Sunny Roberts, one of the pioneering producers of an era when the United Kingdom was just beginning to enjoy the music and creativity of Jamaicans, has died.
Roberts, who was 89 years old, died on March 17 at his St. Andrew home after a battle with throat cancer. The music producer and record store owner is best known as the first black man in the UK to operate a recording studio, and his name is synonymous with Panetone and Orbitone record labels he founded.
Sonny Roberts is listed as among the pioneers of Jamaican music- ska, reggae, and dancehall along with the likes of Lee Gopthal, who is co-founder of Trojan Records, and Count Shelly, who is known for being a prominent figure in the sound system culture.
“These men were courageous to step out and start something. Many people who went to England back then were looking for work; they wanted to start things,” said Anthony “Chips” Richards, a British music industry veteran who says he has known Roberts for almost 50 years.
According to him, Roberts arrived in the UK in 1958 from the parish of Manchester during a period of mass migration. At the time, he was a carpenter, and like many immigrants, he also took his love for Jamaican music with him. Back then, ska was the hottest thing on the streets of London.
It was not long before he got immersed in music. He eventually crossed paths with Gopthal when he rented from Gopthal at his 108 Cambridge Road, London property. There Roberts started his music production after building a recording studio in the basement. From there, he made songs by artists, including trombonist Rico Rodriguez for the growing Planetone label.
According to his Wikipedia profile, Planetone label shared premises with Island Records, which provided distribution for the label, releasing ska records by artists as well as gospel records, the studio and record label operated until the late 1960s. Roberts also cut acetates, which he supplied to local sound systems.
Sonny Roberts founded Orbitone Records
Sonny Roberts eventually started Orbitone, which had a massive impact in the 1970s with several ground-breaking records with a Nigerian Afrobeat band The Nkengas. The label also became big with the 1987 production of Judy Boucher’s “Can’t Be with You Tonight,” which reached number two in the UK Singles Chart.
In the mid-1970s, he opened a record shop in Harlesden, and along with Orbitone Label, one of the key lovers rock labels, he released music from artists such as Tim Chandell, Judy Boucher, and Joyce Bond, as well as releasing Nigerian music.
Orbitone later became a global brand known for distributing early soca music worldwide in the 1980s as soca rose and calypso faded due to the taste of the Eastern Caribbean changing. Roberts also ran the Love Vendor sound system.
He returned to Jamaica in 1997, living in Saint Andrew Parish, where he ran a company producing natural coloring and seasoning products.
Roberts was recognized for his contributions when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Jamaica Observer in 2019. He is survived by his wife Monica, three children, several grandchildren, a sister, and a brother.