“Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”
Lynrd Skynrd: Sweet Home Alabama
The Deep South had already come a long way, socially, when Neil Young wrote his damning tracks Southern Man and Alabama. However, what many Skynrd followers fail to understand is that their verse from Sweet Home Alabama isn’t a put-down; it’s praise. They agreed with Young’s criticism yet were intent on putting him right – things had changed. In 1971 Lynrd Skynrd were recording at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, famed throughout the ’60s and ’70s for recording such acts as Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, and most of the South’s R&B influenced rock bands. The superb Muscle Shoals house band, who accompanied the solo artists, were known as The Swampers. Hence the Skynyrd line: “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers.” The exposure of the good-natured tiff between Skynrd and Young over the South’s history of racism represented a new, musical high watermark in the social history of rock and blues. We could no longer see the rednecks for all that hippie hair. Yet the ghosts of the past take a long time to fade away.
Over the years I’ve been commissioned several times to write the liner notes to CD box set compilations of rhythm and blues hits spanning the 1940s-1950s. As a writer and R&B enthusiast, one tends to think after a while that, historically, there aren’t many artists left to discover. However, through researching thumbnail biographies of long-forgotten stars, some of whom released as few as two records, to be included on a four CD set spanning 100 tracks, I’m constantly being disavowed of the notion that I have anything approaching an encyclopaedic knowledge.
Such was the case when I was faced with The R&B Hits of 1947 when a new name cropped up; Andrew Tibbs. Of course, seasoned researchers with a detailed knowledge of Chess and the Aristocrat labels would recognise the name straight away. Yet finding detailed information on Tibbs’s life, and what happened to him during the final 30 years up to his death in 1991 was a challenge. The most intriguing aspect of Andrew Tibbs’s recording career was the title of his first single release on Aristocrat 1101 in August 1947; Bilbo Is Dead.
What I’m about to admit would have more erudite blues buffs smirking in superior disbelief. I realised I knew more about J.R.R. Tolkien than I did about the blues. The Hobbit had been published in 1937. Its main character was one Bilbo Baggins. I think I can be excused for considering the name Bilbo to be somewhat unusual . Thus, before launching into the quest to find out more about Andrew Tibbs, I was forced to ponder over the possible scenario of a young, black American blues singer who had read the works of Tolkien as early as 1947. OK, academicians – stop laughing. Such are the learning curves when delving into R&B history. Just about forgotten today, Andrew Tibbs (left) was born Melvin Andrew Grayson, on 2 February 1929, in Columbus, Ohio, and died 5 May 1991, in Chicago, Illinois. For the Chess brothers, he helped to establish the Chess and Checker labels’ forerunner, Aristocrat Records.
His father was a prominent Baptist minister, the Reverend S. A. Grayson. Tibbs was a fine singer who performed in choirs directed by Mahalia Jackson and Ruth Jones, another hugely talented vocalist who married Andrew’s brother, Robert, and later changed her name to Dinah Washington. His influences were Gatemouth Moore, Roy Brown and Ivory Joe Hunter, among others.
Tibbs performed at Chicago’s Macomba Lounge, owned by Leonard Chess, where his subtle stagecraft and smooth vocal style went down a treat – especially with the women. As Chess was in the process of buying Aristocrat Records, He decided Tibbs would be a great act to sign for the label. His first single, Bilbo Is Dead was backed with Union Man Blues. The sardonic, critical Bilbo dealt with the recently deceased Mississippi segregationist senator, Theodore Bilbo, a racist of the foulest ilk, and certainly caused controversy, being banned from sale in a number of Southern states.
However, whereas most researchers repeatedly claim that the Chicago Teamster unions objected to the b-side, in her very thorough history of Chess Records, Nadine Cohodas has shown that the story told by Marshall Chess about Tibbs’s 78 being destroyed in its thousands by angry Teamsters because of Union Blues is probably incorrect. Trucking companies weren’t used by Aristocrat – the label simply couldn’t afford them. Another part of the legend seems disproved, that being that Leonard Chess, who sold his product out of the boot of his Buick, was threatened over the Tibbs record with a crowbar. There
appears to be no documentation to verify this. In any case, the lyrics are hardly critical of the union; the verses celebrate being a member, because once joined, he can’t be touched . So, despite the legends, the record wasn’t a complete commercial flop. Bilbo, on Aristocrat 1101, was followed up by Toothless Woman Blues backed with Drinking Ink Splink, on Aristocrat 1102 which appeared in the shops in March 1948 . Tibbs recorded another six singles for Aristocrat, and then his path begins to fade.
