Tom Robinson was born into a middle-class family in Cambridge on 1 June 1950. He attended Friends' School, Saffron Walden, a co-ed privately funded Quaker school, between 1961 and 1967. Robinson has two brothers and a sister: Matthew (former executive producer of BBC One's EastEnders and Byker Grove, currently running Khmer Mekong Films in Cambodia), George and Sophy.
At the age of 13, Robinson realised that he was gay when he fell in love with another boy at school. Until 1967, male homosexual activity was still a crime in England, punishable by prison. Wracked with shame and self-hatred, he had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide at 16. A head teacher got him transferred to Finchden Manor, a therapeutic community for teens with emotional difficulties in Kent, where he spent his following six years. At Finchden Manor, Robinson was inspired by John Peel's The Perfumed Garden on pirate Radio London, and by a visit from Alexis Korner. The legendary bluesman and broadcaster transfixed a roomful of people with nothing but his voice and an acoustic guitar. The whole direction of Robinson's life and career became suddenly clear to him.
In 1973, Robinson moved to London and joined the acoustic trio Cafe Society. They impressed Ray Davies of The Kinks enough for him to sign them to his Konk label and produce their debut album. According to Robinson Davies's other commitments made the recording a lengthy process and, after it sold only 600 copies, he left the band. Subsequently, when the Tom Robinson Band were playing at the Nashville Rooms in London, Robinson saw Davies enter and sarcastically performed The Kinks' hit "Tired of Waiting for You". Davies retaliated with the less-than-complimentary Kinks single "Prince of the Punks", about Robinson.
In London, Robinson became involved in the emerging gay scene and embraced the politics of gay liberation, which linked gay rights to the wider issues of social justice. Inspired by an early Sex Pistols gig, he founded the more political Tom Robinson Band in 1976. The following year the group released the single "2-4-6-8 Motorway", which peaked at No. 5 in the UK Singles Chart for two weeks. The song alludes obliquely to a gay truck driver. In February 1978, the band released the live extended play Rising Free, which peaked at No. 18 in the UK Singles Chart and included his anthemic song "Glad to Be Gay", originally written for a 1976 London gay pride parade. The song was banned by the BBC. In May 1978, the band released its debut album, Power in the Darkness, which was very well received, peaking at No. 4 in the UK Albums Chart, and receiving a gold certification by the BPI. Their second album, TRB Two (1979), however, was a commercial and critical failure, and the band broke up four months after its release.
In 1979, Robinson co-wrote several songs with Elton John, including his minor hit "Sartorial Eloquence (Don't Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?)", which peaked at No. 39 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and a song about a young boy in boarding school who has a crush on an older student called "Elton's Song". It was recorded, but not released until 1981 in the album The Fox.
In 1980, Robinson organised Sector 27, a less political rock band that released a critically acclaimed but unsuccessful album produced by Steve Lillywhite. The band nevertheless received an enthusiastic reception at a Madison Square Garden concert with The Police. However, their management company went bankrupt, the band disintegrated, and Robinson suffered another nervous breakdown. Desolate, in debt, and sorrowing from a breakup with a beau, Robinson fled to Hamburg, Germany, much like his idol David Bowie had escaped to Berlin at a low point in his life. Living in a friend's spare room, he began writing again and ended up working in East Berlin with local band NO55.
In 1982, Robinson penned the song "War Baby" about divisions between East and West Germany, and recorded his first solo album North by Northwest with producer Richard Mazda. "War Baby" peaked at No. 6 in the UK Singles Chart and at No. 1 in the UK Indie Chart for three weeks, reviving his career. His following single, "Listen To The Radio: Atmospherics", co-written with Peter Gabriel, peaked at No. 39 in the UK Singles Chart and provided him further income when it was covered by Pukka Orchestra in 1984. The Pukkas' version was a top 20 hit in Canada under the title "Listen to the Radio".
Robinson's return to Britain led to late-night performances in cabarets at the Edinburgh Fringe, some of which later surfaced on the live album Midnight at the Fringe (1988). His career enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-1990s with a trio of albums for the respected folk/roots label Cooking Vinyl and a Glastonbury performance in 1994.
In 1986, a BBC producer offered him his own radio show on the BBC World Service. Since then Robinson has, unusually, presented programmes on all the BBC's national stations: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, 5 Live and 6 Music. He presented The Locker Room, a long-running series about men and masculinity, for Radio 4 in the early 1990s, and later hosted the Home Truths tribute to John Peel a year after his death in 2004.
