Ms. Robbie is going after her first love.
Hair, laid. Makeup, flawless. At 81, Robbie Montgomery looks like she’s been drinking from the fountain of youth and surprised her legions of fans when she popped up on the internet styling and profiling in a photoshoot posted by Mr. Utica on Instagram.
The one-time backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner who later became known as the star of reality show, Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, about her hit soul food restaurant, has released her first single and video: “Ain’t My Stuff Good Enough.”
Now she’s in the studio working on a second song.
This all makes her laugh and reminisce about days gone by and dreams deferred. Life seems hopeful for Ms. Robbie. Although she still plays an active role in her remaining two restaurants – in St. Louis, Missouri and Jackson, Mississippi – she told BLACK ENTERPRISE she is no longer waiting to pursue her dream of being a solo artist.
She’s had a tough past several years with unthinkable tragedies — including the death of her 21-year-old grandson, Andre Montgomery and the arrest of her son, Tim Norman, in connection with Montgomery’s murder. But Ms. Robbie is not facing her 80s lying down. The octogenarian is standing and singing.
And, telling her story.
BE: How have you been? I saw recent photos of you and said ain’t no way she’s 81!
Ms. Robbie: Life is much better. I’m just taking things one day at a time, working in the restaurant and just trying to get back in my music. My goal is to be the oldest person to get a Grammy. The oldest female because my friend Bobby Rush has gotten one, he’s gotten two, so he took that away.
I got a song out called “Aint My Stuff Good Enough?” It’s on social media so I’m just really excited. I’m still working in the restaurant every day and that’s basically it. I’m just staying prayed up and thanking God every day. And I’m loving it.
BE: Were you impacted by the pandemic?
Ms. Robbie: Yes, my business was we had to close several times. And truthfully we have not been back up to capacity. We are just struggling, holding on and praying we come out alive. And hoping we don’t get sick doing it but trying to take the precautions. Yeah, we’re struggling.
BE: What inspired this music project?
Ms. Robbie: Singing is my first love, chicken is my second. So now at this point in my life I can do what I want to do. I always loved singing. I backgrounded everybody in the world but I never had my own hit song so that was my inspiration. I was like it’s not too late. I’m not too old. And it turned out pretty good so I’m impressed by it.
My girlfriend wrote the song for the Ikettes like 40 years ago and it was a dirty song. We put it out and they banned it. Now today it’s not dirty enough (laughing). You can apply it to sex, but if you’re at your job and you do a great job every time and everyone passes you and you don’t get promoted you want to know “Aint My Stuff Good Enough?” It covers a lot of things. It could be anything. it doesn’t just apply to ‘ain’t my sex good enough.’ But it gets attention so that’ll work for me (laughing).
BE: What was the drive behind the video?
Ms. Robbie: Actually in the video I had to keep in mind that I’m 81 so I couldn’t have my hooters or my tooters hanging out so I just stayed true to my age and got some young people to show their hooters and it was just a real life situation – a man cheating on a woman or vice versa that was the story and that’s how we tried to show it in the video. That this lady’s doing everything she can to please this guy and he’s still going out cheating so that was the moral of that story. Ain’t my stuff good enough – why ain’t you home with me?
BE: Are you seeing anyone right now Ms. Robbie?
Ms. Robbie: No, but I’m looking (laughing). I’m not turning up rocks but I’m looking. You never get too old to stop looking.
BE: Are you working on additional songs? Is it going to be a full album?
Ms. Robbie: We got over 500,000 views on it. I’m working on my second song now. It’s called “Feel Like Cheating.” (laughing) I’m staying in my bracket. People my age know what I’m talking about (laughing). So I’m working on that and then another video. I’m just going to see how far I can go with it. It is what I love so I’m just going to do it.
BE: You got your start as an Ikette background singer for Ike and Tina Turner. What was that like?