It’s difficult, over sixty years on, to imagine how popular artists like Andrew Tibbs were in their heyday. One inevitably wonders why his full potential wasn’t reached to the point where, like many of his contemporaries, he’d remain a recognisable name today, two decades after his death. All we are left with are tantalising glimpses through time’s heavy curtains, such as in the engrossing biography of Jerome Solon Felder, a.k.a. Doc Pomus, (1925 – 1991), prince among rock’n’roll songwriters, a producer, and above all, blues singer;
‘To many blues cognoscenti, Doc foremost among them, the greatest singer in the nation, save Joe Turner and B.B. King, was Andrew Tibbs. His records failed to capture his genius … on stage at Cookie’s Caravan Tibbs held an almost supernatural sway over the audience … That good-evil countenance drove women, and some men, too, into Pentecostal hysterics.’
Pomus and Tibbs often featured on the same bill and would round off their evenings with what they called a ‘battle of the blues’ which often focused – dangerously, if boyfriends or husbands were present – on a particular woman in the room who had caught their eye. Andrew and Doc would trade improvised verses from opposite ends of the room – their powerful voices needing little or no PA system. Considering the racial constraints of the time, the combination of the uninhibited Doc Pomus, a disabled, cigar-chewing white Jew, permanently on crutches due to the polio which had stricken him in childhood, and a coloured man, Tibbs, must have been quite a musical novelty. Andrew also performed regularly with his brother, Kenneth, as The Tibbs Brothers. Later, when Pomus formed his legendary writing partnership with Mort Shuman, the brothers would be early beneficiaries of the Pomus/Shuman writing machine when they recorded two of their songs, I’m Going Crazy and (Wake Up) Miss Rip Van Winkle. Sadly, as with much of the partnership’s output during their learning period, neither song set the world on fire. A small piece of musical history was made when King Curtis did his first Atlantic recording session backing the Tibbs for Atco in 1956. In 1965 Andrew Tibbs, still not really the star he should have been, made his last single for M-Pac! Records, Stone Hearted Woman, then left the music business for good, spending the rest of his life working for the West Electric Corporation. He passed away, aged 62, in Chicago on May 5 1991.
From here on, the reader may well ask ‘what the hell has this chapter to do with R&B?’ However, when it comes to the history of the Deep South and racism, the following few pages are included to illustrate the historical social landscape against which African Americans were forced to struggle in the first six decades of the 20th century. The actual characters that ran states like Mississippi and Alabama were frighteningly real, and for those of us who grew up in Britain in ignorance of their existence, when we look at what they did and said, we can only be shocked at their attitudes. Therefore their inclusion may help us to gain an extra level of appreciation for the courage and tenacity of dedicated black performers during those times and the triumph and durability their enduring music.
When the book finally closes (if it ever does) on the struggle for full African American Civil Rights, at least the courageous young Andrew Tibbs and his barbed reminder of vicious segregation, Bilbo Is Dead, will undoubtedly provide an interesting footnote. The idea of (to use Theodore G. Bilbo’s vile grandiloquence) a ‘Jew and a nigger’ performing together in a club would have been the ultimate anathema to Mississippi’s champion knight of the burning cross. So, over 80 years after the end of the American Civil War, how did the majority of white Mississippians sleep at night knowing they had such a sickening senator? With great ease, apparently; he had no trouble being re-elected.
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947) represented the epitome of misguided Southern white supremacy. His family, from Juniper Grove, a Mississippi hamlet in Pearl River County where he was born, were poor. He attended Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, then law school at Vanderbilt University, failing to graduate from either institution. After a brief spell working as a teacher, he was admitted to the bar in Tennessee in 1908 and established his own law practice in Poplarville, Mississippi.
Bilbo was a Democrat, who spent two terms as Mississippi’s Governor from 1916–20, and 1928–32. He became a U.S. Senator from 1935–47. A rabid racist, a filibustering, scathing rhetorician, his stock in trade was crude, insulting behaviour which often landed him in trouble. At one point one of the recipients of his rudeness broke a walking stick over his head, whilst another prominent victim of his offensive tongue attacked him on a train, pistol-whipping Bilbo in front of startled passengers. He believed that black people were ‘naturally inferior’, supported Adolf Hitler, and was a staunch upholder of segregation, as well as being a committed member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Even allowing for the racist atmosphere people like Bilbo were able to encourage and benefit from, it would be unfair to the population of Mississippi to lump them all together with the KKK. Some of the politicians Bilbo fought against, whilst still incurably infected with the virus of white supremacy, did display slightly more progressive and liberal tendencies.
