During the Blues boom of the late 1920′s practically all of the talent lived and worked in the Southern States, whilst the record companies and their studios tended to based in the North. So every year each of the major labels would embark on a tour of likely cities or large towns in the South, armed with mobile recording facilities, searching for unsigned singers and recording new songs by those they’d already signed on previous visits. And when they left, the artists would get on with their lives again until the next visit.
Columbia Records usually visited twice a year - in Spring and in Autumn. In the first visit in 1927 they came across Robert Hicks. Robert was working as a chef in a barbecue restaurant in Atlanta and performing in his spare time, often in the same restaurant. That will explain why his first recording was called ’Barbecue Blues’. In their wisdom Columbia decided to photograph Bob in full chef’s gear to promote the song and rechristen him, ’Barbecue Bob’. They knew what they were doing and ’Barbecue Blues’ became a very big hit, selling 15,000 copies and making Bob Columbia’s biggest Black star up to that point.
In November of 1927 Columbia came back to Atlanta and recorded Bob again, cutting 8 tracks this time, one of which was ‘Motherless Chile Blues’.
Bob played ‘Motherless Chile’ in the relatively new Atlanta Blues style. Using a ‘flailing’ action (which I believe looked exactly as the name suggests it would) on 12-string guitar, he generated a resonating, sometimes booming and deeply rhythmic sound that was loud (for its day) but warm at the same time.
‘Motherless Chile’ is a million miles from ‘Barbecue Blues’ in its subject matter and emotional intensity. But by the time of its release the ’Barbecue’ name had stuck and Robert – whether he liked it or not – released all his subsequent tracks, rather incongrously, under that name. In all Bob recorded over 60 tracks as a solo artist (and some more as a member of a group called the Georgia Cotton Pickers) with ’Motherless Chile’ being much more representative of his style than ‘Barbecue Blues’.
He became a genuinely big and serious star in the late 1920′s and was better known then than many of his rivals who are much better known these days – like, for example, Blind Willie McTell. Blind Willie was also from Atlanta, played a very similar style on a 12-string, also started recording in 1927 and was another undoubted genius (who we will come across again later in ABON). But he had a much more predictable Blues-style name and none of Columbia’s marketing ‘wizardry’ behind him. I’d rate Bob and Blind Willie as equals musically but over the years Bob has sunk without trace whereas Blind Willie is probably more famous now than when he was alive, even being name-checked on a ’60′s Bob Dylan song.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that Bob died early of pneumonia, aged only 29 in 1931, and therefore wasn’t alive and waiting to be rediscovered in the 1950′s or 1960′s when many of the early Blues singers (including Blind Willie) re-emerged from the most unlikely places. But I suspect being labelled ‘Barbecue Bob’, which might have been a genius marketing idea in its day, has left Bob with a name that these days doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of what historians believe Blues legends ought to be called.
Recorded almost 83 years ago on 5 November 1927.
Available on many compilations but probably best to buy the Document Records CD, ‘Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Volume 1 – 25 March 1927 to 13 April 1928′: Amazon