Tacey Robbins starred in a low-budget exploitation movie in the mid-1960s, but her career is much more interesting than just that.
Al Adamson was nothing if not pragmatic. Encouraged by producer Sam Sherman, Adamson would continually rejig his movies into new versions, each moving further and further from the original concept, in the hope that one might hit box office gold. No film was poked around more than his first official movie, Psycho A Go Go, which began life as Echo of Terror, a reasonably gritty and solid crime movie in 1965, before having the title changed in an effort to hit the youth (and, perhaps, dirty old man) market with a go-go dancing theme crowbarred in. Over the next few years, the film was reworked with additional footage featuring John Carradine (an Adamson regular) that retooled it as a science fiction movie under the title The Fiend with the Electronic Brain, and then the film was further re-edited, spliced and chopped into The Man with the Synthetic Brain and Blood of Ghastly Horror, both of which upped the horror elements and left very little of the original film. There’s a good chance that undiscerning drive-in attendees, and later VHS viewers, would have unwittingly seen the film several times over the years. For the record, Psycho A Go Go is the best version, but fans of absurd cinema will find something worthwhile in them all, and the Severin Films Al Adamson box set allows you to compare and contrast the various editions of this and other Adamson films.
On constant throughout the various versions of Psycho A Go Go was star Tacey Robbins, whose position in the credits would depend on which fading names (Carradine, Tommy Kirk) Adamson had roped into his new footage, but who was the female lead of the original film. This was her only movie, but Robbins had a more interesting career than you might think.
Psycho A Go Go opens with Tacey as Linda Clarke, nightclub singer, belting out the magnificently groovy garage soul song My LA in a club surrounded by shimmying go-go girls – the film certainly sets out its stall from the opening scene. The film also finds room for another musical number performed by her, Ordinary Guy. The songs were written by Billy Storm, and featured The Vendells as her backing band – the group also appear with her in the movie. Both tracks were released as a movie soundtrack single by Robbins in 1965, with My LA as the A-side. Sadly, the Rev Records single was as unsuccessful as the film, though an original copy wouldn’t leave you with much change from $100 these days. It proved to be her only recording, but the release was just a minor part in a long and impressive singing career.
Tacey Robbins was born Joan Diane Musser on the 19th of May 1938, in San Mateo, California. She married young – possibly as young as fifteen – and became Joan Murray, giving birth to daughter Deborah in 1955. A talented singer, she would adopt the more exotic-sounding Tacey Robbins as a stage name, which she used into the early 1970s. How she got involved with Al Adamson is unclear, but it seems that Al had a thing for Tacey, and worked as her manager/promoter, as well as running a nightclub where she worked for a while before his film career began, more as a way of starting a relationship with her than anything; she, however, was not interested, even though she was living at his Palm Springs house – for her Adamson was just a friend and business acquaintance, while Al wanted more than that – something that seemed to run through his life with his leading ladies, with varying degrees of success. Casting her in the leading role of his first film was, it seems, both a way of promoting Tacey’s career and part of his attempt as seduction, but Tacey would prove to be a capable actress and her musical numbers remain the high spot of the movie. Apparently, she wasn’t paid for her work on the movie, and at one point was injured during the shoot, requiring hospital treatment, but it was nevertheless an experience that she enjoyed, though it would be the end of her relationship with Adamson as he moved more into movie-making and their ways parted. Naturally, she was unaware of the film’s strange ongoing life until one day she stumbled across Blood of Ghastly Horror on late-night TV and was amazed and amused to discover that she was the unwitting star of a lurid horror movie with rampaging zombies.
While Psycho A Go Go was her only movie, she had a long career as a nightclub singer, touring nightclubs and singing with the Dámaso Pérez Prado Orchestra, the Vendells and others throughout the 1960s. She almost had her big break soon after the Adamson film, when she was offered the chance to sing the title song for the movie What’s New Pussycat? that same year. Unfortunately, before she had a chance to sign a contract, the producers decided that a better known male singer was more suited to the song, and she was replaced by Tom Jones. Hey, if you have to be bumped from a project, you might as well be bumped by the best.
And as if 1965 hadn’t been an exciting enough for her – with a movie role, a single release and almost working with Burt Bacharach – she also remarried that same year. Despite the best efforts of Adamson, she married Dan Mahoney and the couple moved to Lake Tahoe, where they would raise a family – son Sean born in 1966, and Daniel two years later. But she maintained her career, performing in shows across the country, from Las Vegas to Hawaii, performing with the likes of Rowan and Martin and appearing in high profile venues such as Dean Martin’s Dinos on Sunset Boulevard. Known as “the girl with the velvet eyes and the mink voice”, she had an impressive career that ran into the early 1970s. This was no disposable occupation, and the fact that she didn’t get to make records or movies after 1965 means nothing – Tacey Robbins had a very successful and worthy career nonetheless.
In the early Seventies, Tacey once again became Joan, retiring from showbusiness for the most part, although she would continue to sing on and off for many years, until her health declined. She would qualify as a bookkeeper, and for many years worked alongside her husband in his construction company. Tragically, this would ultimately lead to her death, after she contracted asbestos-related mesothelioma in 2006 – like many people, she had been exposed to the lethal substance decades earlier, and the cancer had lain like a time bomb. She died in 2008, a month before her seventieth birthday. A few years before her death, her cousin Bonnie discovered that Psycho A Go Go had been released on disc by Troma, and bought a copy for Joan, who could finally share her movie appearance with friends and family. I hope she enjoyed it and had good memories of a strange mid-Sixties adventure. I can only imagine what she would make of the thirty-disc box set of Adamson’s movies released on blu-ray, or the fact that it immediately sold out.
There are many nightclub singers who are now completely forgotten – performers who never had the breaks, but who nevertheless had long and successful careers. In that sense, Tacey Robbins was more fortunate than most, ironically by appearing in a film that no one went to see and that critics have widely dismissed. Al Adamson’s reputation has grown over the years – those of us who stumbled upon his work on VHS in the early 1980s and were so astounded by it that we would start to actively seek it out have long understood the weird appeal of his oddball works, and Tacey’s belting performance at the start of Psycho A Go Go has long been admired by fans who also have a taste for Sixties girl groups and garage pop indie releases. It feels like a real loss that Tacey Robbins didn’t get to record more, but at least her appearance in the movie has ensured that she’ll be immortalised on film and on record – while the original disc is now a rare item, her songs have turned up – officially or otherwise – on compilations of Sixties obscurities. She may never quite have known just how much of a following her work was developing over the years, but I hope she’d be pleased to know that a whole new generation – not born when she was at the peak of her success – is now enjoying her work (and that her record is so collectable).