Robert Bob McCoy
Born: Mar. 31, 1910, Aliceville, AL
Died: Feb. 12, 1978
Blues Vocals, Piano
Alabama bluesman Robert McCoy was far from a big name in the blues world; the obscure singer/barrelhouse pianist only recorded sporadically, and many blues enthusiasts have never even heard of him. Nonetheless, he was a deserving and likable artist along the lines of Leroy Carr. McCoy was born in the small town of Aliceville, AL, in 1908 but moved to Birmingham when he was only a baby and ended up spending the rest of his life there. McCoy, whose parents had been tenant farmers, had two older brothers who were both interested in barrelhouse piano. Johnny and Willie McCoy, the Alabaman's brothers, did a lot to encourage his interest in barrelhouse playing, and in the '20s, he was greatly influenced by the well-known Leroy Carr. By the late '20s, McCoy was being hired to perform at dances and in African-American jook joints around Birmingham. McCoy's first recordings as a leader came in the '30s, a decade that found him working with Jaybird Coleman and Guitar Slim as well as James Sherell, aka Peanut the Kidnapper. But McCoy had a hard time earning a living as a singer/musician, and he ended up paying his bills and supporting his family with non-musical "day gigs" (including construction work). However, he continued to sing and play the piano on the side in the '40s and '50s. It wasn't until the early '60s that the Birmingham resident returned to professional recording.
In 1961, McCoy came to the attention of Patrick Cather, an aspiring blues producer who also lived in Birmingham. Cather was only a teenager (he was 40 years younger than McCoy), but he knew that he wanted to start a label and produce blues records -- and Birmingham saxophonist Frank Adams felt that McCoy would be a good person for him to work with. At the time, Birmingham was still extremely segregated, and racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were quite willing to resort to violence to combat racial integration and the civil rights movement. But Cather (who is white and gay) had no use for racism or segregationist jim crow laws (the southern U.S.' version of the apartheid laws that once plagued South Africa) and quickly became good friends with McCoy (an African-American). In 1962, Cather produced McCoy's first full-length LP, Barrellhouse Blues, which was released on Cather's own Vulcan Records. About 400 copies were pressed. The following year, Cather produced McCoy's sophomore album, Blues and Boogie Classics, also released on Vulcan; that rare, little-known LP only sold about 100 copies. Both albums found McCoy (who did his share of songwriting) accompanying himself on acoustic piano. After Blues and Boogie Classics, McCoy didn't record any more albums, although he did record a few informal duets with drummer Clarence Curry in the mid-'60s (none of which were released commercially until 2002). McCoy hoped to do some more work with Cather, but, sadly, Cather's demons often got the best of him in the '60s and '70s -- the producer was plagued by severe depression, and he turned to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to cope. In 1978, Cather was hospitalized for substance abuse; after conquering his addiction and getting sober, he was sad to learn that McCoy had died in February of 1978.
In 1983, McCoy (who was in his late sixties when he died) was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and, in 1991, Cather was also inducted (partly because of his desire to document McCoy). The late singer/pianist wasn't really a jazz artist, but his barrelhouse piano playing did contain jazz elements. In 2002, Chicago's independent Delmark label reissued the little-known recordings that Cather had produced for McCoy in 1962 and 1963 on a CD titled Bye Bye Baby. Delmark president Bob Koester hired Cather to write the liner notes, and seven bonus tracks were added (including some crudely done recordings from 1958 and the previously unreleased mid-'60s duets with drummer Curry).
