By Mike Greenblatt
For the better part of 30 years, Clifford “Grandpappy” Gibson lived in obscurity and performed the blues on the streets of St. Louis.
But things weren’t always so bleak. Born April 17, 1901, in Louisville, Ky., the bluesman had a few recordings under his belt for the independent QRS label when the Victor label came calling. The 28-year-old bluesman went north to New York City to record “Ice and Snow Blues”/“Drayman Blues” Nov. 26, 1929.
The advertisement for the resulting record, Victor 38562, features a photo of Gibson, decked out in a suit and tie, seated in a chair and holding his guitar. But what stands out the most in the advertisement are Gibson’s incredibly long fingers.
“Almost freakish,” comments John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “Hey, I don’t want to insult the guy. He sure got a great sound. I remember an interview with Mississippi John Hurt in the 1960s where the journalist made mention of the fact that a lot of the blues players had extraordinarily large hands and fingers, and Hurt responded back, ‘Yes that’s true. It’s one of the ways we get the sound out of our guitars. A lot of people can’t do that.’”
Finger-length aside, Gibson was an incredible guitarist, as a listen to Victor 38562 will attest. He bends the strings beautifully and masterfully. Gibson was even tapped to back up the legendary Singing Brakeman himself, Jimmie Rodgers, for a 1931 recording.
But despite his obvious six-string talent, Gibson was not among the lucky few bluesmen to enjoy fame and fortune late in life during the folk and blues boom of the 1960s. He died Dec. 21, 1963, of a heart condition.
Fortunately, music fans can still enjoy his master work. And because Gibson was sent to New York to record, the music lives on in clean, crisp detail, devoid of the of the crackling that marred many a session back then.
“The labels had different places around the country where they would bring the artists in. Victor just happened to have a really nice studio in New York, so if they could get them to go North, they would. It made all the difference in the world when you hear the finished product,” Tefteller explains. “The Memphis stuff used to be recorded at The Memphis Auditorium, which no longer exists, and it was this big cavernous space which lent to a decidedly inferior sound … and oftentimes downright weird! Some of those Memphis recordings on these guys sound like they were recorded in caves!”
If you want to get the authentic Clifford Gibson blues experience on a 78, be prepared to part with a lot more than chump change. The record is “not an easy record to find,” Tefteller says. “A brand-new one would cost you $3,000. A used one on eBay, a few years back, sold for $800. And it was hardly perfect. A better one would surely have been over $1,000.” GM