With over forty superb albums, a five-decade career that’s made him an international star, and as one of the most remarkable performers in any musical genre, Eric Bibb is a singer, songwriter and ultimately, a very special artist.
In concert, and in recordings, he touches people, goes into their hearts, and stays there. He’s an artist who reaches listeners with his stories and songs, much like that of influential performers such as Guy Davis, Doug MacLeod, Corey Harris, and Keb’ Mo’. Bibb is a troubadour, telling tales and relating loving lessons through his music. Bibb’s music is one of honest simplicity, yet roaring with humanity.
His rapport and simpatico with his audiences is extremely special, and his story-telling abilities and penchant for brilliant original and cover songs create an immediate connection with listeners.
Bibb was born in New York City in August of 1951 and his upbringing was an engaging one. His parents were especially creative & encouraging his father, the late Leon Bibb (a senior fixture of the NY folk scene and social activist,) was extremely musical.
“I would cut school and claim I was sick. When everyone would leave the house I would whip out all the records and do my own personal DJ thing all day long, playing Odetta, Joan Baez, the New Lost City Ramblers, Josh White.”
Their home was filled with musicians and major musical presences… Bob Dylan, Paul Robeson Pete Seeger, the Reverend Gary Davis, Judy Collins and many others. Bibb’s uncle is the superb pianist & composer John Lewis, founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The monumentally-important artist/activist and consummate American Paul Robeson was Bibb’s Godfather.
“Paul’s influence was at a distance, but was nonetheless powerful throughout my upbringing and continues to be. He just had that personal, powerful effect on people and he had a huge effect on my Dad developing both as an artist and as a political activist. Paul’s philosophy of life and his story has been a part of our family’s fabric, so he’s always been there.”
As an early teen, he studied at New York City’s High School of Music and Art, where he learned classical guitar, piano and double bass, and of course, vocals.
“I was around music and guitar players and various instruments from a very young age because my dad had wonderful accompanists throughout his career. I was exposed to fantastic guitar playing at an early age. I am self-taught though. Most musicians have a combination of being self-taught which means just experimenting on your own, but also having at some point at least a little bit of formal music education. I personally had several good teachers however I didn’t make real use of their expertise and their time, but they were influences in any case… jazz teachers, classical guitar teachers and more. I went to a high school of music which introduced me to orchestral and choir music, so it’s been a combination of formal music training and just never stopping when it comes to playing the guitar.”
When Eric was seven years of age, he was gifted with his first guitar, a steel-stringed acoustic. It was the start of a musical romance between man and instrument that continues to this day, as each learns about the other through both practice and performance. The guitar chose him. “It was an instrument that fascinated me from very early on and it was accessible, it was around. Pianos were also around, but that wasn’t really my passion. Guitar seemed to grab me early on.”
Bibb’s a prolific musical wonder, who plays a myriad of guitars (among them, baritone, contrabass, slide, 6, 7, and 12-string, Resonator, National Steel, etc.) along with banjo & fiddle. It’s rare that he picks up a purely electric guitar.
“If I have to amplify, it is usually with an acoustic guitar, but I do have electric guitars which I rarely use when I perform or on recordings, but I have them. To me it’s almost like a separate instrument so I haven’t had a lot of time in that zone. It’s interesting to me, but not as interesting as the acoustic. I play a little bit of Wurlitzer & electric piano once in a while. I play a little harmonica, and I’m certainly a novice, but that’s very rare. It’s usually the string instruments (I play.)”
When he was sixteen, he was a member of a television house band for a talent show (his dad’s “Someone New,”) and at eighteen, he played guitar for the Negro Ensemble Company at St. Mark’s Place in New York. While still a teen, he studied psychology and Russian language at Columbia University in NYC.
Like any American teenager he listened to rock and roll, but it ultimately did not captivate him. “I listened to everything that was on the airwaves, like any American kid. There was a soul station down the end of the dial, and mainstream radio with the Beatles, and the Dave Clark Five, plus the sounds of Motown & Stax. It was all there, The Doors, Jose Feliciano, everybody. Everything you heard. I was open to all kinds of sound, I heard all of that stuff.”
In 1970 he moved to Europe where in Paris he met creative guitar genius Mickey Baker (who recorded “Love is Strange” with his female partner forming Mickey and Sylvia,) who helped him develop a compelling and lifelong interest in acoustic guitar blues. Soon after, Bibb fully discovered world music and the rich history of pre-WW2 American blues. His Gospel, folk and soul roots run deeper than most.
When he first started performing, he admitted to a few butterflies.
