Black Bob

Active 1920s - 1930s / Piano Blues.
This pianist was an accompanist on hundreds of blues records in the 30s, mainly for Bluebird, backing ‘Big’ Bill Broonzy, Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, Lil Johnson, Washboard Sam and many others. His identity was the subject of years of speculation, for it seemed absurd that the possessor of such a prodigious stride and blues technique should be completely anonymous. Circumstantial evidence suggested that his true name was Bob Alexander, but his immediately recognizable style, percussive, yet sparkling and melodious, is very similar to that on an unissued test by Bob Hudson; furthermore, Memphis Slim, when asked if he had known a Bob Hudson, replied, ‘Yeah. We called him Black Bob.’

BLACK BOB (piano; scat vocal with the MIDNIGHT RAMBLERS) is an instantly recognizable, ragtime-influenced pianist who recorded extensively as a sideman at Chicago, Illinois during the 1930s for BLUEBIRD and occasionally for Vocalion performers. His forte is “good time” music. Black Bob was recalled by Charlie West as being active at Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1920s, although Charlie said that at Cincinnati he was known as BLACK JACK. Melvyn Hirst reported that Paul Oliver told him that Big Bill told Paul in the 1950s that Black Bob was named Robert Alexander. Paul is on record as saying that he cannot recall which name was recalled as Black Bob’s given name. Bill told Oliver that he shared an apartment with Black Bob, and Paul had the impression that Bob hailed from Indianapolis or St. Louis. He is not Aletha Robinson’s husband, pianist/ music teacher Bob Robinson. Charlie West recalled that Black Jack moved in about 1927 to Chicago, where he adopted the name Black Bob. Black Bob recorded, or is thought to have recorded, behind Big Bill (Broonzy: 1932 to 1937); Trixie Butler (1936); Chicago Black Swans (1937); Chicago Sanctified Singers (1935); Amos Easton (1935 and 1936); Teddy Edwards (1934, 1936); Jazz Gillum (1934); Hokum Boys (1936); Lil Johnson (1935 to 1937); Little Bill (1937); Willie Lofton (1935); Joe McCoy (1935); Billy Mack (as State Street Swingers: 1937); Willie Mae McKenzie (1937); Memphis Minnie (1935 to 1936); Midnight Ramblers (1936 and 1937); Arnett Nelson (1936); Papa Charlie (McCoy: 1936); State Street Boys (1935); State Street Swingers (1936 to 1937); Tampa Red (1934 to 1938); John D. Twitty (1937); Washboard Sam (1936 to 1938); Will (Casey Bill) Weldon (1935 to 1936); Charley West (1937). Memphis Minnie claimed, in a letter to Mike Leadbitter, that she was working with Black Bob up to 1954, although he seems not to have recorded after 1942. His first surmised recording session was on 30 March 1932, behind Big Bill (Broonzy). His last surmised session backing Big Bill was on 9 June 1937, after which “Leeford” Robinson (almost certainly Aletha Robinson) began recording behind Broonzy. However (based upon aural evidence), Black Bob is the pianist behind Washboard Sam and probably Tampa Red for their BLUEBIRD session of 16 June 1938. Based upon aural evidence, he is also the pianist behind Memphis Minnie on 23 June 1938; behind Mattie Hardy, One Arm Slim and Joe Williams on 2 November 1938; behind Washboard Sam (sharing with Josh Altheimer) on 16 December 1938; as a member of the Harlem Hamfats on 14 September 1939; and as a member of The Three Shadows behind Ruth Ladson on 30 June 1941. Jeff Holden from Sydney, New South Wales, spoke to one of his relatives, says Eric Brown. There has been much mystery as to his identity, including suggestions, Lovell Alexander; Bob Alexander; Bob Call; Bob Robinson; and “Leeford” Robinson. Aural evidence negates “Leeford” Robinson as being Black Bob, despite the fact that “Leeford” Robinson backed Big Bill on 8 July 1937, at a session shared with Victoria Spivey and Charlie West! If Leeford is Aletha, that decides the issue. Compare recordings made as BOB HUDSON at New York City in 1932 for the American Record Company. Bob Hudson’s piano duet with Buddy Burton was issued as by THE BLACK DIAMOND TWINS, but he was apparently associated with the Alabama Rascals / Memphis Night Hawks. Memphis Slim stated that Black Bob was Bob Hudson. He was reported to be the same as Ed “Fats” Hudson, who was also known as Bob Hudson, but aurally this seems unlikely. James Goodwin has adopted Hudson in his discussions. In addition to other sessions known or believed to feature Black Bob, James Goodwin suggests that Black Bob backed Mike Bailey (St. Louis Red Mike) on 16 June 1938; Big Bill Broonzy on 23 March 1934 and 19 October 1934; Mattie Hardy on 2 November 1938; Harlem Hamfats on 14 September 1939; Merline Johnson (Yas Yas Girl) on 9 June 1937; Ruth Ladson on 30 June 1941; Memphis Minnie on 23 June 1938; Tampa Red on 26 February 1935 and 27 July 1935; John D. Twitty (Black Spider Dumplin’) on 18 March 1937 and 4 May 1937; Washboard Sam on 4 May 1937 and 16 December 1938; and Casey Bill Weldon on 25 March 1936 and 1-2 April 1936. Goodwin suggests that Bob does not play on Big Bill’s CHERRY HILL (19 November 1936) or Charlie McCoy’s TOO LONG (3 April 1936).

Interestingly, there was a black musician name Robert Alexander, details as follows, but his death seems to be too early for him to Black Bob: Compare Robert Alexander, musician, who had been born at Jeanerette, Iberia Parish, Louisiana in 1891, a son of Emile and Frances Alexander. His wife was Essie and he died at Kankakee, Kankakee County, Illinois on 30 September 1936.

Compare Robert Alexander (aged 40 in 1930, married at 25), who had been born in Kentucky and resided at 4339 (South) Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois by 1930, with his wife Nora (29 in 1930, married at 14, also born in Kentucky), and a 13-year old daughter (born in Ohio) called Cathrine. He was a “com(mon) laborer” in 1930 and was shown as a laborer when he died (reportedly aged 60) at Chicago on 29 October 1945. He was buried at Mt. Glenwood Cemetery, Bloom, Cook County, Illinois.

by Bob Eagle