Monday, May 19, 2008

In Praise of Barbecue Bob Hicks

Even die-hard political junkies like yours truly get sick of a steady diet of news from the campaign trail. When I Blog, I love to listen to Blues, and a recurring favorite is Barbecue Bob (a.k.a., Robert Hicks). Bob -- one of the blues greats of the early twentieth century -- was born September 11, 1902 in small-town Walnut Grove, Georgia. Like so many blues performers from that time (the 1920s and 1930s), not many details are known about his life. Yet there are some Barbecue Bob facts that are worth highlighting here:
  • His parents were poor rural sharecroppers.
  • His brother Charley Hicks was also a blues performer. Charley, for reasons unknown, later went by the name Charley Lincoln.
  • Bob started on the 6-string guitar in his early teens but soon graduated to the 12-string.
  • In his youth, Bob was part of a local blues scene that included other blues greats such as guitarist Curley Weaver and harmonica player Eddie Mapp.
  • He got his nickname, Barbecue Bob, from working in Tidwell's Barbecue in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta. The nickname was coined by Columbia Records talent scout Don Hornsby.
  • He recorded his first album on March 25, 1927. His first record sold 15,000 copies -- a damn good run for an early blues album.
  • He made his first recording with his brother, Charley, on November 9, 1927.
  • He made 68 recordings, yet 65 of them are still extant. Six of his recordings were rejected by Columbia. Of those six, three were later re-issued. The other three remain missing in action.
  • There are only two photographs of Bob known to exist, one of them in his white barbecue chef's uniform from Tidwell's.
  • He played with the blues band the Georgia Cotton Pickers.
  • Eric Clapton performed a cover of his "Motherless Child Blues."
  • Early in 1931, his wife died of pneumonia.
  • He died of tuberculosis and pneumonia on October 21, 1931.
  • He is widely seen as the most influential blues musician of his time, along with Blind Willie McTell.
  • Bob's older brother, Charley, went on to record several albums, yet he suffered from severe depression much of his life. In his later life he spent time in a mental institution, then murdered a man and eventually died in prison in 1963.

My favorite Barbecue Bob CD is Chocolate to the Bone, which consists of his legendary 1927 recordings. It's an amazing mixture of playful, forlorn, soulful, anxious, mellow -- 63 minutes of pure southern blues at its very best. The lyrics tell intriguing stories of forgotten people and the guitar work is second to none. More than eight decades after its release, Barbecue Bob's Chocolate to the Bone is as fresh today as it was when the obscure, 25-year-old restaurant worker walked into the studio to record it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Barbecue Bob is wonderful, obscure and underrated. He's one I keep going back to, along with Blind Willie, Blind Boy Fuller, Curley Weaver and others. I really like the sound and story telling of the Piedmont Bluesmen.