LeRoy Percy (left) was undoubtedly part of the Delta aristocracy. At the age of 28 he was running the family plantation business. He had a BA from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and went on to the University of Virginia Law School, cramming three years of courses into one year. Back home in Greenville, Mississippi, he soon established himself by energetically simultaneously running a law practice and his plantations with impressive efficiency. As the 20th century dawned, he controlled plantations covering over 20,000 acres. No-one in the region could match his prestige and power. Yet there was nothing parochial about LeRoy Percy. He had important friends in the Supreme Court and in the Senate Executive office, he went hunting with President Theodore Roosevelt, played poker with the Speaker of the House, and was a trustee of both the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and as a governor of a Federal Reserve Bank he had wide business and industrial connections, travelling widely between the boardrooms of New York, Chicago, and even London.
Percy’s Delta domain relied on physical labour. His attempts to attract Northern farmers and immigrants to Mississippi’s Washington County failed, and only poor African Americans turned up. Ever the pragmatist, Percy decided that if it was the black man who was willing to come to Washington County, to stay and work, then at least, unlike many of his Mississippian political peers, he might as well ensure conditions for his tenants were among the most favourable in the state. If African Americans in the South were, (as was frequently the case), chased off their land, disenfranchised and even lynched, Percy would address the balance even by going as far as providing mortgage loans for them to buy Delta farms. However, although he too believed that African Americans were perhaps ‘inferior’ to the white race, he went even further than mortgage loans. His broadmindedness extended to that bête noir of all segregationist ‘good ole boys’; he actually encouraged and provided education for his black workers. Soon, Washington County had black mailmen, policemen and even a few African American judges. Greenville and Washington County reaped the benefits of such liberal tolerance. Surrounded by the smirking rural evil of Jim Crow, Washington County was an island of free-thinking moderation.
In 1910, Percy became a United States Senator, a proud moment for the innovative Percy family. But his joy would not last long.
Hemmed in all around by more ignorant populist forces, their champions, LeRoy Percy’s formidable opponents, were about to smother Washington County under a regressive blanket of spiteful revenge. A ‘nigger-loving’ senator was something they would not abide. Leading the dark hordes was Percy’s greatest rival, Mississippi Governor James Kimble Vardaman (1861 – 1930).
Vardaman is remembered as ‘The Great White Chief,’ a fierce advocate of white supremacy. He said “if it is necessary every negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman supporters were encouraged to wear a red bandana around their necks. Some historians believe that this may well be the origin of the term, “redneck.” Another well-known term, usually applied to poor white farmers was “peckerwood.” As many white farmers lived in the woods, as did that noisy bird, the woodpecker, the name stuck.
When Percy’s re-election in the Senate came up, Vardaman’s followers came out en masse and Percy was defeated. Vardaman became the new senator, and the Ku Klux Klan got what it wanted – the Mississippi Delta. Vardaman had won 74 out of the 75 counties in Mississippi, and had become the new power to be reckoned with.
However, the KKK still didn’t get Percy’s beloved Washington County. His business partner was a Jew, and he was married to a Catholic – two of the Klan’s most hated targets. He needed his black workers to keep his various enterprises running. In 1922, despite threats on his life, Percy, no longer a member of the US Senate, publicly opposed the Klan, refusing to back down. His calculated and brave defiance, by filling the hall where the Klan were holding a major recruitment meeting with his own supporters, was a national sensation. He kept the Klan out of Greenville, and to many became something of a hero.
Sadly, LeRoy Percy’s liberality would be literally washed away by the great flood which devastated the region in 1927. Based in Greenville, Will Percy, LeRoy’s son, oversaw the relief effort. To his discredit (with echoes of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans) he took little notice of the way African Americans had suffered. Their homes, their work, their crops, everything had gone. Thus the bonds LeRoy Percy had built up with his black labour force over the years evaporated. The devastated sharecroppers left and headed north. A year later over half of the area’s black population had gone elsewhere to seek work.
