Nicky Roberts wasn’t born blind. Retinitis pigmentosa began to take effect around his twentieth birthday, leaving him sightless by 25. But as his vision ebbed, one thing remained constant: his mastery of the guitar. “I’ve played a guitar since I was four. At five I performed at a wedding and $25—my first professional earnings,” Roberts told the New York World Telegram. That confidence propelled this son of a Brooklyn barber through his unexpected condition. “My father was fiercely independent,” said daughter Laura King. “He never let being blind keep him from accomplishing what he set his mind to.”
He formed the first incarnation of the Three Bars in the early 1950s, with Murray Gropper on piano and Frank Darling on drums. The trio was quickly signed to the Fiesta label, a New York concern founded by Jose Morand in 1952 that focused strictly on Latin music. The Three Bars disked four mambo sides for Fiesta, and four more for RCA Victor Canada before the decade was up. But the real money was in the live show, with the trio bouncing between the London Room at Idlewild Airport’s Seaway Idlewild Hotel and the Sands in Vegas, which led to Roberts’ uncredited appearance in Ocean’s Eleven in 1960.
In 1960, a 41-year-old Roberts was ready to move out of his parent’s Gravesend, Brooklyn home and settle down with singer Bonnie King. With a child on the way, Roberts began looking for opportunities closer to home. He signed on with songwriter Jimmy Nebb’s Regalia/Cinema/Armour cluster of labels, and with a new trio—Tony Teller on bass, Bobby Nelson on drums—began tracking his debut album: The Sensitive Touch. Issued in 1962, the Latinesque album was comprised of Roberts’ originals and wild rearrangements of out-of-vogue standards. The jacket features snaps of Roberts with Sammy Davis, Johnny Carson, and Milton Berle, with out of context quotes from Robert Ripley and Ed Sullivan. How the LP performed in the marketplace is unknown, but The Sensitive Touch would be the last record issued on the label for ten years. A tireless hustler, Nebb shifted the Three Bars to Armour, who issued their final single in 1963. Wielding a classic exotica sound, replete with wordless chorus and Afro-inspired rhythms, “Caribbean Cruise” was a reworked version of album cut “Arcara Joe,” but with extra room for Roberts to show off on his custom D’angelico guitar.
The balance of Roberts’ ’60s recording career was spent backing his wife Bonnie King, but he reappeared for the couple’s 1973 Evangelist Streams of Living Music album. An avid golfer, Roberts spent the final two decades of his life driving balls across Long Island. “Golf is a game that should be played with the mind as much as the eyes. I play my game with my head. Someone leads me up to the tee, tells me the layout of the fairway and directs me,” Roberts said. “I do the rest.”
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