In 1997, he won a Sony Academy Award for You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, a radio documentary about gay music, produced by Benjamin Mepsted. He currently presents his own show on 6 Music on Saturdays between 9pm and midnight, and on Sundays between 6pm and 8pm as "Now Playing @6Music", a show that plays songs based on a certain theme and listeners' input. He also has a show broadcast at 2am on Monday mornings, which is focused on music by local bands from BBC Introducing. In 1994 he wrote and presented Surviving Suicide, about his suicide attempt.
Currently, Robinson rarely performs live, apart from two annual free concerts, known as the Castaway Parties, for members of his mailing list. These take place in South London and Belgium every January. In the Belgian Castaway shows, he introduces many songs in Dutch. The Castaway Parties invariably feature a wide variety of established and unknown artists and groups who have included Show of Hands, Philip Jeays, Jan Allain, Jakko Jakszyk, Stoney, Roddy Frame, Martyn Joseph, The Bewley Brothers and Paleday alongside personal friends such as Lee Griffiths and T. V. Smith.
Robinson played "2-4-6-8 Motorway" and "Glad to Be Gay" at the BBC introducing stage on the Friday afternoon of the 2011 Glastonbury Festival, after announcing that The Coral would not be showing as they were 'stuck in the mud'. In July 2013, at the Tabernacle on Powis Square in Notting Hill, a new line up of TRB performed the entire Power In The Darkness album to launch its release on CD. The title track featured a guest appearance by T.V. Smith.
In 2014, he was one of the performers at the opening ceremonies of WorldPride in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, alongside Melissa Etheridge, Deborah Cox and Steve Grand.
A longtime supporter and former volunteer of London's Gay Switchboard help-line, it was at a 1982 benefit party for the organisation that he met Sue Brearley, the woman with whom he would eventually live and have two children, and later marry.
In the mid-1990s, when Robinson became a father, the tabloids ran stories about what they deemed as a sexual orientation change, running headlines such as "Britain's Number One Gay in Love with Girl Biker!" (The Sunday People). Robinson continued to identify as a gay man, telling an interviewer for The Guardian: "I have much more sympathy with bisexuals now, but I am absolutely not one." "Our enemies do not draw the distinction between gay and bisexual", he added.
In a 1994 interview for the Boston Globe newspaper, Robinson asserted: "We've been fighting for tolerance for the last 20 years, and I've campaigned for people to be able to love whoever the hell they want. That's what we're talking about: tolerance and freedom and liberty—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So if somebody won't grant me the same tolerance I've been fighting for them, hey, they've got a problem, not me."
In 1996, Robinson released an album Having It Both Ways. On it he added a verse to "Glad to Be Gay", in which he sings: "Well if gay liberation means freedom for all, a label is no liberation at all. I'm here and I'm queer and do what I do, I'm not going to wear a straitjacket for you." In 1998 his epic about bisexuality, "Blood Brother", won three awards at the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards in New York. In the same year, he also performed at the fifth International Conference on Bisexuality in Boston, Massachusetts.
Peter Tatchell criticised Vanessa Thorpe's "Glad Not to Be Gay" article about Robinson in The Independent newspaper for suggesting the LGBT community would be "shocked and angered" that a gay man would "go straight". He stated: "Tom Robinson has behaved rather commendably, in my view. Ever since the beginning of his relationship with Sue, he has continued to describe himself as "a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman". Who could quarrel with that? I can't."
Robinson is a supporter of Amnesty International and Peter Tatchell's OutRage! human rights organisation and a leader of the Rock Against Racism campaign. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of Apple computers, which he has used extensively since the mid-1980s. In 1999 and 2000, Robinson was involved in a celebrity seminar work for Apple to promote their home video editing software iMovie.
A fictionalised version of Tom Robinson, portrayed by Mathew Baynton, appears in the last episode of the first series of the BBC One television drama Ashes to Ashes, as leader at a Gay Liberation Front protest in London. The character is later incarcerated with other protestors by the time-travelling protagonist, Detective Inspector Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes) and dismisses her claims that he will one day marry a woman. The scene supposedly takes place on 9 October 1981, precisely fourteen months before the real Robinson met his future wife. The character then leads other protestors in singing a round of "Glad to Be Gay" in the confinement facility, much to Sergeant Viv James' annoyance. "2-4-6-8 Motorway" is also used in the soundtrack during the protest after Detective Sergeant Ray Carling sings a few bars to Alex, who then proceeds to drive a pink tank over a parked Ford Escort, which she believes would otherwise have later been used in a car bombing. Robinson's song "War Baby" (which he premiered the night he met his wife) is used in the soundtrack of the third series.
Over his career, Robinson has released more than twenty albums either as a solo performer or as a member of a group. He has also released fanclub-only bootlegs known as the Castaway Club series.