“Bilbo Is Dead”: Not the Hobbit

Joe’s Record Paradise – thankfully – is only moving up Georgia Avenue a few blocks.

Joe’s Record Paradise at dusk

Joe's Record Paradise-bb

On my last visit to Joe’s I picked up The Record Men:  The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock & Roll – the lone music history title in W.W. Norton’s Enterprise series that celebrates the virtues and achievements of Capitalism and Free Enterprise.  Rich Cohen, consequently, focuses on Leonard and Phil Chess and the immigrant experience in post-WWII America, as the two brothers carved out an entrepreneurial niche at a time when Chicago electrified the blues during the Second Great Migration.

The success of the Macomba Lounge and its reputation as an after-hours music hot spot (that drew the likes of Max Roach and Ella Fitzgerald) would give Leonard Chess the inspiration to try his hand at recording this new blues sound as a music label proprietor.  In 1947, Chess would buy a minority ownership stake in Aristocrat Records, the label that would become Chess three years later when Leonard and Phil acquired sole ownership of this independent musical enterprise.

Given the renown of Chess, surprisingly little seems to be known about the controversy around Leonard Chess’s first recording foray in September, 1947 with Andrew Tibbs.  Writes Cohen:

“The Tibbs record is a cautionary tale–it shows how everything can go wrong.  A few thousand were pressed.  Side A was ‘Union [Man] Blues,’ a song about the life of a union man, a flat song to everyone but the Teamsters, truckers, and box handlers, who found it offensive, and so–or so the story goes–refused to ship it, letting the records pile up in the warehouses.  Side B was “Bilbo Is Dead,” an attack on segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo, who had just died.  In those parts of the South where the Teamsters let the record through, it was smashed by angry white mobs.  So started Leonard Chess in the music business:  he sent his record out into the whirlwind–and these things are really no more than totems of the people who make them–and it came back smashed up, and spat upon, and undelivered.”

Note:  1101A means that “Bilbo Is Dead” is the A-side, not “union Man Blues”

Andrew Tibbs 78-aAndrew Tibbs 78-b

Francis Davis in The History of the Blues additionally notes that “Union Man Blues” was a song “that voiced disgust over the exclusion of blacks from labor unions.  Angry truck drivers, upon hearing the content of the lyrics, destroyed mass quantities of this record.”  John Collis in The Story of Chess Records would refer to ‘the Tibbs record’ as the controversial release “which almost killed off Chess before it had even started.”

“Bilbo Is Dead”     Andrew Tibbs     1947

Andrew Tibbs (vocals)
with Dave Youngs Orchestra:
–  Dave Young (tenor sax)
–  AndrewGoonGardner (alto sax)
–  Pee Wee Jackson (trumpet)
–  Rudy Martin (piano)
–  Bill Settles (bass)
–  Curtis Walker (drums)

Robert L. Campbell (et al.)’s history of the Aristocrat label points out that “some of the composer credits on Aristocrat labels are demonstrably bogus.  For instance, ‘Bilbo Is Dead’ was co-written by Andrew Tibbs and Tom Archia.  But the label claimed credit for Chess-Aleta-Archia—whoever Aleta was.  Meanwhile the copyright records at the Library of Congress give Evelyn Aron and Mildred Brount as the copyright owners!”

2120 South Michigan Avenue – Chicago, IL

2120 South Michigan AveAn original copy of the “Bilbo Is Dead” 78 would fetch just under $100 in 2013.

Fifth Zero to 180 item tagged as Labor in Song.