Eric Bibb Biography
Steered Toward Blues by Jazz Musician, Moved to Sweden, Influenced by Taj Mahal
One of the most imaginative modern musicians working within the blues tradition, Eric Bibb is also one of the least recognized in proportion to his talent, at least in his home country of the United States. Bibb is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist with deep roots in American music, roots that come from his family background and also from his own journey as a musician. But in the early 1970s, Bibb made the decision, as had many African-American musicians before him, to leave the United States and settle abroad.
Bibb was born in New York City on August 16, 1951. Music ran deep in his family; jazz pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was his uncle, and his father Leon Bibb was an actor and singer who got involved in the rising folk scene in New York's Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early 1960s. Bibb grew up surrounded by folk music royalty. Singer and activist Paul Robeson was his godfather, and such nationally famous singers as Pete Seeger and Odetta were family friends. Another guest, when Bibb was 11, was Bob Dylan. "When I found out that he had arrived I snuck downstairs in my pajamas and had a talk with him about guitar playing. He told me to keep it simple—forget all the fancy s–t," Bibb told the Irish Times.
Blues by Jazz
While a student at New York's High School of Music and Art, Bibb was enthusiastic about music but indifferent in his other classes. He delved into all kinds of music, including classical guitar. Bibb's father taught him about various kinds of black music, but was his uncle John Lewis who did the most to expose him to the blues—which was somewhat ironic in view of the fact that Lewis was known for a very sophisticated type of jazz with strong classical influences. "I was fascinated to learn how enamored he was of the blues, and I mean gut-bucket blues.… I'd go to his house and he'd talk about Muddy Waters and stuff like that," Bibb told the London Independent.
Every time he got the chance, Bibb headed for Greenwich Village to spend time in the area's vibrant folk clubs. When he was 16 he joined a band his father put together for a television talent show called Someone New. Another member of the band was Bill Lee, father of future director Spike Lee. Bibb enrolled at Columbia University in New York but music still had the strongest pull on his energy. At age 19, on a trip to Paris, Bibb met rhythm-and-blues guitarist Mickey Baker and began to focus seriously on the blues.
At the same time, Bibb became disillusioned with the United States and its involvement in the Vietnam War. He saw a better chance to pursue his peace-loving philosophies in Europe than he could envision back home in bitterly divided America, with what he called (as quoted by the Irish Times) its "tribal strife." "What I see when I look around the world is basically local versions of the same type of frictions between groups, whether they're black or white, whatever religion, Middle East or Northern Ireland—it's basically brother against brother, when it comes down to it," he told the Irish newspaper.
Moved to Sweden
Invited to Stockholm, Sweden for a short visit, Bibb decided to stay on there. Though people of African descent were rare in Sweden, and Bibb found that he was treated as something of an exotic attraction, he liked the country's open and liberal attitudes. He delved deeper into American acoustic blues, finding places to play and Swedish musicians who wanted to work with him. As well, he began to encounter music from other parts of the world. Irish, Greek, and African sounds would all find their ways into his music at various times.
In 1980 Bibb returned to the United States, settling in New York and taking a shot at starting an American acoustic music career. The competitive atmosphere of 1980s America discouraged him, however, and he found the music scene much changed from what he had known in 1960s Greenwich Village. "Even the folkies were stepping over each other to make it—that really turned me off," he told the Irish Times. Bibb went back to Sweden. Between gigs he made a living as a school music teacher and, for a time, as a staff songwriter for the BMG music conglomerate. He translated children's books from Swedish into English on the side; one of them was called The Clay Flute.
Although he was a popular attraction in Sweden, Bibb's own music remained unrecorded for many years. Finally, in 1994, he released his Spirit and the Blues album on Sweden's Opus 3 label. The timing was fortunate, for a host of similarly oriented musicians were beginning their careers in the United States around the same time. Music buyers started showing a strong interest in contemporary extensions of roots traditions, and Bibb began finding audiences in Britain, Ireland, and Australia as well as in Sweden. In 1996 he appeared at the London Blues Festival with American bluesmen Corey Harris and Keb' Mo', and his sophomore release, 1997's Good Stuff, was picked up by the U.S. label Earthbeat.
