Originally published in Wax Poetics Vol. 2, Issue 1, March 2021.
Jack Taylor and Sylvia Robinson were friends. For them, the 1960s had been a time of wild success. But by the late ’70s, they were both in financial trouble. Until one night when fate stepped in and changed their fortunes in a dark and crowded club called Harlem World.
Today, the building on the corner of West 116th Street and Lenox Avenue is empty. Not too long ago it was a Fallas discount store. Before that it was a Conway’s. There have been department stores there going back to at least the 1940s when it was a Woolworth’s. Thirty years ago, there was no major economic investment in Harlem, nor could you have seen white women jogging at night. A lot has changed. Harlem isn’t Harlem anymore. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, CVS Pharmacy, and, of all things, the Mormon Church are all on Lenox Avenue. It hardly resembles the neighborhood that James Baldwin wrote about so poetically.
In the 1960s, as heroin started flooding African American neighborhoods, the quality of life took a downward spiral. Almost overnight, junkies prowled the streets like zombies as crews of well-dressed hustlers set up shop claiming whole blocks as territory. Packages called Sudden Impact, Blue Magic, and Black Tape became hot commodities. Parts of Harlem turned into a no man’s land. Businesses that could afford to stay had to fortify their storefronts with metal gates and steel doors. Those that couldn’t, ran like scalded dogs.
And then the fires started.
“Eighth Avenue back then,” hip-hop historian and Harlem native Troy L. Smith tells me in a phone interview, “was like Thirty-Fourth Street in Christmastime—you know, how like you see in the movies? It was so crowded, you walked in the streets. It would be crowded with people selling drugs, buying drugs, whatever… From 116th to Amsterdam, you smelled dead rats, burning buildings, and drugs being smoked.”
Journalist/writer Michael A. Gonzales, also a Harlem native, tells me in a phone call how his stepfather worked at a legendary lounge and barbershop on 123rd and Seventh Street called the Shalimar: “On Saturdays, all you saw was pimp cars up and down the street in front of the Shalimar.” It was the playground for the most powerful players in the powder game. But it was a treacherous place to play. Gonzales recalls an afternoon in the 1970s when he was walking down 116th with his parents: “Mami, turn those rings around,” his stepfather warned Gonzales’s mother. “These niggas around here will cut your hand off.”
Sometime around 1977, a local businessman purchased the property on the corner of 116th Street and Lenox Avenue; it had previously been a Woolworth’s department store, but the drug problem had gotten so bad that they wanted out of the area. The local businessman, who was rumored to have had ties to Detroit and North Carolina, is said to have gotten the building for pennies on the dollar. It was a steal. He was fulfilling a vision that first came to him in the late ’50s when he first set up shop in Harlem. Friends say he had a gift of gab—he was such a smooth talker that he could get you to “walk through hell while wearing dynamite drawers.” He told anyone that would listen, and there were plenty who did, about the hustler’s paradise he wanted to build: a “crown jewel” he had visualized called Harlem World.
The Soul Controller
It’s 1964. Somewhere off 116th Street in an after-hours club that used to be a storage room in the back of a record store. There’s a metal door with a peephole. If they don’t know you, or your rep isn’t of a certain pedigree, you can’t get in. Inside are a crew of young Black men decked out in leather jackets, Argyle sweaters, and slacks surrounding a large brown-skinned man with sleepy eyes and a mischievous smile; his Stetson hat is cocked at a forty-five-degree angle, and his sharkskin suit glows in the dim red light.
“You know what our problem is?” TaharQa Aleem remembers the man asking them. “Our problem is, we don’t know how to make millionaires around us.” Scanning the circle, he sees the same puzzled look flash across their faces. “We don’t know how to make each other millionaires,” the man continued. “If you got the idea, let us focus in on your idea and make you rich,” the man said in his deep North Carolina accent, “because there’s no multimillionaires that we know of, you understand what I’m sayin’? This—is a circle of power. If a motherfucker in the circle has an idea, then that idea is a revelation, and we’re supposed to empower that revelation. Put your energy in the ring of power—empower your circle.”