Sources: Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Alex Henderson, All Music Guide
If someone is a truly obsessive blues collector -- the kind who loves to check out even the most obscure artists -- chances are that he/she owns some Delmark releases. Delmark's Bob Koester has not limited himself to the bigger names of the blues; he has been great about recording lesser-known bluesmen, and he has been willing to reissue little-known yet worthwhile recordings that many other labels would never bother with. Take Bye Bye Baby, for example. Much of this 2002 release focuses on some 1962 and 1963 sessions that Birmingham, AL, resident Patrick Cather produced for the late Robert McCoy, a gifted but obscure singer/barrelhouse pianist with a Leroy Carr-ish approach. Those sessions resulted in two ultra-rare LPs: Barrelhouse Blues and Blues and Boogie Classics, both of which Cather released on his own Vulcan label. Only about 400 copies of Barrelhouse Blues were pressed, and Blues and Boogie Classics only sold about 100 copies. Why would Koester reissue recordings that sold so little and devote an entire CD to an artist whom only the most knowledgeable blues collectors are aware of? It comes down to two things: Koester's honest-to-God love of the music and the fact that the late McCoy, although far from a star, had a lot of talent. Cather put out a quality product -- not a commercially successful product, but a quality product nonetheless. Although McCoy's Vulcan sessions are the CD's main focus, Delmark also provides several bonus tracks (which include a few 1958 rarities and some previously unreleased mid-'60s duets with drummer Clarence Curry). The sound quality of the bonus tracks isn't very good, but since McCoy (who died in 1977) only recorded sporadically, collectors will welcome them with open arms. And all things considered, Bye Bye Baby paints an attractive picture of the underexposed Alabama bluesman. ~ Alex Henderson, Rovi All Music Guide
Robert McCoy: Bye Bye Baby
By Robert R. Calder 24 January 2003
Barrelhouse and Blues Piano
This is a specially interesting CD as well as recommendably of the highest musical quality. Peter Silvester’s A Left Hand like God is in many respects an admirable telling of “the story of boogie woogie”, but I’m not the only informed reader to have seen a big hole in the index above the name of Buck McFarland. No McCoy? He sings well too, but listen to “Church Bell Blues” or “Gone Mother Blues” for among other wonders a demonstration of the verb “to rock” (as not to be done to any cradle!). “Gone Mother” reminds me of one of the few pre-war recordings on which McCoy was accompanist. Behind James Sherrill, whose nom-de-disque “Peanut the Kidnapper” represents one kind of inventiveness, every successive McCoy chorus is a fresh creation: no routine, and that was rare.
When Ben Sidran on a music film years ago talked of going back to boogie piano for inspiration he mentioned, meant and played “Down the Road Apiece”—a second-handism from the 1940s period boogie woogie wasn’t so much in the sun as under the lamp. The same ‘40s vogue did inspire Joe Duskin and Willie Littlefield, who made up for a lack of full roots with hard work and energy. Joe had to learn a lot of repertoire. Unlike them, Otis Spann had been a child prodigy of a Mississippi school. I’ve heard no evidence supporting recent contentions that the even more tragic person of his cousin the wonderful Little Johnny Jones was an abler pianist (we are at a summit of the art) but I wonder was McCoy. Well, I marvel at him.
He’s the same real thing, born more than twenty years before Spann, and in Alabama. His seventy years were spent almost entirely in Birmingham, and it’s hardly worth doubting he could have fitted into the sort of Chicago ensembles Spann was a member of, not merely filling in trills but providing the amazing depth and character of the very best blues and boogie pianists’ playing. It used to be commonplace to say their music derived from what was played on guitar, presumably earlier. When? That sad old tale confuses the centuries-long progress from monochord (who knows what its single string was made of, and stretched over and between?) to Steinway with the incredibly short gestation period of a music represented on an obscure Californian label of the 1940s equally by One String Sam and a cavernous-voiced singer called Goldrush singing Roosevelt Sykes’ words and playing piano with a strong Texan accent. Pianos were comparably common with maybe monochords if not guitars, across the South, and men without formal tutoring worked out how to produce new unprecedented music on instruments no less readymade than the guitars which invaded even my native Scotland’s folk music years thereafter.
Blues pianists had different fingerings one from another, let alone from Van Cliburn or found at the bottom of various Scottish dance-bands, which do fit stereotypes of the postcolonial. They were different again from the more Europeanly straight New York contemporaries who also played rent parties, and from jazz pianists (Pete Johnson was another miracle and does anybody know how great Jay McShann is?)
Comparing McCoy with Big Maceo is fair, but except in joint borrowings from Leroy Carr, and unlike in the case of Johnny Jones, the resemblance is confined to one or two items only—and either as part of an attempted emulation of a recorded Maceo performance, or as an appropriate enrichment. Both reinforce basses by playing successions of fifth chords, but McCoy does that in an older Alabama idiom. McCoy does have his distinctive rhythm, which is nobody else’s!
