Some of the most influential members of any music community are best appreciated by their peers. This is true of Bob Gibson, one of the first super stars of the folk music renaissance of the ’50s. Bob Gibson wrote and revitalized an amazing collection of songs, many of which have become folk standards, and no one — with the possible exception of Pete Seeger — was more responsible for popularizing the 12-string guitar. With his ringing tenor voice and innovative instrumental virtuosity, Bob brought folk music into venues that had never before experienced the tradition of the traveling troubadour. This is the legacy of Bob Gibson.
Bob Gibson was born on November 16, 1931 in Brooklyn and grew up along the Hudson River north of New York City where he sang in the church choir. When he left high school in his senior year, he hitchhiked around the country, eventually returning to New York City to become a partner in a firm which taught speed-reading. In 1953 he met Pete Seeger and was so impressed with Pete and his music, he \"took the money I had set aside for rent\" and bought a banjo. Immersed in the study of folk music, he learned to play the banjo, quit his job and hit the road to collect songs.
By the age of 22 Bob was performing at schools, ladies’ social clubs, lounges, cabarets, and cruise ships from New York to Miami, from the Bahamas to Cleveland, finally landing in Chicago. There he met the man who would become his manager. Albert Grossman had a new idea for a folk club and in 1956 launched The Gate of Horn where he signed Bob for what turned out to be an 11-month engagement — first as an opening act and later as a headliner. By 1958, this 26-year old husband and father of three had recorded four albums on Riverside, appeared as a regular on the Arthur Godfrey show, helped launch the Hootenanny craze in New York’s Greenwich Village, and was well on his way to becoming a legend in Chicago, not to mention a major force in the folk renaissance. Indeed, as groups sprung up in ever increasing numbers, it was difficult to find any new album that didn’t contain at least one Gibson song.
Bob’s eye for new talent was matched by his willingness to share the spotlight. Often in his travels he would run across an unknown performer with great promise whom he would bring to Chicago to be his opening act — Joan Baez and Judy Collins to name but two. In 1959, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Gibson became the first to introduce Joan Baez to a national audience.
Bob was traveling the country performing in concerts, clubs and coffeehouses, but still had a home base in Chicago. Upon arriving back after one road trip, he found a young man sitting in his living room who told him, “Albert wants us to sing together.” Albert Grossman had discovered Bob Camp singing in Greenwich Village and decided it would be a great idea for Gibson and Camp to form a duo. So, without telling Gibson, he gave Camp a key to Gibson’s apartment and sent him to Chicago. As Gibson put it, the two circled each other like stray dogs for a few days and then tried singing together.
In the evenings Camp would come down to the club where, towards the end of the set, Gibson would introduce him and they’d do a few tunes. As their repertoire expanded, this phenomenal act grew and so did their legions of fans. In 1961, Elektra Records released Gibson & Camp at the Gate of Horn. A ground-breaking live recording, it became folk music’s first gold record and had a profound influence on everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Gordon Lightfoot to The Byrds to John Denver to The Beatles.
It was at The Gate of Horn where Bob met Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein who frequented the club as a fan. Shel wrote the liner notes for the Gibson & Camp album and the two became fast friends. Bob encouraged Shel to start writing lyrics and thus began a 35-year partnership responsible for dozens of Gibson and Silverstein collaborations. As Albert Grossman continued to manage Gibson’s flourishing career, he signed an unknown young songwriter - Bob Dylan. Noting the success of the Gibson and Camp duo, Grossman wanted to add a female singer and have them perform some of Dylan’s songs, but both Gibson and Camp nixed the idea of a trio. Gibson continued working as a solo act while Bob Camp became Hamilton Camp and headed west to Hollywood to pursue a successful acting career. Determined to not give up his idea of a guy-girl-guy trio, Grossman put together Peter, Paul & Mary.
By 1964 Gibson had recorded four best-selling albums for Elektra but as the ’60s began changing from the age of innocence to the age of turbulence, so did Bob’s career. His addiction and substance abuse problems eventually led to a self-imposed hiatus from the music business. In 1966 he left Greenwich Village and moved his family to upstate New York where he dabbled in woodworking, dealt with being a father and tried to come to terms with his life.
By 1969, when Bob resurfaced on the club scene in New York and Chicago, the immense popularity once enjoyed by folk music had waned. It would never be the same. Rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. Although many of the new era’s biggest artists — from Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills and Nash, from Richie Havens to The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers — acknowledged Gibson’s seminal influence, Bob himself was no longer a superstar. He landed in Los Angeles where he recorded his first album in a half dozen years. As his odyssey continued, it took him north to the tiny seaside hamlet of Mendocino. There he embarked on a new period of productivity that would ultimately lead him back to Chicago. Always ahead of the curve, Bob recorded Funky in the Country on his own label, Legend Enterprises. Later, he once again teamed up with his old friend, Hamilton Camp, to record Homemade Music.
Some say Bob’s glory years were those from the late ’50s to the early ’60s when his popularity was high, his influence strong and the money rolled in. In fact, his real glory years began in 1978 when he got clean and sober. With his drug and alcohol use finally behind him, he at long last achieved an inner peace and happiness that began to show in his singing, playing and writing. For the next decade and beyond, Bob explored new territories. His voice was strong and his playing still featured his trademark 12- string with its rolling bass lines. His creative output was once again prolific. He taught songwriting at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Portland State University and the American Conservatory of Music. He wrote, scored and appeared in a musical play, The Courtship of Carl Sandburg. He opened his own restaurant and entertainment club, Hobson’s Choice. He produced a number of his own recordings as well as several albums for friend and folk icon Tom Paxton. He toured with Best of Friends, a trio consisting of Bob, Tom and Anne Hills. (Their 1985 recording at Holstein’s in Chicago was finally released in 2004, seven years after Bob’s death.) Also at Holstein’s, Bob once again reunited with Camp as they re-recorded their entire 1961 watershed album, now calling it Gibson & Camp, the Gate of Horn – Revisited. Finally, during the late ’80s, Bob concentrated heavily on writing, recording and performing for kids. His Uncle Bob’s television show, Flying Whales and Peacock’s Tales, was nominated for an Emmy. On the domestic front, he remarried and had a second chance at fatherhood. Yes, these were the glory years.
But by the late ’80s Bob was starting to experience the early stages of a debilitating disease that ended his career and ultimately his life. After seeing countless doctors and always leaving with no answers, the diagnosis came at last in 1993: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s.
He recorded his final album, Making A Mess, which was appropriately produced by long-time friend and writing partner, Shel Silverstein.
Bob had left Chicago for his beloved Mendocino on the Northern California Coast but doctors there could offer little help. His last move was to Portland, Oregon. It was from there, in September of 1996, he returned to Chicago for the final time to host a farewell party. Friends and family came from far and wide to pay tribute to a man whose life and music had meant so much to so many. Back home in Portland, he died a week later on September 28th. Roger Ebert wrote, \"Bob Gibson hosted his last hootenanny and attended his own wake.\"
The musical legacy of Bob Gibson is still felt by all who embraced his work and the music he cherished so dearly and to which he contributed so much.