31 Oct 2013
- Written by Tracy Lavell Matthews/Special to The New Tri-State Defender
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Robert Karriem, formerly Robert Catron, gained notoriety as Boss Ugly Bob. "Boss," as I called him, was my father-in-law and earlier this month he was awarded a historical marker from the State of Tennessee at his last place of business at 726 East McLemore near Mississippi Blvd.
This long overdue gesture of recognition (on Oct. 5th) for one of Memphis most successful businessmen and African-American millionaires was a personal inspiration.
Boss Ugly Bob lived a storied life. He was a DJ on WLOK in the sixties. As a musician, he played with Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Roscoe Gordon, and B.B. King with "The Beale Streeters." A pillar of his community and family man, he stayed married to Claudette Colbert for over 50 years.
"Boss" was in business for almost 60 years as a music store owner and independent distributor of music. He owned 12-plus record stores that spread throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, Kentucky, and North and South Carolina. His influence in the music industry was such that when in Memphis, Michael Jackson, Prince, Earth, Wind and Fire and many other platinum-award winning artists would only use his stores to host their autograph signings.
Even Elvis Presley, in the late '60s, would come to his record store to purchase African-American music. I have a photo of the two together in his shop.
Labels such as Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Philadelphia Sound and many others would use his network as distributor and direct link to the black consumer market for the southern region of the US. With his wealth, my father-in-law was generous and he ventured into philanthropy, civil rights, and politics. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to Lemoyne-Owen College, which he attended at age 17 on a music scholarship.
When Harold Ford Sr. was a state representative and contemplating a run for Congress, it was Boss Ugly Bob who helped organized a core of financial and community supporters that included the now-deceased Willie Mitchell, Isaac Hayes and activist Cornelia Crenshaw and others. He also extended financial support to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts to help the sanitation workers' strike in spite of opposition from the middle class vanguard at that time.
It was this unpopular support for Dr. King that caused the FBI to solicit spies to report on his activities with the Nation of Islam. Minister Louis Farrakhan spent the night at Boss's house whenever he was in Memphis rather than a hotel.
Mr. Catron was marked by J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to destroy the civil rights movement. One such way was to falsely accuse him and celebrities such as Red Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr. of not paying their income taxes to the IRS.
Many of the Stax artists and executives – Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Al Bell among them – sought advice about music distribution. Mr. Bell sent a heart felt letter that was read to the audience by Muhammad Ziyad during the monument dedication.
My biological father, Timothy Lee Matthews, co-writer of the classic song "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," and who recorded under his own label as "El Espada," was able to place his product in Boss Ugly Bob's record stores. He told me that "Boss" was a fair man with his accounting.
It was also Boss Ugly Bob who started me in the entertainment industry of filmmaking. It is because of him that I have had the opportunity to work with Spike Lee and John Singleton, and to meet stars such as Quincy Jones, Prince and many others.
My first television job at News Channel 3, CBS and those that came after at NBC News Channel 5, Fox 13 News, all resulted from his influence. I've enjoyed an over 15-year career in television news and Hollywood films. I attribute that success, to my education and the lessons I learned from my father-in-law – Robert Karriem.
I find it amazing and I feel blessed that I had to opportunity to sit at the feet of a legend, a wise man, and a role model that our youth should emulate.
Robert Karriem was an American. He served his country in the armed services, he contributed to his community, and he demanded equality for himself, his family and all of us.
We should celebrate more of the history of Memphis African-Americans who have made an impact in our community.
(Katherine Arandez was a contributing writer of this commentary.)