The man’s name was Jack Taylor; everyone called him Fat Jack. His crew referred to him as the Fat Man or sometimes just Fats. He called himself Fabulous. He was functionally illiterate, but he probably understood the book How to Win Friends and Influence People better than Dale Carnegie himself. He was a sharp dresser and a gregarious character known for giving some of the wildest parties in the Bronx and Harlem. At six-one and two-hundred-and-fifty-plus pounds, he threw his weight around like a captain of industry. “Jack’s whole thing,” recalls club manager and friend Vernon Wade, “was controlling people; he was a master of control.”
Jack would do anything to manipulate people. He kept a legion of beautiful women on tap to entertain—and some say to persuade—his friends and associates into doing his bidding. If you ever needed something: Jack could get it. He was generous to a fault. But that grandiosity sometimes came at a price.
TaharQa was a teenager when he and his identical twin brother Tunde Ra met Fats. Back then, the twins’ names were Arthur and Albert Hall. They were talented, good-looking, ambitious young hustlers who were part of a singing group called the International GTO’s, when they crossed paths with the charismatic Fat Man. The two would later become known as the Fantastic Aleems—later, simply as Aleem—and record the early 1980s dance-floor classic “Release Yourself.”
At one point in the ’60s, Jack owned real estate and had an estimated five different restaurants, which were, at one time or another, located somewhere near 116th Street. One of the most famous was a place called Uncle Fat’s Chitlin’ House, which featured a popular special called “Chitlins in a Sack.” The problem was Uncle Fat’s Chitlin’ House was on East 116th Street, which at the time was occupied by Italians and Puerto Ricans, who “had no interest in chitlins at all,” TaharQa says with a laugh. “We thought that was a flaw in his calculation.”
The one thing that Jack may have loved more than food was gambling. He loved to gamble. His friends say that it was a major problem. More than a few people interviewed for this story say that Jack was in the numbers business. “We knew what he was doing,” a retired NYPD officer tells me, “but Jack flew under the radar.” He had after-hours spots all over the Bronx and Harlem, and there were rumors of him having ownership in an Atlantic City casino called Club Harlem.
But he had even higher ambitions. As much as he loved food and gambling, Jack loved music. In the 1960s, he tried his best to build the Harlem version of Motown. “Fats was a visionary,” TaharQa tells me. He had an eye for talent. He had Clarence Reid (later known as Blowfly) on his roster before anyone knew who he was. He had Jimi Hendrix within his grasp when he was an unknown guitarist; but Hendrix didn’t trust him. His record labels, Rojac and Tay-Ster Records, were home to soul singers Big Maybelle, Kim Tolliver, the International GTO’s, and Third Guitar. They made some of the best soul music to come out of Harlem. Jack had dreams, hustle, and ambition; but according to TaharQa, “Jack lacked follow-through.” In a 2020 interview with Jeff Mao, TaharQa described Taylor as “[not] much of a finisher, but he was a great starter.”
With all his ambition, focus shouldn’t have been a problem, and it was because Jack’s real business wasn’t music, food, or gambling: Jack was a drug dealer. Lady Luck hadn’t smiled on his music business ventures in the ’60s. However, at the dawn of the ’80s, he thought his luck was changing.
The year 1968 was a time of turmoil. But it was also the era of slow-drag dancing in red-light basement parties while the sounds of the Intruders, Billy Stewart, and the Moments crooned from a record player in a corner. The Moments—at least the original group—were from Washington, D.C., their hit “Not on the Outside” shot to #13 on the R&B chart in mere weeks of its release. Mark Greene’s sweet falsetto melted hearts with lines like:
“So, you think / My heart’s made of stone /
And when you’re near me / There’s no reaction /
Well, you’re wrong.”
