Mr. Okra was New Orleans’ iconic singing produce vendor

Mr. Okra sits in his stationary truck at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2017 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Mr. Okra, aka Arthur Robinson, died Thursday, February, 15, 2018.
Mr. Okra sits in his stationary truck at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2017 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Mr. Okra, aka Arthur Robinson, died Thursday, February, 15, 2018. Advocate staff photo

For decades, Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson provided one of the distinctive sounds of a city famous for its music, but he didn’t play the trumpet or the piano.

He was a roving produce vendor, traveling the neighborhood streets in a heavily-customized pickup truck and using a loudspeaker to sing the praises of his oranges and bananas, his avocados and, of course, his okra.

But now what seemed like a timeless sound in this city has come to an end.

Robinson died Thursday (Feb. 15). He was 75. His death was confirmed by his stepson Teddy Stansberry. His family said he died at home of natural causes.

The young and old alike knew Robinson as Mr. Okra, and he was a frequent sight across many different neighborhoods. In his trade, he was a link back to a different era in New Orleans when everything from ice to charcoal was sold door to door. For Robinson, the job was actually part of a family tradition, one he picked up from his father, the late Nathan Robinson.

“My daddy was the first Mr. Okra man,” Arthur Robinson said in 2009 interview. “He started selling fruit from a wheelbarrow, then from a horse and buggy, then from a truck. I always rode around with him when I could and when I got big I went off on my own.”

Robinson had other vocations through the years, working at a service station and as a crewman on a freighter. He later ran his own tire shop, servicing 18-wheelers. When he took up the Mr. Okra mantle full time about 30 years ago, however, he started on a path that would make him a beloved icon of the city’s street culture.

With his loudspeaker sales pitch, Mr. Okra employed one of the oldest tricks of the trade for street vendors everywhere. Singing his daily inventory in a steady and distinctly-gravely rhythm, he called out his regular customers and alerted people for blocks around that he was on his way.

“They love his voice,” his daughter Sergio Robinson said of Mr. Okra’s customers in a 2015 Advocate interview.

Shopkeepers would pause business to come out and see him. Some residents had shopping lists ready. Children skipped to this tailgate holding dollar bills to buy their own bananas, singing his name.

If his voice didn’t snag a customer, his truck might. No mere delivery vehicle, the pickup’s cargo bed was a rolling market stand arrayed with produce bins under a metal roof. Through two successive models, the truck’s hood and flanks were always brightly painted with renderings of his produce, shout-outs to supporters and favorite sayings.

“There ain’t no joy like a 9th Ward boy,” was one message lettered just beneath his driver’s side window.

In later years, Sergio Robinson was more often behind the wheel of the colorful “Mr. Okra truck” as her father struggled with health issues.

But eventually, Mr. Okra had grown into a presence around the city beyond his actual route and trade. He was featured in documentaries and his voice was sampled by performers including roots rock star Dave Matthews and the homegrown Morning 40 Federation, who featured him in a music video. His likeness was worked into products including a children’s storybook and a “Mr. Okra in Your Pocket,” a push-button device that plays recordings of his voice.

He was a vendor at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the past several years, driving his pickup into the festival grounds to sell fruit between other vendors’ po-boys and gumbo.

Funeral plans have not yet been announced.