Skip to main content

Known as well for his gentle demeanour and youthful handsomeness, Leon Bibb was celebrated for his honest, soulful renditions of even the most familiar blues standards and spirituals.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

One August morning in 1968, Leon Bibb awoke in a plush hotel room at the Bayshore Inn in Vancouver. He looked upon peaceful Lost Lagoon and the forest of Stanley Park. In the other direction, he marvelled at a working harbour with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. The singer knew he had found his promised land.

He moved to the city two years later, abandoning a New York career in which his lyric baritone had been heard in Greenwich Village coffeehouses as well as Lincoln Center; he had performed on Broadway and hosted a television variety show; he had sung at the inaugural Newport Folk festival and recorded more than a dozen albums for major labels such as Vanguard and Columbia.

That so distinguished a performer chose Vancouver as his home did not go unnoticed by grateful citizens.

His death on Oct. 23 at 93, after a series of strokes, was preceded by many honours, including investment into the Order of British Columbia, induction into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame and, many years earlier, a Tony award nomination. The University of British Columbia had also granted him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

Mr. Bibb had barely settled into his adopted city when he acquired the rights to Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which had an unprecedented seven-month run at the Arts Club Theatre, a landmark event in the establishment of live theatre in Vancouver. He performed pop songs with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, while some of his stage shows were turned into acclaimed CBC television specials.

Hearing Mr. Bibb perform live was unforgettable. Even in his 90s, his velvet voice could quiet a concert hall or a packed church. Gentle in demeanour, handsome like Harry Belafonte (a long-time friend) and preternaturally youthful, Mr. Bibb was celebrated for honest, soulful renditions of even the most familiar blues standards and spirituals. He was also praised for his lifelong advocacy of minority rights, a cause he furthered in Canada with a school anti-racism program called "A Step Ahead," designed and supported with his own money.

As a young man, he braved threats of physical violence to join civil rights marchers in his native American South, also putting into jeopardy a career already derailed for his having been blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

High cheekbones, smooth facial skin and an exuberance belied his age. At the height of his career, one encyclopedia supposed he had been born in 1935, making him 34. He was in fact 47 at the time.

Charles Leon Arthello Bibb was born in Louisville, Ky., on Feb. 7, 1922, to Elizabeth (née McClaskey) and Leon Bibb, who worked for the post office. He was the second child and first son of what would be four children. Sonny, as he was known, grew up in what he would later describe to a Vancouver audience as "a segregated and racist city."

He remembered first singing in church as a boy at about age four, encouraged by a great aunt to learn Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit, an African-American spiritual. After graduating from Central Colored High School, young Leon enrolled at the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes, where he was a featured soloist with the glee club.

Following service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, Mr. Bibb moved to New York for training as a singer and, later, as a guitarist. In 1946, he appeared on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman in a run lasting 1,147 shows. He later had a role as Jim in a musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn called Livin' the Life. His performance in A Hand Is On the Gate earned Mr. Bibb a Tony nomination in 1967 for best featured actor in a musical, though the production lasted only 20 performances. (The prize went to Joel Grey for Cabaret.)

Early in his life, Mr. Bibb took as his model Paul Robeson, the superb bass-baritone singer, actor, athlete, author, and champion of working people and African-American civil rights. The men performed together and struck a fast friendship, with Mr. Robeson named godfather in 1951 to Mr. Bibb's twin babies, a boy and a girl.

As Mr. Robeson was harassed and blacklisted for being pro-Communist, Mr. Bibb also came under scrutiny for having sung at such benefit concerts as a tribute to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955. For a time in the late 1950s, Mr. Bibb performed on stage and in the recording studio under the name Lee Charles.

In 1961, he signed and soon after renounced a statement commending the American Legion for being vigilant in rooting out Communists, a defiance of the blacklist that in the end had little effect on his popularity.

Mr. Bibb's smooth, soulful renditions of folk songs, English ballads, chain-gang chants, spirituals and gospel songs, not to mention Broadway show tunes, made him a popular guest on television variety programs. He appeared on The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show, on which he performed live six times between 1959 and 1965. He also appeared regularly on ABC-TV on such programs as Hootenanny and Discovery '64.