Ms. Robbie: It was a job. We got up every day, rehearsed, went to work, thought about what we were going to wear that night. It was a 24-hour job. We were consumed with music. Being an Ikette, we rehearsed all day, went in the studio, it was just a job getting on the bus traveling to the next city. Doing a gig and then getting back on the bus and going to the next city. So it was never the partying that people think entertainers do. It was basically a job; a different type of job.
BE: Did you get along with Tina Turner and Ike Turner? Did you form friendships with them?
Ms. Robbie: We got along well – 40 of us sleeping on the bus, eating together, we all got along together well. There were no issues. I got along with Tina very well. She was like a sister to me.
BE: Do you still stay in touch with Tina?
Ms. Robbie: No, she’s not well plus she’s in Switzerland. The young lady who use to keep us connected she passed last year so we don’t really have the connection that we use to. But I mean if I need to get in touch with her, I know how.
BE: Tell me some of the other people who you’ve backgrounded for?
Ms. Robbie: I backgrounded for everybody. That was a separate entity by itself when you went to LA. There was a group that did nothing but background singing and I was a part of them. Sometimes you didn’t even know the artist. I did the Stones, I did Nancy Sinatra, I did Barbra Streisand, just everybody you could basically think of I have at one time been on their record.
BE: You’ve been through a lot of heartache over the past five years.
Ms. Robbie: All of my life.
BE: How did you survive your grandson Andre’s death in 2016 and ultimately your son, Tim Norman, being charged in connection with that death? What’s keeping you going?
Ms. Robbie: My faith. I’m believing this is going to turn out right. I’m praying. The whole world is praying for my family. We’re just getting up every day, going day by day. It’s not a good position to be in but God put this on me and I’m handling it and I know He’s not going to let me down. So my family is dealing with all of these issues.
After this there will be something else – did you pay the light bill, then the gas bill is due. So life is like that and whatever it deals you, you just have to deal with it. It’s nothing I would reach in a barrel and pull out. I’m just doing the best that I can. And staying prayed up.
BE: Well I’m certainly praying for you.
Ms. Robbie: Thank you. We need all the prayer we can get.
BE: Where do things stand with the case? Is it still ongoing? Are they still investigating?
Ms. Robbie: Everything is at a standstill. I really don’t know a lot about it that’s why I don’t talk about it. We’re just waiting. Everything is kind of at a standstill because of COVID. So the courts are behind. But we’re just waiting and praying for a miracle. After all, everyone has to realize he (Tim Norman) hasn’t been found guilty. That’s what he’s accused of so we don’t know what happened.
That’s my son. I mean it’s like a marriage – ‘til death do us part. I can’t give him back. When kids get in trouble, they’re still your kids. No matter what happens, I’m still his mom and he’s got support and I’m praying my child gets out of this because like I say he hasn’t been found guilty but the world beat him up.
This could happen to you. It happened to me. It could happen to anybody’s family.
Ms. Robbie: We just have to go right on living. You don’t die when things happen. You just have to deal with it and what it takes.
BE: How is he holding up?
Ms. Robbie: He’s holding up. I mean he has no choice. I mean he’s ready to come home. Things are slow in the courts so I have to encourage him that this is a part of it. This is a part of the process. And we’re all going through it but as a family, we’re sticking together.
BE: How many locations does Sweetie Pies currently have open? How did you manage to keep it open with the pandemic, your grandson’s death, the case with your son – through it all, how were you able to keep it together?
Ms. Robbie: Being the owner of a business is not an easy thing. You sleep that business. You eat that business. You go to sleep thinking about how you can improve that business. What it’s going to take to please your customers. After awhile, when you are stretched out so far, it becomes too much.
So we decided we would close a lot of them and just try and give our love and our attention to the ones we have open and right now we have two – one in St. Louis and one in Jackson, Mississippi. So those are the ones we are trying to keep surviving because of COVID. Things have slowed down. But we’re holding on and praying this will be our last with COVID.
We are short on staff but being in business you got to keep it open. People don’t really understand. Being an owner, you can’t open and you’re understaffed because they’re gonna talk about the service. So if you’re open, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh it wasn’t this because they didn’t have this.’ So you don’t really know what to do. You just have to make a judgement and call what’s best for your business. Every day we are looking for chefs, servers, but nobody wants to work.