“This has been a work in progress. My so-called “ease” and I understand why people feel it because I’m sometimes really at ease when I walk on stage. But that’s definitely something that comes with time because that was not happening from the beginning. What was happening from the beginning was a need to perform. The nervous thing was always there. Certain situations I find a bit nervy. Live television is not my favorite medium. I love radio, but live television somehow is quite stressful.”
“However, I was always fascinated by the one-man or one-woman troubadour. One person could stand on a street corner with a guitar and just do it all. It would sound complete and you could make a living from it. I thought that really was an achievement.”
When asked how he might describe his music (a wonderfully wide combination of soul-blues-folk-Gospel and world music) to a new listener, he told us, “If you have to use generic terms, and I understand why it’s happened that way, I find it to be ultimately inhibiting to an artist. I think what you can say about my music is that I certainly was heavily influenced by all of the folk music I’ve ever heard, and that includes not only music from the African-American and American traditions, but we’re talking about where folk music has been a big part of my musical diet since I was very young. Jazz has certainly been a part of it, not to mention blues and gospel, which is really American folk music as well. So, in the end, any musician is influenced by anything they’ve ever really liked. And if they decide to clip their wings and fit into a certain box it’s a choice that one makes, consciously or not. But music is way beyond all of these hard-lined boundaries, because it denies the fact that it’s in flow. There are no borders when it comes to music. Every artist is picking up on lots of things. Those borders are artificial. It’s been a case where we might want to be all those things, however in the end it’s been about marketing music and sometimes the most efficient way is to limit it. I think there’s validity on both sides.”
He started his recording career in the early 70s, creating magical blues-oriented music, completely stripped of pretense. Some of his favorite albums, among the myriad he’s recorded, have been particularly meaningful to him. All of his albums have been important to his growth, but several have come closest to who he feels he was at the time, as a performer and a human being.
“All of them to one degree or another are right there. One of the records that comes to mind is A Ship Called Love, (2005) or Diamond Days (2006.) I find those records pretty definitive of where I was at the time. There’s another album that’s really important to me, because it’s live, released on the French label, DixieFrog Records, called Live at Fip. (2009.) It’s a really cool record.”
If someone were new to his music and wanted to get at the very least an introduction to who Bibb was and is, there are many, many choices. “I’d say, Booker’s Guitar, (2010) Spirit in the Blues, (1999) Migration Blues, (2017) Diamond Days, (2006) There’s so many records, but those come to my mind quickly.”
He later moved to Sweden and even taught music in schools there.
His recording with his late father Leon is experienced on two albums, Family Affair (2002) and Praising Peace. A Tribute to Paul Robeson (2006)
“That was a dream come true for me. I wish we had recorded more. I loved being in the studio with my dad. Those three records are just treasures for me. He was my hero from my first musical moment, period. Taking it full circle and to be able to produce him was really an indescribable pleasure.”
In the late 90s and beyond, he formed record labels, toured constantly and recorded prolifically. “Folk music (or world music these days) continues to be vital fare for me-like air, food and water”
In the Oughts, Bibb created a one-man, multi-media stage show encompassing lights, images and of course songs entitled, “Tales of a Blues Brother.” It usually leaves the audience both appreciative and breathless.
(The performance) “always makes for a special evening. I just played a concert in Paris, a one-man show. It was interesting because I did it in English and it worked out fine. I do perform it sporadically and I’m really happy that it’s out there. It’s been filmed, so possibly it may become available on Public Television or something like that. I’ll keep people posted.” (via his website: www.ericbibb.com.)
Bibb’s album, Friends (2004) brought him together with stellar artists, among them, Taj Mahal, Odetta, Guy Davis, Charlie Musselwhite, and many international artists such as the Mali-born Kora player, Mamadou Diabate.
As for turning points in his career, “I would bring up a record called “Friends,” performing with lots of wonderful colleagues of mine. Another cool record that’s kind of interesting as a special and particular point in time is called Me To You. (2000) That was the first major record deal I ever had. It lasted for just that one record, then Warner Brothers pulled the plug. It was produced by a wonderful member of the British Blues Scene, Mike Vernon of Blue Code Records. He was very supportive of me. Mike was also the one that made it possible for me to record with several heroes, notably Pops and Mavis Staples.”
In 2018, Eric recorded Pray, Sing, Love (2018) with his wife Ulrica, It’s a particularly beautiful album, and a joy to listen to.
