While Peg Leg Howell and His Gang tended to sound countrified, Barbecue Bob, his brother Laughing Charley, and Curley Weaver pushed Atlanta blues in new directions. The three had grown up together in the cottonfield country around Walnut Grove, Georgia. Charlie Hicks, often identified as “Laughing Charley” on records, was born in 1900. His brother Robert was 18 months his junior. They were sons of sharecroppers, as was their neighbor Curley James Weaver, four years younger than Robert. Curley’s mother, Savannah “Dip” Weaver, played guitar and piano in church. Old neighbors told researcher Pete Lowry that Dip taught the boys some guitar, showing them the frailing techniques and open-G tuning used by the area’s banjo players. They may have been introduced to slide guitar from unrecorded local guitarists Robert Lee “Sun” Foster and George White, who were known to have tutored Weaver.
By 1918, the Hicks brothers were performing on 6-strings at fish fries and country balls, playing songs like “John Henry” and “Poor Boy.” In the early 1960s, their sister, Willie Mae Jackson, told George Mitchell that Robert was the better guitarist, while Charlie had a stronger voice. Around 1923 Charlie moved to Atlanta, got married, found work, and acquired a 12-string guitar with money he’d earned picking cotton. Robert followed him there about a year later. He worked various jobs – as a yardman, at the Biltmore Hotel, as a car hop – before becoming a barbecue chef.
Robert Hicks was the first to record. He was spotted by Columbia talent scout Dan Hornsby while working at the all-white Tidwell’s Barbecue in upscale Buckhead, serenading patrons for tips and entertaining after work at private parties. Hicks began cutting for Columbia in March 1927 and was identified as “Barbecue Bob” on all but two of his 78s. With his bright, trebley 12-string tone and strong, emotive voice, Hicks created his signature sound with the opening measures of his very first record, “Barbecue Blues,” which he played without a slide until the outtro solo. The flip side, “Cloudy Sky Blues,” further displayed his facile fingerpicking and slide finesse. “Barbecue Blues” was advertised in the nationally distributed Chicago Defender newspaper with a caricature of a black man playing a short-scale banjo. Barbecue Bob’s debut 78 sold exceptionally well – according to notes in Columbia’s files, after its initial pressing of 10,850 copies, another 5000 were made.
Columbia arranged to record Barbecue Bob in their main studio in New York City in June. His voice strong and confident, Hicks cut four blues songs on June 15th, including the dramatic “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” which he’d written on the train ride to New York City. The song was about the recent catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi Delta. Near the end of the song, he identified himself by his real name: “Robert Hicks is singing/That’s why I’m cryin’, Mississippi heavy water blues.” Two other songs recorded that day, “Mamma You Don’t Suit Me!” and “Brown-Skin Women,” addressed the differences between “brownskin women” and lighter-complexioned “high yellers.” The following day, Barbecue Bob recorded his first slide-intensive song, one of the earliest known renditions of “Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home,” as well as the spirituals “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Jesus’ Blood Can Make Me Whole.” When 78s from the June 1927 sessions came out, Barbecue Bob hit paydirt with “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues.” The record sold especially well among Southern blacks, and Hicks was soon Columbia’s best-selling bluesman. In his book The Blues Makers, Sam Charters wrote that copies of the 78 “turned up for years in junk shops and Salvation Army stores everywhere in the South, and almost all of them were gray and worn with endless playing.” Charters also reported that when Barbecue Bob was in New York for sessions, he stayed at Mamie Smith’s house in Harlem.
For the next three years, Barbecue Bob made records every time Columbia visited Atlanta. As Charters pointed out, “Over the three and a half years he was a Columbia artist, he did sixty titles, and his releases sold almost 200,000 copies – 198,365 were pressed and usually all copies were shipped to stores during this period. He consistently outsold every artist on the Columbia race series except Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Blind Willie Johnson for the years he was recording.” To help promote Barbecue Bob, Columbia issued a publicity photograph of him in his barbecue outfit.