It’s hard. You can’t sell apples if they’re buying oranges. It’s just one of those things. But we’re trying to hold on.
BE: As a Black, female business owner you were ahead of your time and you’ve kept Sweetie Pie’s running for over 30 years. What would you attribute to your business acumen?
Ms. Robbie: I had a restaurant once before but I was singing so when I stopped singing, I decided to go into the restaurant business and give it my all.
The last time you know, it was a side job. I wanted to open a restaurant because my travels when I was entertaining, everything was segregated and it wasn’t. So when I got the opportunity in California, I did spicy hot wings when they weren’t popular. I did it. But I was in Pomona and everyone I knew was in Los Angeles so I didn’t want to be there. So I would go open and then go back to Los Angeles, so I didn’t give it my all.
But when I stopped singing, I was like I’m going to make this work and I opened Sweetie Pie’s. It wasn’t easy because still people didn’t have a lot of Black restaurants but I felt if it was something that you loved and you wanted it to work, you make it work. I don’t care if it’s a lemonade stand.
During that time I decided to do soul food. I mean nobody encouraged me. Everybody was down on soul food – they were like girl you better open a salad bar, but thank God I didn’t. Everybody was down on greasy chicken and this was my dream. I wanted to follow my dream. And that’s what I did. And thank God it worked!
After that came the opportunity (to expand), then it got to be too many (locations). I can’t be there … and I want mine to be the best. I want people to come from all around and enjoy my food and know I put my whole heart in it because it’s a great feeling when you walk out there and they say “I love the food. The food is delicious.” If you can’t do that in any business, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. You’ve got to give it all you’ve got. Make sure that it works. You’re the key to this. Make sure the dream is your thing.
I did the Wings and Things in Pomona. I did those spicy hot wings before they were even popular. Here in St. Louis we had the spicy wings. I took that to California way before then. But like I said I wasn’t that dedicated to it at first, but it was working because nobody had had the hot wings during that time.
BE: Who taught you to cook?
Ms. Robbie: My mom was an excellent cook. She had nine kids so she knew how to cook and she was a stay home mom. She was from Mississippi, not that people from other places don’t cook but the Southern people, they seem to be able to make menus, recipes out of nothing. They cook to taste and that’s what I did.
I followed my mom’s footsteps and traveling around the world, tasting all of these different chef’s recipes, stuff like that and then adding my own little touch. Came up with these things that I thought were excellent.
BE: What happened to Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN? Are you through with that or are you working on reviving it?
Ms. Robbie: Well not reviving it. We had like a 7-year contract and we did 100-plus episodes. We got two NAACP Image awards. I think it ran its course. And at the end of the contract, that was it. So I don’t know what’s in store for the future. I’m open to whatever because I didn’t know I was going to get that.
That happened in my 70s. So you never know in your life what’s going to come for you. You have to be open to receive it.
BE: Are you still in touch with Oprah?
Ms. Robbie: I never was. I mean it was a business thing and we’d see each other when things came up. We were working people so I was part of her show. She’s very cordial. She’s very nice but it wasn’t like I spoke to her every day.
BE: Did she reach out to you after your grandson’s death and with all that’s been going on in your life. Did Oprah ever reach out to you?
Ms. Robbie: I’d rather not answer that.
BE: Do you physically work out of the Jackson restaurant now or are you doing more of the behind the scenes?
Ms. Robbie: I physically work. St. Louis, I made macaroni and cheese on Sunday and cornbread. And in Jackson, I physically work every day.
I don’t want them to scrape me off of the floor. I just want to do me for a while and not to have to get up every day and go to work. It’s been a long time. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
BE: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Ms. Robbie: I just want to thank everybody for all the support and take Ms. Robbie to the Grammy’s. I’m trying to be the oldest female there. Ya’ll can do it so look out for me.
Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.