Bob had recently retired from his long career as a vet. He was known to many in the bluegrass community as one of the nicest banjo and mandolin pickers ever.
Bob grew up in Bergen County NJ and Manhattan. He started out as a teenager picking country music guitar (Hank Snow was his favorite), but like so many others, converted to bluegrass banjo when he heard an early Flatt & Scruggs 78 RPM record.
While attending college at West Virginia Wesleyan he started playing banjo in a 1950s regional band, The Johnson Brothers & Bob Mavian, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. They played on Doc Williams’ Border Riders show on WWVA. He was probably the very first “northern college boy banjo picker” on the Grand Ole Opry in 1958 with the Cumberland Mountain Boys including Jimmy Maynard and Bill Thomas. They even cut a 78 record. Bob was drafted by the Opry management as Bill Monroe’s banjo player for a few broadcasts. Bob always said ruefully, “all he played then was Sally Jo,” which has no banjo break!
After graduating Cornell veterinary, Bob did a brief practice in Paris, KY where he befriended J.D. Crowe, but then he and his wife Barbara returned to New York in the early 60s, first Long Island, and eventually to his decades-long home and practice in Westchester County. Bob gave up music for several years, but when the bluegrass festivals started to take off in a big way in the northeast, he and his family joined in the camping and music and he returned to banjo picking with vigor. He formed two bands, Dark Horse and Horse Country in the ’70s and ’80s. Sirius/XM deejay Chris Jones got his start as Bob’s guitar player and lead singer in Horse Country, along with Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin.
Through the ’70s and ’80s Bob was a “go to” banjo man for a few northeastern bands, including John Herald, Tex Logan, and the Sykes Boys (Ernie Sr. and Jr.). Bob was recorded with the Sykes Boys on the compilation LP of the old Berkshire Mountains/Winterhawk festival in upstate NY.
Bob’s banjo tastes were heavily influenced by Earl Scruggs and JD Crowe. He also was a dedicated baritone singer, again following Earl and J.D.
During a long sickness in 1988-89, Bob took up the mandolin. In 1990 he developed his alter-ego, “Gibson Case” as the mandolin picking, lead singing half of The Case Brothers – Martin & Gibson. As a Case Brother for 10 years, Bob made two recordings and appeared on festivals from Mississippi to Nova Scotia and at several IBMA annual conventions. The mandolin suited his traditional bluegrass tastes. He absorbed the old styles of Bill Monroe, Bill Bolick, Everett Lilly and Ira Louvin. But he also loved Herschel Sizemore and was ever ready to play Rebecca.
Bob made only occasional personal apperances with banjo or mandolin since 2000, highlighted by appearances with NYC’s Big Apple’achia, and on the IBMA Roots & Branches “Old Tyme Opry” shows.
Bob and Barbara never missed a summer of festivals since the early 1970s, and were looking forward to their favorites in New England this summer.
Bob’s other love was horses. He had been a rodeo rider in his teen years, a farmhand many summers during college, had a horse veterinary practice in Kentucky, and kept two beloved horses at his small Westchester farm for decades.
Bob was a placid, friendly, undemanding man no matter how or where you met him, ever ready to join a jam session at a festival. There isn’t a person who can remember Bob even raising his voice in anger. He was always ready to teach banjo, guitar, mandolin and harmony singing in a friendly, informal way. He will be sorely missed in the northeastern bluegrass community. The fond memorials have been pouring from northeastern bluegrass radio shows and even Chris Jones’ Sirius/XM program.
To quote Bill Monroe, another horse lover, ”Good Bye Old Pal.”
About the Author (Author Profile)
Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers’ viewpoints.
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