In the background harmonizing with the fellas was the producer. This wasn’t her first time behind the boards. By 1968, she was a veteran who had produced sessions for Ike and Tina Turner and Bo Diddley. However, she was uncredited for much of her previous work, as she explained in a 1981 interview with trade magazine Black Radio Exclusive, dug up by writer Dan Charnas for Billboard: “I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that’s me playing guitar,” she said of the Ike and Tina session for their hit “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” further noting that only label owner Juggy Murray’s name appeared in the credits. This session would be different. The Moments were signed to her new label, Stang/All Platinum Records. This was her chance to shine. And she did.
Sylvia Robinson had an eye for talent and an ear for a hit. She had magic ears. Staff writer Lezli Valentine wrote much of the smash hit (uncredited) “Love on a Two-Way Street,” and did the original recording, but her voice lacked that special—something—that Sylvia was hearing in her dreams. She wanted to give it to someone else, she had the perfect group in mind: the Moments (Mark Greene, Richard Gross, John Morgan, and Eric Olfus Sr.). But she was having serious problems with them. The original Moments got in the wind—except for one guy. But that wasn’t going to stop her. She knew she was hearing something exceptional whenever her favorite session singer Al Goodman sang around the studio. And she absolutely loved the voice of a local singer named Billy Brown who was in a group called the Broadways; she figured if she could put them with John Morgan, she could make them the Moments. It’s Billy Brown’s falsetto we hear crooning on “Love on a Two-Way Street.”
“Love on a Two-Way Street” shot the Moments and Stang/All Platinum Records into the stratosphere. It reached #3 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for fifteen weeks. Sylvia was on a roll. But she didn’t do it by herself.
“We built this company to give Black kids a clean shot,” a determined Joe Robinson Sr. told a Billboard reporter in 1972. “To teach them engineering and everything else about the record business.”
While Fat Jack was balancing his various business ventures in Harlem, Sylvia and her husband Joe’s company All Platinum Records was gaining steam. “The Robinsons had a full operation,” Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams of Cold Chillin’ fame tells me, “with forty employees. They had accounting, promotions, and a mailroom. Joe ran the business side; Sylvia was the creative force.”
But not for nothing, they had a goal: they wanted to own the prestigious Chess/Checker Records catalog, home to rock-and-roll pioneers Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Howlin’ Wolf; the most vaunted collection in rock music at that time.
“Niggas weren’t thinking of buying publishing catalogs back then,” Joey Robinson Jr. defiantly told me in a 2005 phone interview. “Once we bought that catalog,” he informed me, “we caught hell.” For years, jealous white record execs maliciously plotted for ways to steal their asset. But no matter what obstacles the major labels put in their way, the Robinsons boldly pushed ahead, forging relationships with other Black-owned record companies.
“If at all possible,” Joe Sr. told a Billboard reporter in 1975, “we should remain independent, and in that way, we can help each other to become stronger. If we stay on the right track, we will all continue to grow.”
It was in that spirit that Joe and Sylvia became friends, or friendly, with the local Black record entrepreneurs of that time, which included the New Jersey–based Isley Brothers with T-Neck Records; Bobby Robinson, who had Fire and Fury Records; and Paul Winley of Winley Records.
Tyrone “Fly Ty” Williams, former CEO of Cold Chillin’ Records, says in a phone interview, “Joe Rob was like a teacher and…like a lot of older men of his generation, he said what he had to say and that was it.” Friends have described him as having been disciplined, laid-back, shrewd, and soft-spoken. “Now, make no mistake about it,” Fly Ty tells me, “he was fully gangsta.”
Sylvia, on the other hand, “was like the hostess with the mostest,” Fly Ty continues. “She was the Black Elizabeth Taylor: diamonds, just—glamorous. You go to her house, anybody might be in her kitchen: Donna Summer, Diana Ross—Roberta Flack might be in there. And they all looked up to her, because she was the businesswoman.”
