You might know Leon as a Broadway actor from the 40’s, or a Folk singer from the 50’s or 60’s, or a TV star from the 1970’s, but chances are you’ve never heard of him. The mix and playlists celebrates #blackhistorymonth and what would have been #leonbibb centenary, his 100th birthday February 7th, 2022.
Leon lived in the shadow of Paul Robeson, Peter Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, but lived his life for racial and social justice. For Black History Month 2022, and to celebrate what would have been Leon Bibb’s 100th birthday, here is the “Life And Times of Leon Bibb” mix.
A detailed blog post will be available shortly. There are 3-tracks included in the mix that were produced by Creed Taylor, another track, with links to Creed, kicked off this whole project for me back in October 2021. Among the other tracks are artists of the likes of Kenny Burrel who performed with Leon. While these are not directly linked to Leon, I wanted to include them to show what Creed was doing at the time. Most people only know Creed as a jazz producer, strangely he produced more than twenty folk and country music albums.
The mix includes tracks by Leon Bibb meant to illustrate his range and story. Tracks are also included to cover most major areas of Leon’s life as well as interlacing artists that he worked with. These include Leon’s son, Eric, and his granddaughter, Yana.
1. Intro from Lonesome Traveler (Live) from 1959 Newport Folk Festival.
2. Slaves – Leon Bibb – A cover of the title track from 1969 American drama film directed by Herbert Biberman. The original soundtrack album was by Grady Tate with the Gary McFarland Orchestra. On the soundtrack album, drummer Grady Tate sang the title song, arguably Tate’s best ever vocal. In the film, Dionne Warwick sings the theme.
3. Sinner Man – Leon Bibb – This version was taken from a VHS tape of 1960 film “The Young One”. The film was a work of a number of people that were in 1960, blacklisted. Wikipedia lists Bibb as the soundtrack artist. Essentially “Sinner Man” is played over the opening and closing credits. There is no other music in the film. Bibb recorded this for his 1958 album “Folk Songs”, and this version seems to use a slightly different arrangement.
4. The Ballard Of The Virgin Soldiers – Leon Bibb – There were two sets of lyrics written for the Ray Davis(The Kinks) theme tune for the film “Virgin Soldiers”. The first version of the lyrics were rejected by the producers and a second set commissioned from New York Lyricists Eddie Snyder and Larry Kusick. Unfortunately, by the time the recording session with Leon was complete, the film had already opened in London and New York. A 45RPM/Single was released with the Bibb version to support promotion and marketing of the film in the US and Australia.
5. The Prelude(Ol’ Man River) – Leon & Eric Bibb – First track from their 2006 album “Praising Peace A Tribute To Paul Robeson” is used here as a backing track for track 6
6. Living Black History – Joan Murray Leon Bibb – segment from former CBS Journalist Joan Murray “Living Black History” recorded circa 1973. Murray, the first black American news host. Amazon has a three-volume series of her interviews is available for purchase as MP3’s individually or by volume.
7. Chove-chuva – Miriam Makeba – from her 1965 album “Makeba Sings”. Miriam Makeba appeared on the bill for the 1969 appearance at Howard University where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first speech “Let My People Go”, calling for a boycott of South Africa, Rhodesia et al. Leon Bibb was master of ceremonies for the fundraising event and would have sung as well. According to Howard University there are no recorded archives of the event.
8. “I have been to the mountain top” – Martin Luther King Jr. This was the last speech given by King. Hugely symbolic and prophetic. It is included here thanks to the King Center and the King Library and Archive. Leon Bibb was one of many black, and white entertainers involved and inspired by King. His death the day after this speech must have hit very hard. On his 1970 album “This Is Leon Bibb”, effectively Bibb’s last US release, he included a track “I Climbed The Mountain”. The track doesn’t include the words of King’s speech but does include phrases and themes from, the speech. In 1970, Leon Bibb would effectively emigrate to Canada.
9. Emmett’s Ghost – Eric Bibb – from Eric Bibb’s 2018 album. When I first started researching this article, coincidentally, the US Dept. of Justice again closed the case for the murder of Emmett Till. Till’s murder was a rallying point for the 1960’s civil rights. Leon Bibb was committed to both racial justice and civil and human rights. Subsequently along with many of his peers, he participated in many protest events, including the 1963 March to Selma. Featured on bass on this track is legendary CTI bass player, Ron Carter.
10. Dinks Song – Leon Bibb – A version of the legendary Dinks Blues with lyrics. Leon Bibb featured this song on both his 1958 “Folk Songs” album, arranged by Milt Okun, and a very different version on his 1969 album “Foment, Ferment, Free … Free.”.
