Gil Robbins, folk musician, dies at 80

William Grimes / New York Times News Service /

Gil Robbins, a singer, guitarist and songwriter with the folk group the Highwaymen and a fixture on the folk-music scene, died Tuesday at his home in Esteban Cantú, Mexico. He was 80.

The cause was prostate cancer, said his wife, Mary.

Robbins, who was a singer and bass guitarist with the Cumberland Three and the Belafonte Singers and a performing partner with Tom Paxton, joined the Highwaymen in 1962. The group, formed in 1958 at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, had become one of the top collegiate-style folk groups, scoring hits with “Michael” (“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”) and the Leadbelly song “Cotton Fields.”

With Robbins aboard, singing baritone and playing the guitarron, an oversize Mexican six-string guitar, the group maintained its popularity while continuing a transition to more socially conscious music.

Robbins performed on the five albums that the group recorded for United Artists before disbanding in 1964, including the live albums “Hootenanny With the Highwaymen,” “One More Time” and “Homecoming.”

Gilbert Lee Robbins, the father of the actor Tim Robbins, was born on April 3, 1931, in Spokane, Wash., and grew up in Los Angeles.

After playing percussion with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra while still in high school, he won a music scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was the drum major of the marching band.

He left school before graduating and enlisted in the Air Force, where he was the drum major and band conductor for the 542nd Division, based in Selma, Ala.

In 1960 he joined the Cumberland Three, which was formed at the behest of Roulette Records by John Stewart, a singer and guitarist who later replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. The label sent the trio to New York, where Robbins quickly became active in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene and befriended musicians like Dave Van Ronk and Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers.

After recording three albums, two of them devoted to Civil War songs, with the Cumberland Three, he joined the Belafonte Singers, a 12-man group of singers and musicians that toured with Harry Belafonte.

After the Highwaymen broke up, Robbins managed the Gaslight Club, on Macdougal Street, in the late 1960s. He directed the choir at the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village and founded a choral group, the Occasional Singers, that performed avant-garde works.

He also acted in off-Broadway productions and in the ill-fated Broadway musical “Rainbow Jones,” which closed after one performance at the Music Box Theater in 1974. He later appeared in small roles in the films “Bob Roberts” (which stars Tim Robbins), “Dead Man Walking,” “Cradle Will Rock” and “Wide Awake.”