Joe Robinson Sr., who owned a club in the Bronx called the Blue Morocco, knew Jack from the numbers business. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Jack’s circle of friends held blues singer Little Willie John and Ray Charles. He no doubt knew Sylvia from her days as a part of the successful duo Mickey and Sylvia.
Jack’s obstinate nature may have led to his problems in the record business. Big Maybelle was his flagship act. Early in her career, she scored a huge hit with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1955, but Jerry Lee Lewis turned it into a smash hit when he re-recorded it. In the late ’60s, she had another hit with her version of Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” on Jack’s Rojac label. Vernon Wade told me about an incident involving Question Mark and the Mysterians’ attorney where it was alleged that things got a little “too tense” during negotiations. It’s said that Jack “ordered [his right-hand man] Blue to throw her out of the window.” Those accusations are what was said to have gotten Jack blackballed from the music industry.
But TaharQa adamantly refutes those claims. “Jack was no killer,” he insists. “He was our mentor; he absolutely didn’t want us dropping bodies. Dead bodies, he taught us, bring unwanted attention.”
In the early 1980s, Aaron Fuchs was a music writer for Cashbox magazine. He saw signs that the burgeoning hip-hop culture was in its embryonic phase and thought it would be wise to document the early recordings. After striking a licensing deal with Jack, Jack warned him: “I like your guts. I like your heart. But if I ever feel like you’re fuckin’ me over…you’ll always have to look over your shoulder.”
Something scandalous enough had to have happened in the early 1970s, because there wasn’t a single Rojac/Tay-Ster Records release from 1972 until 1979. Being out of the record business may have been a temporary blow to his ego, but it had an upside; it left him totally unencumbered to pursue his lifelong dream: Harlem World.
The Crown Jewel
It’s 1978. Fats was overjoyed the night the club opened. It may have taken him a couple of decades, but he did it. Hustlers and entertainers from all over the tristate area as well as some of his Colombian connections were said to have been there that night. TaharQa recalls Fats beaming with pride while showing him and his brother Tunde a room he called the VIG Room, which stood for “Very Important Gamblers.”
Because of zoning laws, he could not legitimately run a nightclub in that location, so the legal name was the Harlem World Culture and Entertainment Complex, for which Fats spared no expense. Dancers had eleven thousand square feet to hustle the night away in. There was a one-hundred-foot-long lightning bolt–shaped bar, a lighted dance floor, wall-to-wall gold shag carpeting, and mirrored walls. The Fat Man had built his Shangri-La.
Like the Abbatiellos’ club in the South Bronx—Disco Fever—when Harlem World initially opened, it catered to an adult audience. No one knows when the magical moment occurred that Jack was exposed to the latest craze to hit the streets since rock and roll. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess that the kids he hired to work around the club, and who lived there as well, were the ones that turned him onto hip-hop. It was more than likely that DJ Randy, who was the main house DJ, would’ve had a big hand in that part. But once he heard it, there was no going back. Teenagers from all over the Bronx and Harlem flooded the dance floor of Harlem World like an oncoming tsunami.
“Harlem World immediately stood apart from the other venues that catered to hip-hop at the time,” remembers Bronx resident Curtis Sherrod, entrepreneur/activist and former member of the old school hip-hop crew the Nice and Nasty Three, “like the Renny, Studio 125, Randy’s Place, and the Audubon Ballroom.” And like those places, the best turntable masters of the era like Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood, and Eddie Cheba would have nights there as well.
Sherrod told me how he used to dial “KI2-2222 for an O’Jay,” a popular luxury car service in the 1970s and 1980s. “The difference between Bronx cats and Harlem cats,” he explains to me over the phone, was that “Harlem cats were always dressed; you had all the hustlers and drug dealers representing there. So going to Harlem World was one part fashion show.” Fly kids showed up in Cortefiels, Overlaps, Teardrops, and Patty-Duked across the floor wearing a fresh pair of Playboys or British Walkers. Real street guys wore silver townhouse medallions with rubies in the center.