He doesn’t sound as some critics have said like either a Texan or a St. Loui’an. His nearest musical relative is Jabo Williams, also from Birmingham and on a St. Louis website because his wanderings took him there for a time. (His too few records are never in any St. Louis kind of style). In these recordings, McCoy doesn’t retain much of the older Alabamian sound to be heard sometimes in Cow Cow Davenport—and Avery Parrish on “After Hours”, which Wilbur Bascomb said was a blues by his Birmingham blues pianist brother Arthur which they brought to the Erskine Hawkins band (but in notes played and how Parrish played them on the initial recording it seems unlikely he didn’t simply have to remember it from episodes in a not wholly misspent youth. McCoy is wholly grounded in a very distinctive style never loosened by things he heard only off recordings. He plays the “Jump Steady Blues” of Pine-top Smith, another Alabamian, much like the recording he had Patrick Cather help him imitate, with its opening spoken dialogue. On the vinyl disc Cather heroically produced it was called “Bessemer Rag”, and McCoy at one point improves it with a rephrasing which is a straight lift from Jimmy Yancey. Why imitate when you can interpret-create, or improve (with love)? It’s amazing the way he picks up ideas without imitation or mimicry. He cites a motif from his long-time associate Willie Perryman (Piano Red, from Atlanta, Georgia) only to cascade away from it like some grand 1920s master.
His is a whole style, and where on a second and last vinyl album not used for this CD he performs Blues and Boogie Classics, he does so with an instrumentation different from that on the original recorded performances: his own fingers.
Jimmy Oden’s “Goin’ Down Slow” has a wholly new accompaniment, as does “Let’s Get Together”, which Delmark missed identifying as also off a St. Louis Jimmy record (not to be confused with a 1940s wartime patriotic song by Alexander Lightfoot which made lots of money for a later smooth performer and—equally purged of references to Tojo—turned up selling Japanese cars in a television commercial—oh, story of the Blues!).
“Pratt City Special” is McCoy despite being a Jabo Williams original and having the distinctive bass pattern heard also on Williams’ ancient performance (Williams’ whole output is on a Document CD; alas, only a poor copy exists of one of the most virtuoso of all blues-boogie piano performances, cramming in a dazzling string of emulatory quotes from an indefinite number of other pianists: a competitive business that music).
For the three hundred or so spirits who’ve shared my gratitude and joy in owning McCoy’s first vinyl album I report that the entire 1963 session is here, with some additions Pat Cather would surely have put on a third twelve-incher if—not long after the second LP—his life hadn’t turned into an extended painful inoculation against being at all enthusiastic about discretional drug-taking (see liner notes when you’ve bought this stupendous CD). Incidentally, the second McCoy album reappeared on the European “Oldie Blues” label years back.
The initial recording fi was hi, and McCoy’s puissant left hand almost made my own piano rock, across the room from the speakers. A first suspicion that it had come out a little thinner on CD was bombarded into wariness of the machine by the happy sound which came out of another CD player I tried. Check your bass, dear listener. The 11 tracks here added to album one are well integrated, the studio Steinway being again heard on five unissued additions. The other six are the CD’s coda, beginning with a happy mid-fi “There’ll be some changes made” (oom-pah comic relief) which usefully adjusts the ears to two 1958 “field” recordings stunningly played (one on the original vinyl, the other not). The last five tracks are home-mid-fi duo performances with Clarence Curley on drums—and to my ears sharing some vocal duties. The CD doesn’t say. McCoy and Curley were colleagues with a trumpeter and a reedman on a 1937 session by “Bogan’s Birmingham Busters”, there perhaps an imitation Fats Waller & His Rhythm, but really accompanying band to the greatest non-guitarist lady blues singer. Lucille Bogan was not however recorded by the mobile unit that day.
The reunited pair plainly had a lot of fun on the unknown day (late 1960s?) they got together, The duets attain another kind of climax in a version of “Sent for You Yesterday” in the noble Franz Liszt tradition of piano transcriptions of orchestral music. Eddie Durham’s melodramatic atmospherics from the 1939 Basie-Jimmy Rushing recording are captured with real wit, and the performance belongs to a select group of lovingly witty pastiches adorning the periphery of recorded jazz.
The CD belongs to a select group of wholly individual top-drawer performances in the blues idiom, and the blues and boogie piano idiom. There aren’t so many of these, so you wouldn’t need really to be a collector to want to own them all. You can buy at least one here, and with a joyful confidence and conviction McCoy’s performance exemplifies brilliantly.
Source: Robert McCoy: Bye Bye Baby < PopMatters