Leon Bibb – from Kentucky to Kitsilano

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Leon Bibb in 1976
Leon Bibb in 1976

• The long-standing love affair between Leon Bibb and Vancouver ended when the legendary performer passed away in late October in a Kitsilano care home at the age of 93.

He first arrived in his adopted city in 1968 as the opening act for the then wildly popular comedian Bill Cosby. From the window of a luxury Bayshore hotel room, Bibb became enchanted with Vancouver’s working harbour and snow-capped mountains, vowing, “I have to live here.”

It was an unlikely move for a prominent figure in the continent-wide folk music revival. Bibb was also a Broadway and TV star – having appeared in Sidney Poitier movies and recorded albums for major labels – and a stirring performer at landmark demonstrations, including the March on Washington in 1963 and the protests in Selma, Alabama, two years later.

Harry Belafonte, a friend from Harlem back in the ‘50s, has noted, “Of all of us, he was probably the most talented. We were all envious of his beautiful baritone voice. He was really committed to the cause of civil rights and was hugely inspiring.”

Bibb abandoned New York for what was still a rough, blue-collar city. His first Vancouver performance featured blues and work songs, anti-war ballads and Malcolm X poems. Tickets were just 50 cents, but the UBC ballroom was half empty. He became a suspect in a robbery – solely because there were so few blacks locally – then fought for and received an apology.

Belefonte, Bibb, Baez in Montgomery
Belafonte, Bibb and Baez in Montgomery, Alabama|
photo by Matt Herron

Years later in 2011, back at UBC to accept an honorary doctorate, he described his birthplace, Louisville, Kentucky. “Segregated and racist, ringed by the white world and ‘coloured’ signs on toilets and fountains. I never had a conversation with a white person until I went to New York at 19.”

At four years of age, he sang solos in church and was featured in the glee club at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes. He left home to study and perform music and in 1946, while working at a New York automat, Leon landed a role in the original Annie Get Your Gun, singing Moonshine Lullaby with Ethel Merman 1,247 times!

But too few acting roles for black actors motivated Bibb to sing folk in the ‘50s. He performed in the coffeehouse craze, at the first Newport Festival in ‘59 and signed to Vanguard for several albums, including “Leon Bibb Sings Folk Songs.” His good looks, charm and stirring versatility – soulful ballads, chain-gang chants, spirituals and gospel songs as well as Broadway show tunes – made him a frequent TV guest. He made eight appearances on Ed Sullivan and had regular spots on the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and Hootenanny, broadening his audience. In 1967, he received a Tony nomination for the Black song-and-poetry revue A Hand Is on the Gate. The next year he attracted attention and notoriety as the love interest in an interracial staging of Carnival.

Dropped from TV for supporting blacklisted artists Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, in 1968 he created and hosted the talk show Someone New, where he introduced unknowns such as teenaged cellist Yo-Yo Ma and budding songwriter Barry Manilow. He also acquired performing rights to Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. An unprecedented seven-month run at Vancouver’s Arts Club established live theatre on the west coast.

Bibb also performed with the VSO and became a Canadian icon. His history of blues, ranging from a Harlem nightclub to a New Orleans whorehouse, was adapted as The Candyman and sequel on the CBC, nationally. And his gospel cantata about the underground railway, One More Stop on the Freedom Train, wowed Ontario and Vancouver at Expo 86. Bibb said, “The city offered a lifestyle that could never have happened in New York or L.A. and I liked it.” Grateful citizens bestowed honours on the highly visible, beloved figure, such as the Order of British Columbia and BC’s Entertainment Hall of Fame.

With son Eric – a Grammy-nominated acoustic blues singer-songwriter – he recorded A Family Affair (2002) and Praising Peace: A Tribute to Paul Robeson (2006).

Leon once told me he was most proud of his anti-racism and anti-bullying work, including a 1990’s cross-country tour of theatre and song entitled “A Step Ahead.” Deeply affected as an African American in Western Canada, at a time when knowledge about black history was so limited, he created and financed the program at hundreds of schools.

In what was to be his final public performance – February 2014, in Victoria’s Government House – he was ushered in by a piper and introduced by the Lieutenant Governor to sing in celebration of Black History Month.

Leon Bibb is survived by his partner Christine Anton, his two daughters Dorie and Amy, son Eric, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola Island-based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

EVENT: A Celebration of Leon Bibb’s life will be staged at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage at 2PM January 10, 2016. Doors open at 1:30PM.

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