“We’ve been collaborating for a longer time than we’ve been married. We’ve been man-and-wife (since 2014) but we’ve made music before that, but this particular record was really a celebration of our marriage. It’s an album that we’re really happy with, and we hope a lot of people that just love music discover it.“
The remarkable Global Griot (2018) was developed in collaboration with a joy of expression in song not found in many other recordings. It is so infectious, at many times tender. It will generate a greater appreciation for international music, especially that of Africa. A Griot of Western Africa is “a member of a caste responsible for maintaining an oral record of tribal history in the form of music, poetry and story-telling.”
“My ongoing reunion with West Africa is a life-changing blessing. Collaborating with and befriending musicians from legendary Griot families has been a long awaited homecoming – like a healing, singing river washing over my soul. It has been an honor and a great pleasure to introduce my fellow global Griots with this gathering of the tribes.”
Produced by Bibb and any number of musical compatriots, it features originals and covers, (such as Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White.”) Global Griot introduces relatively unknown but enthralling players to Western audiences. Bibb also makes room on the album for well-known bluesmen such as the great Canadian artist, Harrison Kennedy, as well as the pure voiced song of Bibb’s wife Ulrica and the superb Cultural Heritage Choir founder/member Linda Tillery plus the aforementioned, multi-instrumentalist and producer Glen Scott.
The two-disc set is separated into two “acts” and was recorded in France, Sweden, England, Jamaica, Canada, Ghana and the good old U.S.A. All of it is cohesive and comes through as a gentle labor of love.
It contains a stunning cover of the American Civil War-period slave spiritual, “Michael, Row Da Boat Ashore,” which will make listeners tingle with remembrance of another time, yet it fits perfectly with the rigors of our day. The album is sincere and deep, acoustic and alive, and one that needs to be heard.
Bibb comes across fellow-players to perform or record with certainly by way of festivals, cruises, club dates, symphony halls and concerts, and he knows he is much the richer for it.
“Musicians are always good conduits to meeting other musicians. I meet a lot of musicians and not everybody is someone you feel drawn to, to the point where you want to collaborate with them. But (when it happens,) it’s an unmistakable feeling of magnetism and you basically end up asking the person, ‘Hey, would you like to do something together?’ You usually know within a half hour of meeting them, that it’s obvious that you would just play good music together.”
Eric has recorded his albums in many nations, around the world. How has he chosen where and when?
“Maybe they choose me. I travel a lot and I choose to record wherever I am. So if I find a good studio in my vicinity and I have a day off, I might check that out. It’s a good way to catch things in the moment.”
The challenge of producing oneself is always problematic in regard to objectivism, despite what many self-producing performers may say.
“The real challenge is when it comes to something really ambitious, you really need objectivity and you’re the main person involved. But when it comes to producing myself on something simpler, I have no problemEric Bibb playing “Shingle by Shingle Live”.artistic opportunities (and ones) I never saw coming. He is a bigger dreamer than me, so it’s great to do something with a musical vision that’s huge and someone who appreciates you… that’s a good producer.”
Newcomers to his music might find several opportunities to be introduced to Bibb’s mighty music. “What comes to mind are Blues People (2014) and Migration Blues, (2017) although there are quite a few others.
And for something different in the future, Bibb states, “There are blues fans that only listen to blues as it were and there are blues fans that listen to blues and a whole lot of everything else that’s related. So I would say that one day I might make an album that’s dominated by specific blues tunes… some kind of gumbo. In the end, I’m resistant to that blues tribe being so pedantic about it. That’s all.“
Bibb has had multiple Grammy nominations and still enjoys the amount of The Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Award wins and many other accolades he’s received over the years.
“The awards always feel good when you get word of them. But it’s really at this point not important to me on a scale of one-to-ten. However it’s always nice to be recognized by your peers. I like it… it’s a good feeling.”
Bibb has opened for Ray Charles, George Benson and Robert Cray among many others. Dan Aykroyd, host of the “House of Blues Radio Hour” once told Eric “You are what the blues in the new century should be about.” And Bibb is all of that.
And luckily, there are many YouTube videos of this unique and special artist and we encourage you to spend some time with them. You’ll feel his sincerity, and especially heart with all of them. And an evening’s performance with Eric Bibb is always extremely special… he’s just that good.
What does the near or far future hold in store for him? It holds simply more music; loving his friends, family and children; traveling, performing; recording and making memorable music both alone and with fellow musicians. All while stretching the boundaries of his personal song and striking growth as an artist.
Eric has become, through years of a creative journey a wandering minstrel to the world. He happily strives to reach “a further exploration into the place where blues meets gospel and soul.”
And we would add, magic.
Visit Eric’s website at: www.ericbibb.com.