By Richie Unterberger

Bob Gibson is roundly acknowledged as one of the most popular and influential folk music singers, performers, and songwriters of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins are just a few of the stars Gibson helped and inspired in their youth. Elektra Records, for which Gibson would do several albums during the time, was one of the most respected independent folk-oriented labels of the era. All of which can make it baffling to the uninitiated to discover that the first LP he cut for Elektra was not a batch of originals and/or standards in the late-1950s coffeehouse style, but a collection of songs about...skiing, so dedicated to that topic that it came across as something of a concept album.

    Ski Songs Sung by Bob Gibson, however, becomes less puzzling when some the details of the singer's life at the time are revealed, and the record is placed within the context of other folk releases of the time. For the material on the record wasn't written as a temporary gimmick to capitalize on a craze or some idea handed down to Bob from the business side. Not only was Gibson an actual enthusiastic skier, he actually lived in one of the ski capitals of the world, Aspen, Colorado, from 1957 to 1961.

    "I loved to ski, and I would spend all day long skiing on the slopes and then sing every night to support myself and my family in ski lodges," he remembered in his autobiography, I Come for to Sing (co-written with Carole Bender). "I was skiing there all the spare time I had, but I was also traveling a lot. I'd go to Dallas and Chicago and New York to work, but I'd always be real happy to get home to Aspen. When it was ski time and the snow was good it was real hard to get me out of that town. You had to pay me more than when there was no snow."

    It should also be remembered that this was a time when numerous folk concept albums, or at least albums populated with songs dedicated to a specific theme, were being issued by Elektra. Ed McCurdy had done entire LPs of songs about sin, the old west, and "blood booze 'n bones." Oscar Brand had done long-players devoted wholly to tunes about army life, flying, and boating. McCurdy and Brand even teamed up with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Dick Wilder for an LP of Badmen, Heroes and Pirate Songs. In this company, an LP of ski songs fit right in, even if taking to the slopes wasn't quite as much in the folk tradition as odes to working on the railroad or riding boxcars.

    Gibson had been signed by Elektra, as Bob recalled it in his autobiography, because the company's president, Jac Holzman, had wanted to team him up with fellow folk singer Hamilton Camp. Gibson and Camp would indeed perform together and record a live album for Elektra, At the Gate of Horn, in April 1961. However, the first LP Gibson did for Elektra would turn out to be the solo effort Ski Songs, done (again according to his autobiography) in 1959.

    According to I Come for to Sing, "Writing had become the next major and logical step in my career, and I started to write some songs with a couple of gals who were writers for the Denver Post. I decided to write a musical about skiing. It was fun to do, and it produced entirely new songs rather than being rewrites or new arrangements." In addition, "I also rewrote a couple of traditional things and put ski lyrics to them. Some of the songs in the album are not folk songs, but you can hear my roots." As it turned out, for some reason the play for which the songs were intended was never produced, but the material was used as the basis for the Ski Songs album.

    While Gibson himself played banjo and 12-string guitar on the record, he was accompanied by some stellar musicians. On bass was Russell Savakus, who would become one of the top folk and early folk-rock session musicians of the 1960s, playing on releases by Ian & Sylvia, Richard & Mimi Fariña, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan. Helping out on banjo, bass, and guitar was Eric Weissberg, who chalked up a similarly impressive resume as sideman on recordings by Ian & Sylvia, Sainte-Marie, Dylan, and Judy Collins. He's most famous, of course, for the #2 hit single he scored in 1973 as part of a duo with Steve Mandell, "Dueling Banjos."

    The most unusual aspect of the arrangements for Ski Songs Sung by Bob Gibson, however, was the use of electric guitar by Joe Puma. It was hardly folk-rock, yet it marked a rare and overlooked instance in which the instrument was used in the studio by a noted folk performer, a good half decade or so before electric folk-rock started to come into being. Playing the relatively mild, jazzy electric guitar lines was Joe Puma, who'd already contributed to jazz recording dates by the likes of Herbie Mann, Artie Shaw, Louis Bellson, and Chris Connor.

    As unlikely as it seems for an album with such a specific and, some might say, narrow focus, the songs did generate a couple cover versions. Glenn Yarbrough covered "In This White World" on his first solo album after leaving the Limeliters, 1964's Time to Move On, changing the title to "In This Wide World." And the Chad Mitchell Trio covered "Super Skier" on their Mighty Day on Campus LP, which made the Top 40 in 1962, and on which a young Gibson fan named Jim (later Roger) McGuinn played guitar and banjo.

    As much of an oddity as it might seem today, Ski Songs Sung by Bob Gibson became, according to Gibson's autobiography, the best-selling album of his entire career. In part that was because the record sold to many skiers, not just folk fans. He returned to material with stronger roots in American folk music, however, with his next solo album, 1961's Yes I See, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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