Originally titled "Rock-In Robin," this was the only Top 40 hit for Bobby Day, whose sound was a hybrid of pop and R&B. His innocent, upbeat songs were a great fit for Michael Jackson, who's 1972 recording of "Rockin' Robin" also went to #2 in the US. Also in 1972, Michael's group The Jackson Five went to #13 with Bobby Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One." Day's version of "Rockin' Robin" was a #1 R&B hit.
This song was written by Leon René, a songwriter and record executive who also wrote "Little Bitty Pretty One" and "Over and Over" with Day. The songwriting credits get confusing, as René used pseudonyms. On "Rockin' Robin," he is credited as either Jimmy or Jesse Thomas. Bobby Day is also sometimes credited as a co-writer on the song under his real name, the very appropriate Robert Byrd. Another name that sometimes shows up on the credits is Michael Mc Ginnis, which might be another name Day used.
"We sort of had a little deal on this song," Day explained. He says that René pitched him the song, and Day recorded it using the musician from his former group, the Hollywood Flames. That group had a #11 hit with "Buzz-Buzz-Buzz" earlier in 1958. The changed their names to the Satellites just prior to recording "Rockin' Robin."
Musicians on this track included Barney Kessel on guitar and Earl Palmer on drums. That famous piccolo part was played by Plas Johnson, who was better known as a saxophone player - he did the Pink Panther theme. These guys were some of the first call Los Angeles area studio musicians who played on hundreds of sessions and built a reputation for their skill and proficiency. Later on, musicians like Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell and Carol Kaye were added to mix.
In the '60s and '70s, this was widely covered by many popular artists, including Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, The Hollies, Cliff Richard and The Spinners. In 1980, the song was also featured on The Muppet Show, with their house band The Electric Mayhem performing it in a tree with some feathered friends.
For songwriters, this one is a case study on compact choruses and vocal hooks. The song runs just 2:33, but packs in four choruses, each of which is followed by the vocal hook - the "tweedly deedly dee... tweet, tweet" part that also starts the song. The instrumentation varies throughout, which keeps those choruses from getting too repetitive. Also the verses are really pre-chorus lines ("He rocks in the treetop..."), so the song never slows down.
The B-side of this single was a song called "Over And Over," which in 1965 became a US #1 hit for The Dave Clark Five when they covered it.
This was featured in the 1986 film Stand By Me, starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell.
Along with "Little Bitty Pretty One," this song is in the public domain because the copyright was not renewed. This is rare, since income-generating copyrights are usually monitored closely by the publishers who own them - often corporations that have acquired the rights. This means you can perform "Rockin' Robin," use it in your movie, create a karaoke version, or put it in a commercial and not have to pay royalties as long as you create an original recording.
This was used on The Office in the season three episode "The Return." Andy records his own version and uses it as his new ringtone.