What About Black Bob ?
Out of all the enigmas that one might encounter while wandering around the Blues Universe, chief amongst them is, “Who, exactly, was Black Bob?” As it turns out, that’s a good question — and we’ll cut to the chase here — the answer is that no one is really certain.
In a 1978 article for Blues Unlimited magazine (along with a followup in 1979, and a postscript penned by E.S. Virgo in 1987), Melvyn Hirst posed this very same question, with the answer being any one of four different candidates: Bob Call, Lovell Alexander, Bob Alexander (a.k.a. “Bob” Alexander Robinson), and Bob Robinson (the latter two, it was discovered later, were one and the same person — so really only three. Or actually, in fact, really four when you consider that Charlie West told researcher Bob Eagle that he knew Black Bob as “Black Jack” down in Cincinnati — are you with us so far?).
But here’s where it starts to get confusing: according to eyewitness accounts, he may have been either from Detroit, Saint Louis, or Indianapolis. He may have died in 1937, or then again in 1968, or maybe again, perhaps, in the 1950s. Moody Jones, who came to Chicago in 1939, says that he worked with Black Bob in the clubs, and that he was a stickler for musicianship. His last session? 1939 and 1941 have both been suggested, but recently the 1941 date has come into question, so maybe just 1939, then. Rather curiously, Memphis Minnie claimed that Black Bob played with her on two of her last sessions, for Parkway/Regal in 1950 and again for Checker in 1952 — and, we’d have to quickly add, with the benefit of hindsight — very highly unlikely. Finally, Memphis Slim offered that he knew a piano player by the name of Bob Hudson, who went by the nickname Black Bob, and for many years this has been considered to be all the definitive proof needed to, once and for all, establish his true identity. Others, meanwhile, remain unconvinced — citing earlier interviews with Slim, where he claimed he only knew him by the name Black Bob, and no other.
One of the most intriguing theories that’s come to light in recent years is that it was actually a convenient moniker for any one of several different piano players who needed to make a few quick bucks at a recording session. And while we can’t make any claims for certain, one person who definitely falls under that category would be Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Gospel music. We say he fits the profile here, because it would have been a way for him to put food on the table while pursuing his fledgling career in the Gospel world — all the while, serving to protect his secular identity from the church.
Lending credence to this theory are a few intriguing clues from the work of Tampa Red. Known for employing all the best piano players in Chicago, his last session with Georgia Tom (as Dorsey was known in those days), was in February 1932. His very next session with a piano player, in March 1934, was with Black Bob. And while we can’t draw any more conclusions than that, all we can say is that it’s definitely food for thought.
Another theory? How about the fact that it seemed like Black Bob only wanted to be known by his nickname, leading again to possible conjecture (the only kind we really have when it comes to Black Bob), that maybe he had fled north in an attempt to escape the long arm of the law back down south.
Whatever happened to Black Bob, we really don’t know. All we can say for certain is that he laid down some spectacular piano work in the mid 1930s, with his presence sparking hundreds of records by almost two dozen artists.
Not bad for someone who, all these years later, maddeningly remains one of the enduring enigmas of the Blues.
Note: Special help and assistance came from Paul Vernon, Bob Eagle, and Howard Rye, with a tip of the hat to Black Bob expert Michel Chaigne. To hear a special tribute to Black Bob, please follow this link: http://www.prx.org/pieces/
– Steve Franz