Three songs in particular stand out from Barbecue Bob’s November 1927 sessions. His “How Long Pretty Mama” was essentially “Corrina, Corrina” set to an ambitious arrangement of snapped bass strings, subtle slide passages, and some beautiful descending chordal passages – this guy could really play! The two-part “It Won’t Be Long Now,” credited to Barbecue Bob and Laughing Charley, was the first 78 to feature Charlie Hicks. “It Won’t Be Long Now, Part 1” began with a spoken dialog about Bob’s job as a barbecue chef; this was pure minstrel shuck-and-jive. This was also the first record to feature Charley’s signature laughter. It was an old shtick dating back at least to George W. Johnson’s “Laughing Song” cylinders of the 1890s, but it was a good way to get Charlie’s name out there. Near the end of the song, the brothers sang a verse in unison.
“It Won’t Be Long Now, Part 2” featured two minutes of the brothers hip-talking about women and one minute of Barbecue Bob’s singing. Charters wrote that Columbia’s Frank Walker rushed this 78 into the stores: “It was released only a few weeks after they’d sung it, on December 20, 1927. Whether it was the season, or the song, or just the new sound of their Atlanta music, the record was a big success. With two pressings it sold 16,750 copies, more than any other release on the race series in this period.”
Charlie Hicks recorded six songs on his own during Columbia’s November 1927 sessions. He was a strong singer but less-gifted guitarist than his brother, relying on old-fashioned frailing techniques and rarely using slide. In short, he sounded more old-fashioned. And unlike his ebullient brother, Laughing Charley tended to sound melancholy. His injections of laughter at the beginnings of songs like “Mojoe Blues” and “Hard Luck Blues” seem out of place, given the songs’ heavy, melancholy lyrics. His “My Wife Drove Me From My Door” was one of the saddest songs to come out of the Atlanta scene. “At first his records sold as well as Bob’s,” wrote Sam Charters. “The two releases in January each sold about 12,000 copies – Bob’s 11,295 and Charley’s 11,600. They each had a record out in April, but this time Bob’s sold 14,425 and Charley’s only 9300. Charley’s record was later to be one of his better known ones, ‘Jealous Hearted Blues’ and ‘My Wife Drove Me From My Door,’ because copies continually turned up when collectors went through the South digging out the old blues recordings, and most of the copies were virtually unplayed.”
Both brothers were back recording for Columbia in April 1928. Charlie went first, recording four songs on the 11th. Considering their titles, it’s unfortunate that “He-She Blues” and “Bitin’ Crab Blues” were shelved, and I don’t think any copies exist today. The songs that did come out – “Ugly Papa” and “If It Looks Like Jelly Shakes Like Jelly It Must Be Gelantine” – were throwbacks to pre-blues styles. Two days later, Barbecue Bob recorded two of his very best records. The fabulous “Goin’ Up the Country” featured quick-paced, note-perfect slide and one of his most appealing vocal performances. On a 1 to 10 scale, this one’s about an 11. “Chocolate to the Bone,” used for the title of a Yazoo album, delivered insightful lyrics on the nature of race and relationships. Pete Lowry points out that “the reference to Miss Lillian in the song is to Lillian Glinn and a recent recording of hers.” A week later, Barbecue Bob recorded “Mississippi Low-Levee Blues” a follow-up to his biggest hit.
During his heyday, Barbecue Bob’s sister recalled, he lived fast and enjoyed the high life. In “Blind Pig Blues,” he celebrated his partying, singing, “Oh liquor, liquor, liquor/give me liquor ’til I die.” In one publicity photo, he posed in a natty dark pinstripe suit, white tie and shirt, and fancy fedora, holding a small-bodied 12-string guitar, possibly a Stella. The photo reveals that unlike Lead Belly, who strung his 12-string with each octave bass string beneath its counterpart, Barbecue Bob put his octave bass strings on top, like most 12-stringers today. He tended to play bass parts with his thumb and used a bottleneck or ring for slide. He favored one- or two-chord song structures and was equally adept at fast, clean, highly rhythmic playing and slow blues. His bright tone suggests that he liked to play with his right hand close to the guitar’s bridge. For added effect, he’d occasionally snap his lower strings or launch into solos at unexpected times. He usually tuned to open G and would sometimes capo up four frets to play in B.