As if Percy’s demise and Vardaman’s rise weren’t bad enough, there was an even more virulent force waiting in the wings. Theodore G. Bilbo was elected twice elected as Governor of Mississippi in 1916 and again in 1928. In 1934, he became a Senator. Over the next 12 years, his poisonous racist outbursts in the US Senate outraged many. Americans had just fought a war in Europe against the kind of murderous political system the likes of Bilbo aspired to, and there was a new liberalism afoot. It manifested itself in the media, often with startling and dramatic effect.
In 1946 the charismatic and multi-talented actor Jack Webb,
who would eventually become known throughout the world for his portrayal as hard-boiled Detective Sergeant Joe Friday in the long running (and much parodied) TV series, Dragnet, was about to bring Senator Bilbo’s nastiness to a much wider audience. Radio was king then, and Jack Webb’s new series One Out of Seven, which premiered over ABC’s KGO on February 6, 1946, would break new documentary ground. In many ways, Webb, who admitted to being ‘an ultra-conservative’ was a paradoxical character. He’d served heroically with the US Air force as a B-26 crewmember during World War II. He was a jazz musician, and practiced the on the cornet every day. He greatly admired America’s law enforcement agencies. Webb was happy to have all the scripts for his TV crime series Dragnet inspected and passed by the LAPD. In the movie LA Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s books, LA Quartet, there’s a Jack Webb type character, the charismatic LAPD Sergeant Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey. Vincennes, like Webb, is connected as an advisor on a fictional police TV show, Badge of Honour. In later life, Jack Webb’s formal, law-abiding attitudes and tough all-American male style fell from grace when the hippie movement swept along the West Coast in the 1960s, and he became a critic of the ‘counterculture.’ His later 1960s episodes of the re-furbished Dragnet were definitely guilty of a florid, trashy misrepresentation of hippiedom to which the hair and beads brigade responded by portraying Webb as a rigid authoritarian who could not adjust to social change. In some ways the view was unfair. Even though he was almost as crazy as Joe McCarthy when it came to ‘the Red Menace’, if anyone campaigned for social change, it was Jack Webb. His life as a musician and jazz aficionado only strengthened his progressive views on race and Civil Rights.
Airing on Wednesday evenings at 9 p.m. throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, the KGO radio series One Out of Seven was a commentary on one of the seven most prominent wire service stories to surface for that week. The show began with the following announcement:
‘The material and direct quotations included within the following programme have been taken from authoritative files and from dispatches filed by the Associated Press and International News Service. We present these statements without editorial comment. We assume no responsibility for their content.’
The first show on February 6 1946 was entitled Senator Bilbo Is An
Honourable Man. Webb and his team obviously knew the power of drama as they damned Bilbo with a sardonic approximation of ‘praise’ in the style of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act III Scene 2 Antony: ‘For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men’ Over six well-selected vignettes, using original Associated Press wording, Webb, playing all the parts in the script, revealed the hypocrisy and racism of Mississippi’s Senator. This ‘honourable man’ insisted that ‘all negroes, and Jews and Italians were inferior races.’ This same ‘honourable man’ had proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938, proposing to deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. With little sense of shame or decorum, he had also proudly revealed his KKK membership on radio. Before the 1938 session of the United States Senate, he’d filibustered against an anti-lynching bill, proclaiming to the Senate:
“If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousand fold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”
Webb’s expose rattled along, including the revelation that Bilbo had replied to one of his female constituents, an Italian immigrant, by starting the letter with the ‘greeting’ ‘Dear Dago.’ After thirty blistering minutes, Senator Bilbo had been condemned out of his own mouth.
In November 1946, nine months after Jack Webb’s broadcast, Theodore Bilbo was re-elected to the Senate for a third term, but the Senate’s newly-elected Republican majority refused to seat Bilbo for the term, rightly suspecting him taking bribes and of inciting violence against blacks who wanted to vote. A filibuster by his supporters delayed the seating of the Senator for days. However, within a year the great white heaven of the KKK called him aloft; Bilbo was dead.
So did things get any better in Mississippi? The departed Bilbo’s Senate seat was to be occupied by his replacement, John Cornelius Stennis (1901 –1995)
He was a Democrat who served in the Senate for over 41 years, becoming its most senior member by his retirement. Like his predecessor, he was a devout segregationist. He energetically opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was a signatory of the 1956 Southern Manifesto which supported filibuster tactics to delay and block an Act’s passage. Stennis also had a nasty earlier career as a prosecutor, yet his demand for the conviction and the death penalty for three sharecroppers, all of whom had been tortured and flogged to get them to confess to murder, led to the Supreme Court overturning the convictions. The trial’s transcript showed that Stennis knew full well that the men had been tortured. In many ways it was also a landmark case with a result that many Southern racists would have hated. The case, Brown v. Mississippi (1936) brought about the banning of the use of evidence obtained by torture. However, time seemed to soften Stennis on the subject of Civil Rights. The 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act got his vote, yet that old Johnny Reb streak couldn’t allow him to fully open his heart to the black man. When it came to establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday he voted against it. So, Jim Crow, as a simplistic representation of racism, was one thing, but that rot wasn’t confined to the roots of society.
