of Island Records
A quote from Bob Bell's Tribute To Sonny Roberts:
In 1963, Chris Blackwell had been using his house in Connaught Square, a building leased from the Anglican Church, as the office for his fledgling Island Records, but as eviction loomed - he had rented the house as a single-family home but had ten people of ‘various genders, shades and colours living there’ - he needed a new base for Island. Chris knew Sonny Roberts who, in his capacity as a carpenter, had been doing some work for him, and Sonny put Chris and David Betteridge in touch with Lee Gopthal, another immigrant from Jamaica who owned property at 108 Cambridge Road, Kilburn, London, NW6, ( and ran his newly started record business B & C from the premises) and from whom Sonny rented the basement which he had converted into a recording studio. This was the very first black-owned studio in the UK. Sonny issued the records on his Planetone and Sway labels, the first black-owned record company in the UK. Many of his early productions were sold as one-off acetates to London sound systems, but he started selling his records, and those of other artists and labels, at his Orbitone Record shop, on the floor above the studio. It was the first black-owned record store in the UK and it was this space that he was planning to relinquish and turn over to Island Records.
Bob Bell started working at Island Records in 1965. By the end of the Sixties, he left Island and joined the company’s partnership with B & C, Trojan Records.
Planetone and Island Records were both located at 108 Cambridge Road, London NW6
Sonny opened Orbitone Records located in the Harlesden area of London. The store became a hub for the city’s diverse population who wanted the latest reggae, world beat and calypso music.
Sonny Roberts pictured outside his record shop Orbitone Records 2 Station Road, Harlesden, London NW10.
Sonny Roberts pictured inside his record shop Orbitone Records, 2 Station Road, Harlesden, London NW10.
An early advertising poster
Sonny Roberts pictured with his wife Monica Roberts in 1987 in his second record shop Orbitone Records at 78, Craven Park Road, Harlesden, London NW10.
Sonny Roberts daughter - Cleon Roberts pictured at Orbitone Records in 1989 78, Craven Park Road, Harlesden.
Sonny Roberts produced and recorded Afrobeat music in 1972 with the Nigerian band - Nkengas. This album is regarded as iconic by Nigerians. Quite an accomplishment at the time for a Jamaican to produce Afrobeat music in the 1970’s. Sonny went onto producing a series of albums with Nkengas as well as producing other artists from Africa.
Nkengas - Destruction
Sonny Roberts progressed onto producing afrobeat, soft reggae and soca hit records at Chalkfarm Studios in Camden Town in 1972 – 1989.
Sonny at Chalkfarm Studios in the 1970s
Sonny Roberts produced the first U.K Soca album in 1975 for the Dominican singer Roy Alton. This album is regarded as iconic by soca enthusiast.
Roy Alton - Carnival In Ladbroke Grove
In 1982 due to the increase in demand for soca music in the UK, Island Records released If You Want Me by Roy Alton which was produced by Sonny Roberts.
One of Sonny’s most successful soft reggae artists in the 1980’s was Tim Chandell.
A series of albums were produced by Sonny, which were extremely popular with the West Indian community in the U.K, Europe and the U.S.A