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Leon Bibb, Actor, Folk Singer and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 93 – The New York Times

Leon Bibb, Actor, Folk Singer and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 93 – The New York Times


Leon Bibb, Actor, Folk Singer and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 93

OCT. 26, 2015
Leon Bibb appearing in the 1979 television special "Mister Candyman." CBC, via Photofest 

Leon Bibb, an actor turned folk singer whose powerful, elegant baritone voice made him a prominent figure in the folk-music revival and a stirring performer at the landmark civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, including the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, died on Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 93.

The death was confirmed by his daughter Dorie Bibb Clay.

Mr. Bibb made his Broadway debut in 1946, one of three black singers in the chorus of “Annie Get Your Gun,” and went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for best supporting actor in the song-and-poetry revue “A Hand Is on the Gate,” whose cast also included Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, in 1967.

The next year he appeared as the love interest of Victoria Mallory, a white actress, in City Center’s revival of “Carnival,” a daring bit of casting at the time. “People may be attracted to the interracial love in the play,” Mr. Bibb told The New York Times. “I don’t knock it — but it isn’t the most important thing. To cast black actors in roles where they can bring an extra dimension to the story is important.”

It was the dearth of parts for black actors that motivated Mr. Bibb to remold himself as a folk singer in the mid-1950s, drawing on the spirituals that one of his aunts had sung to him as a child in Louisville, Ky. Albums like “Leon Bibb Sings Folk Songs,” released by the Vanguard label in 1959, and frequent performances on the television show “Hootenanny” made him one of the more prominent folk singers of the era. A regular at clubs like the Bitter End and the Village Gate in New York and the hungry i in San Francisco, he sang at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and reached a broad television audience that same year when he sang “Sinner Man,” one of his signature songs, on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Mr. Bibb became involved in the civil rights movement early on, taking part in voter-registration drives in the South and performing at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965 he performed in front of the statehouse in Montgomery with Joan Baez, Oscar Brand and Harry Belafonte, whom he had known since their acting days at the American Negro Theater in Harlem.

“He was really committed to the cause of civil rights, and he was hugely inspiring,” Mr. Belafonte said in a telephone interview. “Between him and Mahalia Jackson, we had all the music we needed for the movement.”

Charles Leon Aurthello Bibb was born on Feb. 7, 1922, in Louisville, where his father was a postal worker and his mother was a homemaker. He sang in church choirs as a boy and in the glee club of Louisville Municipal College, which he attended for two years.


From left, the singers and civil rights activists Mary Travers, Harry Belafonte, Leon Bibb, Joan Baez and Oscar Brand in 1965 outside the Alabama state capitol at the end of the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Charles Shaw/Getty Images 

He trained briefly with the Army Air Forces, hoping to fly with the Tuskegee Airmen, but was discharged from the military because of a rheumatic heart.

Mr. Bibb moved to New York to act in musicals and, while working at a Horn & Hardart automat, landed a role in “Annie Get Your Gun.” He appeared in several more Broadway productions, all of them short runs, and national tours. In 1957 he played Jim in “Livin’ the Life,” a musical adaptation of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

He had supporting roles opposite Sidney Poitier, another friend from the American Negro Theater, in the films “For Love of Ivy” (1968) and “The Lost Man” (1969).

“Of all of us, he was probably the most talented, probably because of that beautiful baritone voice,” Mr. Belafonte said, speaking of the actors associated with the American Negro Theater. “We were all envious.”

As a folk singer, Mr. Bibb was first on record on “Hootenanny Tonight,” an anthology album assembled by the editor of Sing Out! magazine in 1954. Under the name Lee Charles, he recorded an album with the folk quartet the Skifflers and a solo album of spirituals for Riverside Records, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” before recording under his own name for Vanguard and other labels.

In 1968 he helped create “Someone New,” a television show on WNBC in New York on which, as host, he introduced unknown performers like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, still in his early teens, and Barry Manilow, teamed with his singing partner at the time, Jeanne Lucas.

While on tour with the revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” he became enchanted with Vancouver and moved there in the early 1970s. For the next 40 years he performed frequently in Canada and the United States.

Mr. Bibb’s two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Dorie and his son, Eric, a singer and musician, he is survived by his partner, Christine Anton; another daughter, Amy Bibb-Ford; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

His last New York appearance was in 2007 at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square with his fellow folk singer Odetta and his son. He performed last year in Victoria, British Columbia.



Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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