In 1968, he sold the concept of a variety show featuring unknown and up-and-coming acts. Mr. Bibb served as host of Someone New, which aired on the New York station WNBC.

Busy on stage and screen, he also maintained a steady schedule of recording, his releases on a variety of labels usually earning accolades. Billboard magazine praised the Vanguard single Rocks and Gravel ("sung with great spirit and gusto"), the album Leon Bibb Sings ("an excellent showcase for his versatile vocal talents") and Leon Bibb Sings Folks Songs ("a sensitive and talented interpreter").

In 1963, he put his career on temporary hold to go to Mississippi to join civil rights marches and voter registration drives. Two years later, he was there to perform alongside Mr. Belafonte, Joan Baez, the Canadian-born Oscar Brand, and Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary at the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march. The event concluded with 25,000 marchers descending on the Alabama State Capitol building to demand voting rights for African-Americans.

During this period, he also embarked on a 10-week performing tour of Europe with his family, ending with a whirlwind 24-day, 12-concert, five-city tour of the Soviet Union. "We were given the red carpet treatment," he said, "and that is not meant facetiously."

Mr. Bibb made his screen debut in Sidney Poitier's For Love of Ivy, in 1968. He also appeared alongside Mr. Poitier the following year in the black revolutionary fantasy, The Lost Man.

It was while touring as the opening act to the comic Bill Cosby that Mr. Bibb made his first visit to Vancouver in the summer of 1968. Twenty-eight months later, his first marriage over, Mr. Bibb loaded up his possessions.

"I drove across the country from New York with my furniture in a big van and got to the border and thought that I could just come on in to Canada: 'Here I am,'" he once told Holger Petersen, the broadcaster and record producer. The Canadian customs officer gave the singer two days to get his papers in order.

Vancouver in those days was still a rough-hewn, blue-collar port city with an operating barrel factory just a few blocks from the downtown Orpheum Theatre, which itself barely escaped the wrecking ball. Mr. Bibb's first performances involved a two-part concert program at the University of British Columbia featuring blues and work songs, as well as anti-war ballads and the poems of Malcolm X. Even with tickets costing just 50 cents, barely half the ballroom was filled and Mr. Bibb could have been excused had he entertained doubts about his move.

Not long after, he was stopped by police and questioned about a robbery, made a suspect solely for his skin colour. He fought for and eventually won an apology.

Despite the poor welcome, Mr. Bibb cemented his reputation in the city with Jacques Brel, performing with Ann Mortifee and others in a smash hit, which sold some 40,000 tickets, making patrons out of Philistines.

He later toured Canada with singer Gail Nelson and pianist Stan Keen in a revue called We Three.

A show in which Mr. Bibb adopted a dandy's persona while offering a singing history of the blues was presented at the Orpheum in 1977. Ranging in setting from a Harlem nightclub to a New Orleans whorehouse, the show was adapted as The Candyman for broadcast on CBC television, earning a rave review in The Globe. A sequel, Candyman's Gospel Show, aired in 1979.

Mr. Bibb followed by writing a gospel cantata about the underground railroad. One More Stop on the Freedom Train premiered in Toronto in 1984, toured Ontario the following year and was mounted in Vancouver during Expo 86.

A career highlight for Mr. Bibb involved the release of two recordings with his Grammy-nominated bluesman son, with A Family Affair (2002) and Praising Peace: A Tribute to Paul Robeson (2006). Through the years, Mr. Bibb maintained a steady presence on the performing calendar in his adopted city, whether singing at the annual folk music festival or appearing at a benefit concert. As he did in his early days, he liked to put aside the amplification of a microphone, allowing his mellifluous voice to fill the space.

Mr. Bibb leaves twins Dorie Bibb Clay, of New York, and Eric Bibb, of Helsinki; and youngest daughter, Amy Bibb-Ford, of New York. He also leaves nine grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; as well as his companion, Christine Anton. He was predeceased by his siblings, John Bibb, Harriett Porter and Edward Bibb.

Mr. Bibb's final public performance took place at Government House, the viceregal residence in Victoria, in February, 2014. He was singing as part of celebrations to mark B.C. Black History Month.

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.