The following newspaper obituary opens up an intriguing epilogue to the subject of Andrew Tibbs.
From The New York Times, October 18, 1988
John Ball Dies at 77;
A Critic and Novelist Known for Mysteries
By EDWIN McDOWELL
John Ball, a music critic turned mystery writer, died of colon cancer Saturday in Encino (Calif.) Hospital. He was 77 years old.The author of some 35 books translated into 17 languages, Mr. Ball’s best-known book is ”In the Heat of the Night” (1965), which won an Emmy from the Mystery Writers of America. The film version won the Academy Award as the best motion picture of 1967.
That book introduced Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Pasadena who becomes involved in a murder case while visiting his mother in a Southern town. In the motion picture, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, Pasadena was changed to Philadelphia. Worked for Fortune Magazine
Mr. Ball was born in Schenectady, N.Y. on July 8, 1911 but moved to Milwaukee as a child. After graduation from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., he joined Fortune magazine in 1937 and three years later became an assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium. He wrote liner notes for Columbia record albums, became a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, and left in 1951 to review records for the New York World-Telegram .
When young Andrew Tibbs hastily wrote the lyrics to his first single, Bilbo Is Dead, (apparently on a brown paper bag in a cab en route to the studio) he could well have realised that this was a political move which might have repercussions. And his choice for the ‘b’ side – Union Blues seems to suggest a brave, rebellious spirit. When looking at the writer John Ball’s career, which included a spell in the music industry as both writer and critic – right at the time Tibbs made his first recording – might we ask the question, is Andrew Tibbs in any way the inspiration for the black Philadelphia Detective, Virgil Tibbs, in the 1965 novel (and subsequent 1967 movie) as played by Sidney Poitier In The Heat of The Night?
Stirling Silliphant (1918-1996) won an Oscar for his screenplay of the movie, and any avid R&B fan will easily recall the soundtrack with the mighty Ray Charles singing the eponymous title song. It may be a long shot, a pale guess, but a thrilling murder story, written almost two years after Tibb’s recording, about a black detective, temporarily caught out of his usual Philadelphia comfort zone for one steamy night in Sparta, Mississippi, with its threatening undercurrent of violent racism is pure Andrew Tibbs. For Andrew and the fictional Virgil, Bilbo may have been dead – but his spirit lived on in the Sparta police department.
Arkansas, Alabama, Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana are all beautiful places. Today down South, they don’t lynch black people any more, yet the descendants of those voters who supported the likes of Theodore Bilbo, J. K. Vardaman and John Stennis, although a dying breed, still carry some pale vestiges of that vicious, post-Civil War resentment.
In 1997, the actor Morgan Freeman, whose home town is the epicentre of the Delta blues, Clarksdale, (where he runs his own Ground Zero blues club) was saddened by the fact that at nearby Charleston High School (that’s Charleston Mississippi, not South Carolina) the school Proms were still segregated. Morgan offered to fully fund the city’s first entirely integrated prom. He repeated the offer every year yet it was not taken up until 2009, when it was finally accepted, and filmed by HBO .
Was it a success? Yes. But as if to prove that the bad old days of Dixie could still bite back, a large number of white parents decided to have nothing to do with Freeman’s prom, and since 2009 have held their own, all white proms. Regretfully, facing such an attitude, almost a century and a half since the end of the Civil War, we simply have to accept that racism is an incurable human condition. They may not be spilling blood these days down on the old plantation, but elsewhere around the world the grisly merry-go-round spins on. Serbs and Croats, Palestinians and Israelis, the stupidity of warring religions, Protestants vs. Catholics, Islam vs. everybody else, and although the Third Reich ended over seven decades ago, its anti-Semitism still has plenty of holocaust-denying supporters.
The fact that rhythm and blues artists clung on to their zest for life and fuelled their love of dance and music by courageously continuing to drive through those wicked landscapes of the 20th Century only makes their recorded heritage more precious.