Like many bluesmen of the late 1920s, Barbecue Bob jumped into the hokum craze inaugurated by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey. At his April 1929 sessions, he framed several songs, including the hokumy “It Just Won’t Hay” and “Honey You’re Going Too Fast,” with a chugging chord-strumming technique unlike anything he’d recorded before. He returned to classic form on “It’s Just Too Bad,” showcasing expert slide technique. The highpoint of Barbecue Bob’s fall session was one the best versions of “Yo Yo Blues.” The record apparently sold well, since he cut “Yo-Yo Blues, No. 2” at his April 1930 session. On 78, this was paired with one of his funniest storytelling songs, “Monkey and the Baboon.” Two of Barbecue Bob’s best songs from the April 1930 session – “She Shook Her Gin” and “Twistin’ That Stuff” – were shelved by Columbia, possibly because the lyrics were too suggestive. Today you can hear these top-drawer performances on Document Records’ Barbecue Bob: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3.
Laughing Charley’s appearance at the April 1930 Atlanta session was his swan song as a recording artist. On April 18th he recorded “Doodle Hole Blues” and “Mama Don’t Rush Me.” Five days later, he ended his recording career where he’d begun, teaming with his brother on the two-parter “Darktown Gamblin’ – Part 1 (The Crap Game)” and “Darktown Gamblin’ – Part 2 (The Skin Game).” As on their very first recordings together three years earlier, Charlie’s role on these sides was mainly to jive talk his brother. Bob sang a few measures at the end of Part 1, while Charlie concluded Part 2.
Barbecue Bob was in fine form at his final sessions in December 1930, held at Atlanta’s Campbell Hotel. He recorded six new blues on his own and then teamed with Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss as the Georgia Cotton Pickers. Weaver slid magnificently through these rollicking tunes, while Barbecue Bob strummed and thumbed 12-string. Moss, recording for the first time, wailed on harmonica – what a talent! Infectious hokum, their “Diddle-Da-Diddle” was probably written in response to Blind Blake’s recently popular “Diddy Wah Diddy.” With its jaunty slide guitar and harmonica, the 78’s flip side, the beautifully performed “She’s Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day,” bore a melodic resemblance to the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Their other 78 paired “I’m on My Way Down Home” with “She Looks so Good.” Played with unabashed heart, the Georgia Cotton Pickers sides are among the best of the prewar blues band recordings.
Tragically, the following year Barbecue Bob Hicks caught influenza and died of pneumonia at his father’s home. A recording of “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” was played at his burial. Charlie Hicks, already moody and introverted, became a mean and dangerous drunk after the deaths of his brother and father. Following a series of scrapes with the law, he reportedly murdered a man in December 1955 and three months later was sentenced to twenty years. Big Joe Williams told people that he encountered Charlie Hicks later in the 1950s , working as the trustee of a chain gang in south Georgia. In September 1963 Hicks died in the state penitentiary.
By the records they left behind, it’s clear that two other blues guitarists who may have been from Georgia shared stylistic similarities with the Hicks brothers and Curley Weaver. Willie Baker, who played a 12-string, recorded Weaver’s “No No Blues” at his first session and sounded enough like Barbecue Bob and Laughing Charley to suggest that he may have seen them play. The enigmatic Baker, who recorded in Richmond, Indiana, for Gennett in 1929, appeared on four 78s altogether. One some of these he was credited under his own name, while others listed him as “Willie Jones” and “Steamboat Bill and His Guitar.” Virtually nothing else is known about him. George Carter, who recorded two obscure Paramount 78s in 1929, played 12-string slide in open G in a manner similar to Barbecue Bob on “Hot Jelly Roll Blues” and “Weeping Willow Blues,” albeit at a much more relaxed pace. The ethereal quality of his minimalistic versions of “Rising River Blues” and “Ghost Woman Blues” make me wish he’d made more records.
The Atlanta Bluesmen continues here: Curley Weaver
Thanks to George Mitchell, Pete Lowry, Bruce Bastin, and David Evans for their pioneering work researching Georgia blues, and especially to Sam Charters for allowing me to quote his research in this article.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.