It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see a celebrity like Fred Williamson from the movies Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem at the bar, or look out on the dance floor and see Gene Anthony Ray from the TV show and movie Fame busting moves. Onstage acts ranged from showbiz veterans like Eartha Kitt to freshly minted R&B stars like Taana Gardner singing her new hit “Heartbeat.”
According to Vernon Wade, as a way of giving back to the community, “Jack would have a cook come out every Sunday morning and cook food for the neighborhood. He would put the food out on the tables, and people would eat for free. He loved Harlem.”
Even though Jack had built the club of his dreams, he battled financially to keep it. The problem was his health—he was losing his long battle with diabetes. “When Jack got sick,” TaharQa tells me, “he lost his magic touch.” To make matters worse, he was indulging in the latest drug to hit the street: freebase. He and his crew locked themselves in their rooms upstairs for days at a time. As a result, he was always in the red. Unable to work the streets with the same intensity, he couldn’t afford to pay professional carpenters to do the much-needed repairs around the building. So, he made a deal with some local kids: work in the club in exchange for room and board. They called themselves the Harlem World Crew.
Kool D, DJ Randy, Son of Sam, and Charlie Rock had impressed Jack enough with their knowledge and passion of this new music that he restarted Tay-Ster Records. He was particularly impressed with two young men named Alonzo Brown and Andre Harrell and a young woman named Lisa DuBose, aka Lady Smiley. None of them lived or worked in the club, like the Harlem World Crew, but Jack made them the Harlem World Crew on vinyl. The Aleem Brothers produced the records. After years of being on the cusp of something big, Jack was perfectly positioned to finally grab the brass ring. The only problem was, the gods of fate would intervene on someone else’s behalf.
Catching Lightning in a Bottle
By 1979, Sylvia Robinson’s magic ears weren’t very magic anymore. Without hits, their income dried up fast, which may have motivated Joe to play fast and loose with their taxes. In no time at all, the IRS came calling. Joe was charged with tax evasion. The IRS started circling their mansion like a pack of wolves. All that they had worked for was in jeopardy.
Chic’s “Good Times” was one of the hottest records in the summer of 1979. It blared out of every passing car stereo and apartment window. Dance floors stayed packed as DJs stunned audiences all throughout the five boroughs by repeating the violin-punctuated hit phrase “Good Times” between two turntables and a mixer. DJs talking on the mic was nothing new in the 1970s, which had been going on since at least the late ’50s. However, what was about to happen in the DJ booth in Harlem World that night would soon change everything.
One evening in May of 1979, Sylvia, accompanied by her son, sisters, and brother, entered Harlem World for her birthday party. Jack—always shadowed by his left- and right-hand men (some would call them goons) O.C. Tolbert and Blue—loved entertaining old friends from back in the day, especially celebrity friends, and welcomed her with open arms. Sitting in the VIP section with them sipping champagne, Jack was as confident as an old wildcatter watching a field of Texas tea, as his diamond pinky ring reflected in the soft glow of the warm light. His sleepy eyes brimmed with excitement.
It was only fitting that the DJ she witnessed that night was the late great Lovebug Starski. Almost everyone Uptown could repeat Starski’s routine from beginning to end:
“I said a hip hop, hip hip a hop, da hop da hop, hippit, dippy hip hip hop, shoo bop da bop and a lil’ bom wit da bom da bang da bang…”
Sylvia sat up straight in her seat.
“Now to the people in the back if you’re not the wack wack. The people in the front if ya wanna bump, now all together now… now just throw ya hands in the air, and wave ’em like ya just don’t care, somebody say make money money make money money!”
“What is this?” she is said to have asked her sister.
“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about!” her sister is said to have responded. Jack smiled.
