Leon Bibb was one of the more prominent African-American folksingers of the 1950s and early '60s, and enjoyed a parallel career as an actor as well (sometimes under the name Lee Charles). Born Charles Leon Arthello Bibb in Louisville, Kentucky in 1922, he grew up as an admirer of the actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson, the most prominent African-American performer -- in music, theater, or films -- of the '30s and early '40s, and sought to emulate the latter's career. He studied classical singing in New York City, and made his first major theater appearance in the original production of Annie Get Your Gun (1946), starring Ethel Merman, in which he played a waiter; he was also heard and credited on the 1946 cast recording of the show.
Bibb later turned toward folk music, and was heard, along with such luminaries as Robert DeCormier, Pete Seeger, and Sonny Terry, on the 1954 album Hootenanny Tonight!, issued by Folkways Records. His work brought him into the orbit of Langston Hughes and other literary and political giants of the '50s left, a fact that subsequently got him blacklisted from many mainstream entertainment outlets, in much the same manner that his idol Robeson -- approaching the twilight of his career in the late '50s -- was banned from most of those same outlets. Bibb's rich baritone voice was too powerful to overlook, however, and he did successfully amass some major credits in the late '50s, sometimes under the name Lee Charles. His late-'50s credits include the Broadway production of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars as well as several recordings under that name; and he also appeared as a member of the Skifflers, in tandem with folk music legend Milt Okun. Following an acclaimed appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, he was signed to Vanguard Records (which was already a haven for blacklistees such as Robeson and the Weavers), through which he recorded a brace of LPs and even managed to get a single release (a rarity for the label) of "Rocks and Gravel" b/w "Goodnight Irene."
By the early '60s, Bibb was making records for Elektra, Columbia, and Liberty, but by then the folk music revival had crested, and he was increasingly playing to a smaller -- but ever more serious -- audience as the decade wore on. His mid-'60s records included participation in the Verve Folkways double-LP set African-American Poetry Theatre: A Hand Is on the Gate. Bibb later moved to RCA-Victor, where highlights of his work included the album Foment, Ferment, Free...Free (1969). He moved to Canada in 1971, and remained even more active in the decades that have followed, both with recording -- his repertory expanding to encompass songwriters such as Leonard Cohen -- and various theatrical productions. He was especially closely associated with the musical Jacques Brel after the '70s, and began doing pops concerts with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and also continued to participate in (and organize) productions devoted to the history of African-American music and culture. In 2002, he and his son Eric Bibb, by then a major artist in his own right, released the duo album A Family Affair. Leon Bibb died in Vancouver in October 2015 at the age of 93. ~ Bruce Eder
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