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Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob (September 11, 1902 – October 21, 1931) was an early American country blues musician. His nickname came from the fact that he was a cook in a barbecue restaurant. One of the two extant photographs of Bob show him playing his guitar while wearing a full length white apron and cook's hat.
He was born in Walnut Grove, Georgia. He and his brother, Charlie Hicks, together with Curley Weaver, were taught how to play the guitar by Curley's mother, Savannah "Dip" Weaver. Bob began playing the 6-string guitar but picked up the 12-string guitar after moving to Atlanta, Georgia in 1923-1924. He became one of the prominent performers of the newly developing early Atlanta blues style.
In Atlanta, Hicks worked a variety of jobs, playing music on the side. While working at Tidwells' Barbecue in a north Atlanta suburb, Hicks came to the attention of Columbia Records talent scout Dan Hornsby. Hornsby recorded him and decided to use Hicks's job as a gimmick, having him pose in chef's whites and hat for publicity photos and dubbing him "Barbecue Bob".
During his short career he recorded 68 78-rpm sides. He recorded his first side, "Barbecue Blues", in March 1927. The record quickly sold 15,000 copies and made him the best selling artist for Columbia up to that date. Despite this initial success, it was not until his second recording session, in New York during June 1927, that he firmly established himself on the race market. At this session he recorded "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues", a song inspired by the major floods taking place in Mississippi at that time. This song, as well as his other blues releases, gained considerable popularity, and his records sold much better than those of other local blues musicians.
The two part duet with crosstalk, "It Won't Be Long Now" was recorded with his brother Charlie (a/k/a Charlie Lincoln, or Laughing Charlie) in Atlanta on 5 November 1927. In April 1928 Bob recorded two sides with the female vocalist Nellie Florence, whom he had known since childhood, and also produced "Mississippi Low Levee Blues", a sequel to "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues". In April 1930, he recorded "We Sure Got Hard Times Now", which contains bleak references to the early effects of The Depression. Although Barbecue Bob remained predominantly a blues musician, he also recorded a few traditional and spiritual songs including "When the Saints Go Marching In", "Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home" and "Jesus' Blood Can Make Me Whole".
Barbecue Bob also recorded as a member of The Georgia Cotton Pickers in December 1930, a group that included guitarist Curley Weaver and harmonica player Buddy Moss. As a group they recorded a handful of sides including their own adaptation of Blind Blake's "Diddie Wa Diddie" (recorded as "Diddle-Da-Diddle") and the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting on Top of the World" (recorded as "I'm On My Way Down Home"). These were the last recordings that Bob recorded.
He died in Lithonia, Georgia, of a combination of tuberculosis and pneumonia brought on by influenza, at the age of 29, on October 21, 1931. His recording of "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues"(about the 1927 flood) was apparently played at his graveside before burial.
Bob developed a "flailing" or "frailing" style of playing guitar more often associated with the traditional claw hammer banjo (as did his brother, and, initially, Curley Weaver). He used a bottleneck regularly on his 12-string guitar, playing in an elemental style that relied on an open Spanish tuning reminiscent of Charley Patton. He had a strong voice that he embellished with growling and falsetto, and a percussive singing style.
Bob had some influence on Atlanta blues musicians such as the young Buddy Moss (who played harmonica with him on The Georgia Cotton Pickers recordings), but his way of playing was quickly overshadowed by the finger-picked Piedmont blues style that rose in popularity by the late 20s/early 30s as can be heard in the development of the recordings of Curley Weaver. Barbecue Bob's "Motherless Child Blues" was recorded and performed on stage by Eric Clapton. Bob's elder brother, Charley, also played blues and was recorded by Columbia under the name "Laughing" Charley Lincoln. However, he never received the same acclaim as his brother.