11. I am Free – Leon Bibb
12. American Hymn 2 – Leon Bibb from producer Hy Zaret 1967 compilation album, “It Could Be A Wonderful World”.
13. Oh Freedom – Langston Hughes triple album set “The Glory of Negro History”.
14. Last Letter To The Western Civilization – Leon Bibb – Powerful spoken word track from his 1969 album “Foment, Ferment, Free… Free”.
15. On My Way To Saturday – Leon Bibb – The track that started this whole project. Lyrics written by Margo Guryan. Guryan attended both the 1959 and 1960 Lennox School for Jazz. She subsequently signed to MJQ as a writer, by John Lewis. Lewis was Leon Bibbs brother-in-law. This explains why Bibb got the song before Harry Belafonte. Guryan is on record as saying she wrote the song as a 16-year-old with a view to it being recorded by Harry Belafonte. Guryan felt that Milt Okun and Leon Bibb had ignored the lead sheet, hence their version wasn’t the calypso tune she had intended. Margo felt Belafonte had more or less covered the Bibb version. At the time of the 1960 Lennox School of Jazz Margo was working for Creed Taylor as secretary, having been hired to replace Fran Scott.
16. Sinner Man – Brown & Dana – less anyone thinks Creed Taylor didn’t produce folk albums, here are two tracks recorded in 1962 and released in 1963 “It Was A Very Good Year”, to ride the folk revival in the USA. The artists, Al Dana, Garrett Brown, were a new singer, songwriter duo signed to ABC Paramount for single album deal after performance in a number of folk clubs in the northeast, including the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. The album was released on the AMPAR budget MGM Records label.
17. The Ace Of Sorrow – Brown & Dana – The one hit from the Brown & Dana album, it’s still popular today in the far east. The album was produced by basically the core Taylor team for that period who were responsible many great albums. Phil Ramone was engineer for the album with Val Valentine. Ramone would go on to become a multi-award/GRAMMY winner. 1962/3 were the years Creed Taylor broke samba in America following his recording of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd “Jazz Samba” album and follow-on; also, the numerous 1963 albums including the GRAMMY winning “Getz/Gilberto” featuring Anton Carlos Jobim. That album included “The Girl From Ipanema”. The Brown & Dana album cover picture was taken by legendary black photographer, Chuck Stewart.
18. My Man – Leon Bibb – Another track from the 1969 album “Foment, Ferment, Free … Free.”. produced by Jim Foglesong. The rap style lyric was written by Bibb.
19. Every Night When The Sun Goes Down (Live) – Leon Bibb, John Stauber & Eric Weisberg – Two tracks from one of the many first 1959 Newport Folk Festival album compilations. The tracks here are from the 1959 Vanguard album “Folk Festival At Newport Volume 1”.
20. Sinner Man (Live) – Leon Bibb, John Stauber & Eric Weisberg – By comparison to the 1958 album and film version, and Nina Simone’s now classic 1965 and later versions, this is much more up-tempo and demonstrates the strength of Bibbs voice.
21. The Times They Are A Changin’ – Odetta – The folk revival in Greenwich Village NYC in the late 50’s and early 60’s must have been an amazing scene. Among the youngsters that showed up to participate was one Bob Dylan. At least one archivist and historian says that Dylan was influenced by Leon Bibb. Bibb and Odetta appeared together on many performances during that period and in 1973, would both appear on stage at Carnegie Hall for the Freedomways celebration of Paul Robeson’s 75th birthday.
22. Leon Bibb – Told My Captain – For many, Leon Bibb would have come into their living rooms through the regular the “hootenannys”. They had grown from Seattle trade union meetings and spread across the country and were later shown on ABC TV. Pete Seegar told NPR Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 1984: “it was a second-rate vaudeville show. Some good folk music got played on the air, but there was an awful lot which was kept off the air. Why? Because it wasn’t cheerful, happy music.” The track here itself is a negro chain gang song from the Lawrence Gellert collection. The songs in this album were recorded at two Hootenannys in New York City in the spring of 1954.
23. Josh White – Strange Fruit – In 1956, Creed Taylor produced two Josh White albums for ABC Paramount. White could have been a peer to Leon Bibb, they followed much the same path. Josh White was also blacklisted, and like Robeson and Bibb, White also spent time overseas; White like Robeson and Bibb both used a lot of traditional and spiritual songs. At some point I’ll look at the “Josh White Stories” albums for ctproduced. This version of Billie Holidays 1939 jarring song about the horrors of lynching, seemed appropriately somber and blues based for inclusion as the penultimate track. Although White would read the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” into the record of the HUAC hearings, he would name Paul Robeson to HUAC as a communist.
24. Yana Bibb – Send Love – A perfect song to end with. Taken from Yana Bibb’s 2014 album “Not A Minute Too Late” it includes both Leon and Eric Bibb and symbolizes where we are in America. We need to send love to the black community and it’s past time to correct the wrongs of centuries of racial and social injustice.