No one at that moment could’ve imagined how big this new music playing out in front of them was going to be. They saw the frenzy that the first rock-and-roll records caused when they were unleashed on the public. They had been inspired by Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and the potential it represented for Black artists and record execs. James Brown made them believe anything was possible, and then disco changed everything. Jack knew what he had been seeing was different, extraordinary even; however, to Sylvia, at that instance, it was a divine revelation. The equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle. The only people who have experienced that type of euphoria are high-stakes gamblers, lottery winners, and those who have caught the Holy Ghost.
Sylvia worked her way to the DJ booth and got Starski’s number. He had no idea who she was, nor could he imagine making a record. He would later say that he was making crazy money spinning in clubs. But that wasn’t going to deter her. She hadn’t had a hit in years, but standing there watching the crowd’s reaction, she knew one was on the horizon. The next day, she was said to have met with Jack; he shared with her what he knew about the new scene. He told her that he would be recording the Harlem World Crew. It was from him and her sister Deborah that she learned about DJs Hollywood and Eddie Cheba, whom she approached after Lovebug Starski turned her down.
Everyone knows the rest of the story of how Sylvia would later discover three guys at Crispy Crust Pizza in Englewood, New Jersey, and christen them the Sugarhill Gang and make the most successful rap recording in history, “Rapper’s Delight.” For that, she would become known as the godmother of the modern rap record.
But what about Jack Taylor? What is his and his club’s contribution to the culture?
Harlem World would become a legendary battlefield like Brandywine Creek: Cold Crush Brothers versus the Fantastic Romantic 5 and the 1981 rap contest in which Kool Moe Dee lyrically ambushed an unknowing Busy Bee, forever changing the way MCs battled.
But Jack Taylor’s real contribution was discovering the rap group Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. The late Andre “Dr. Jeckyll” Harrell would form Uptown Records, the label that would lay the blueprint for the fusion of R&B and hip-hop. He would have a huge hand in the slick, soulful style that would be a trademark of the music until this day. Alonzo “Mr. Hyde” Brown is no slouch either. He is a much-celebrated TV producer and is the brains behind the TV show New York Undercover and the film Honey. Both men brought Uptown cool to mainstream American culture via music and television.
After years of struggling, sometime around 1985, Jack told the crew that the club was finally out of the red and he’d be able to pay them. Not too long after, according to Vernon Wade, Jack was helping a crew member move a speaker when it suddenly fell on his foot. “I told Jack he needed to get that foot looked at, but he wouldn’t listen. Jack didn’t like going to the doctor.” Gangrene spread from his foot to his leg—it had to be amputated. Not too long after that, the club closed for good. It’s rumored that he sold the club for fifty thousand dollars. No one interviewed for this story knew Jack’s date of birth, nor do they remember when he died. However, everyone is certain that he passed away in Detroit, probably in 1986, and had a small, unostentatious funeral service in Harlem. Had he lived a few years longer, he would’ve heard Third Guitar’s “Baby Don’t You Cry” blasting from passing Jeeps up and down 116th Street, being cut to pieces in the Main Source hit “Looking at the Front Door.”
I ask TaharQa if Jack would’ve been shocked by a new generation discovering Third Guitar’s music. “I doubt it,” TaharQa tells me. “He had complete confidence and faith in anything he invested in.”
“Harlem World was a special place for the Cold Crush Brothers!” says Bronx-born photographer Joe Conzo, who snapped many pics in the club. “It was outside of their comfort zone of the Bronx where they dominated the scene—a huge venue, as big as the T Connection but in Harlem. With the alliance formed with the Treacherous 3 (Kings of Harlem!), Harlem World became the Mecca for some of the biggest hip-hop shows and the greatest hip-hop battle ever, Cold Crush vs. Fantastic Romantic 5 MCs. Crowds were made up of hip-hop heads from all five boroughs because of its location! DJ Randy (Randy Sanders) and DJ Kool D (Darryl Brown)—friends of mine from the Bronx who worked at my Grandmother’s summer youth program—ran Harlem World and gave me full access to shoot the shows there also because I was part of the Cold Crush Brothers crew. It was a great place to shoot because of its massive size and diverse crowd!”