Influenced by Taj Mahal
Bibb recorded mostly for the British Code Blue and Manhaton labels as his career picked up steam, and several recordings he made in Sweden were re-released in the United States. The electric-blues Me to You (1998) featured a pair of Bibb's idols, soul singers Pops and Mavis Staples, and such albums as Home to Me (1999) and Roadworks (2000) showed the influence of an older bluesman who had experimented with world music and tried to draw connections between the blues and the wider musical world—Taj Mahal. The 2001 album Needed Time took its name from Bibb's backing band.
More often than not, Bibb avoided the melancholy tone traditionally associated with the blues; many of his original songs (and he performed mostly originals) had a warm, positive outlook with spiritual overtones. Bibb pointed out that he personally wasn't a melancholy person and that historically, the blues served as dance music and as entertainment as often as it expressed sorrow and pain. And the traditional image of the blues, he argued in an Irish Times interview, was partly "the produce of the way it was marketed by people who had it in their vested interest to see the performers, these black musicians, as unidimensional, pitiable persons." Bibb's versatility served him well on the Grammy-nominated collaborative children's album Shakin' a Tailfeather.
Toured with Robert Cray
Bibb reached a new level with his Painting Signs CD (2001), which featured songs on social themes and world affairs, including a rousing cover of the Pops Staples composition "Hope in a Hopeless World." He finally became better known in the United States, touring with fellow modern bluesman Robert Cray in 2001 and 2002 and opening for the legendary Ray Charles in 2002. Bibb seemed to become more prolific as a musician as his fortunes improved, and he quickly followed up Painting Signs with two more albums, the more personal Natural Light and A Family Affair, an album pairing Bibb with his 80-year-old father Leon–who had also left the United States for the Canadian city of Vancouver. The folk music magazine Sing Out! termed A Family Affair "a very inspiring album."
A Family Affair wasn't released in the United States until 2003, and by that time Bibb had several more albums in the works or on the streets. Bibb moved from Sweden to London, England in 2003, telling the Independent that he had felt at home during his frequent tours in the United Kingdom and that "I was also very impressed by the way British society in recent years has been dealing with the whole issue of multiculturalism." His 2004 album Friends seemed to signal a point where Bibb reached the top tier of the blues world: it featured collaborations between Bibb and a diverse group of guest musicians that included Taj Mahal, guitarist Guy Davis, vocalist Ruthie Foster, Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and Odetta, who had been one of the artists that inspired Bibb as he soaked up the creative spirit of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s.
Spirit and the Blues, Opus 3, 1994.
Good Stuff, Opus 3/Earthbeat, 1997.
(With Taj Mahal and Linda Tillery) Shakin' a Tailfeather, 1997.
Me to You, Code Blue, 1998.
Home to Me, Manhaton, 1999.
Roadworks, Manhaton, 2000.
Needed Time, Opus 3, 2001.
Painting Signs, Manhaton, 2001.
Just Like Love, Opus 3, 2001.
A Family Affair, Manhaton, 2001.
Natural Light, Earthbeat, 2003.
Friends, Earthbeat, 2004.
Australian, September 5, 2003, p. 15.
Independent (London, England), February 21, 2003, p. 20.
Irish Times, May 15, 1998, p. 14.
New York Times, October 28, 1990, section 7, p. 32.
Sing Out!, Winter 2004, p. 157.
Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), April 8, 2001, p. 86; August 31, 2003, p. 115.
Times (London, England), November 20, 1998, Features section.
Eric Bibb, www.ericbibb.com (November 30, 2004).
"Eric Bibb," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (November 30, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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