Barbecue Bob Blues

On June 18, 2014 by Michael Witzel

Robert Hicks was born on September 11, 1902 in Walnut Grove, Georgia. After his parents moved to Newton County, he joined his older brother Charlie in taking guitar lessons from local guitar-picking diva, Savannah “Dip” Weaver. Both brothers made friends with the young Weaver boy, “Curley” and soon they were practicing their pentatonic scales together.

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Barbecue Bob Circa 1927

By the time Hicks learned his licks, he began working at Tidwell’s Barbecue in Buckhead. There, he cooked food and served customers. As the meat smoked, his fingers fried the frets and sizzled the strings. The customers loved his hard-driving style so much that he was often invited to after-hours parties where he continued to flaunt his infectious rhythm.

Never mind dealing with the devil at the crossroads—Hicks was becoming a blues sensation by way of pulled pork. When Columbia Records scout Dan Hornsby brought his recording team through Atlanta, he crossed paths with Hicks and was duly impressed by the sound of his clear and articulate tenor.

Hornsby needed a hook to market the unknown blues artist, so he decided to use Hick’s day job as a gimmick. To capitalize on the BBQ tie-in, Hicks was photographed dressed in chef’s whites (complete with chef’s hat) and dubbed “Barbecue Bob.” On March 25, 1927, his very first record for Columbia was recorded. It was given the tasty title of—what else—”Barbecue Blues.”

As it turned out, the promotional idea charmed fans better than black cat bone. Soon, his record was blaring from juke joints and BBQ pits across the deep South. Over the next three years, Bob refined his chops and recorded for Columbia whenever they rolled their recording truck through Atlanta. All total, he cut some 62 sides for the label.

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The Essential Album

Backed by the full sound of his Stella 12-string, Barbecue Bob emerged as one of the reigning raconteurs of 1920’s “race records.” His “Motherless Chile Blues” became well-known. By the 30s, his inventive playing technique helped him to gain a wide audience.

But like many great blues singers of legend, he experienced his own bout of trouble during the Great Depression years. Hard times hit the recording industry and jinxed the growth of blues and country music. As he struggled to hone his musical avocation, his mother passed away, followed by the untimely death of his wife, just one year later.

On October 21, 1931, Hicks joined the heavenly choir himself, passing from this earthly realm of barbecue and blues by way of pneumonia. At the age of 29, Atlanta’s Barbecue Bob—one time pit master who became a popular Southern bluesman—was gone. He left behind a recorded legacy of Barbecue Blues, and memories of some great tasting ‘cue.

• Watch a Video: Barbecue Bob Blues
• Learn More: Barbecue Bob Discography

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