Mr. Okra sits in his stationary truck at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2017 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Friday, April 28, 2017.

Advocate Staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER

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

He was a roving produce vendor, traveling the city's 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. He was 74.

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 in many different neighborhoods. 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, Nathan Robinson.

"My daddy was the first Mr. Okra man," Arthur Robinson said in a 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."


Arthur Robinson, known throughout New Orleans as Mr. Okra, seen here working from his truck in 2005, was a long time produce vendor who followed a timeless tradition.

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 gravelly 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 go outside and see him. Some residents had shopping lists ready. Children skipped to his 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," said 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. She plans to keep the truck rolling around New Orleans, she said Friday, and expects to be back on the streets after a hiatus for family mourning.  

"That's what he wanted me to do," she said. "It's something we talked about, how I should continue it when he was gone."   

Eventually, Mr. Okra grew into a presence around the city beyond his actual route and trade.

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. 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.

Next year, he'll achieve another sort of immortality at the Louisiana Children’s Museum. A “kid-sized” replica of Mr. Okra’s produce truck and recordings of him hawking his produce will be part of an exhibit planned for the museum when it opens its new home in City Park in 2019.

It will be part of an exhibit called "Follow That Food," which will expand on the museum's popular grocery store exhibit at its original Warehouse District location. It will show children how Louisiana food gets from the fields and waters to their tables, with stops at the port, markets, restaurants, kitchens and, for a particularly interactive example, Mr. Okra’s truck.

Young visitors will be able to explore the model truck, which will be handicapped-accessible. Children will also hear Mr. Okra’s voice, thanks to several dozen recordings the museum made with Robinson in 2017 with the approval of his family. The model truck also will be equipped with a microphone for children to sing along.

“His joyous call and his vibrant truck, this is an experience children need to know and remember,” said Julia Bland, chief executive officer of the Children’s Museum. “He did so much for the process of buying healthy, fresh food and made it so memorable for children.”

Survivors include his wife, Beatrice Robinson, and eight children, Seneria Crawford, Sergio Robinson, Arthur Robinson Jr., Theron Robinson, Efren Robinson, Rinaldo Robinson, Ronald Robinson and Kemo Robinson. 

A funeral for Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Marigny Opera House (725 St. Ferdinand St.). It will be a walk-through visitation from 1-3 p.m.

Friends of Mr. Okra have set up a fund to help cover funeral expenses. See details on the Facebook page “Help Mr. Okra's Family With His Funeral Expenses.”

Note: this story has been updated to include funeral information and correct Robinson's age.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.