Leon Bibb dies after more than seven decades thrilling audiences and almost as long advocating for equal rights

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      One of Vancouver's most beloved performers has passed away at the age of 93 in a Kitsilano care home.

      Leon Bibb died this morning of natural causes after several strokes dating back to February 20, 2014.

      Bibb's daughters, Dorie and Amy, travelled from New York to be with him in his final days. His son Eric, a Grammy-nominated musician, is touring in Europe.

      "I was really grateful for the opportunity to hold his hand and tell him how much we loved him," Dorie told the Georgia Straight by phone.

      While Bibb's theatrical and musical work earned him enormous praise over seven decades, Amy told the Straight by phone that he was most proud of his antiracism and antibullying work.

      Bibb was born in Louisville, Kentucky, when segregation kept blacks and whites separate. Growing up, he was a friend of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., father of three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

      According to Amy, Bibb never spoke to a white person until he moved to New York in his 20s, where his career flourished.

      Bibb was a big star on Broadway

      In the 1960s, Bibb appeared in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway with Ethel Merman, as well as Finian's Rainbow and A Hand Is On the Gate, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.

      In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bibb hosted a show called Someone New on the local NBC affiliate.

      Dorie said that her father was also an active supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., participating in the famous civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama. There, Bibb sang alongside Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez.

      Dorie recalled a recent visit to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was being built.

      "I was walking by and I stopped because on this huge billboard outside of a construction site was Daddy's picture with Harry and Joan," she said.

      Dorie and Amy each described their father as a "very involved dad". Their mother was employed as a social worker during the days and Bibb worked in clubs at night, so he spent a lot of time with his children.

      "He was our family chef," Dorie said. "He always had a great love of cooking. He's famous for being a foodie."

      There were also many famous visitors to the family home in those days, including Sidney Poitier, Bob Dylan, Rita Moreno, and Hugh Masekala.

      Bibb found a new lease on life in Vancouver

      Musician Bill Sample told the Straight by phone that Bibb first came to Vancouver as the opening act for Bill Cosby.

      According to Sample, Bibb was staying at the Bayshore Inn, looked out the window, and said, "I have to live here."

      "He went back to New York, packed all his stuff in a cargo van, and arrived at the border," Sample said. "They said, 'You can't just come into Canada like that. We've got protocols here.' "

      In 1971, Bibb settled in Vancouver, starring in the Arts Club Revue Theatre's long-running production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris. It cemented Bibb's appeal with local fans. And it was mounted after he had negotiated the rights in New York's famous Russian Tearoom.

      "As a singer, he could charm your pants off," Sample recalled. "I saw him do it so many times."

      Sample met Bibb in the 1980s when Sample was scheduled to perform with Ann Mortifee at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as the opening act for John Denver. Bibb was also in the lineup.

      Later, Sample was asked to become Bibb's musical director and the two remained friends for more than three decades.

      "He was a Canadian icon," Sample said.

      Leon Bibb performs "Rocks and Gravel".

      At Expo 86 in Vancouver, Bibb starred in a gospel musical about the Underground Railroad called One More Stop on the Freedom Train.

      Sample called him a "beautiful guy" and "a great tenor in his years on Broadway". He also said that as a singer, Bibb could be unpredictable, going off script and leaving his instrumentalists having to play catch-up.

      "There was always an element of risk with Leon," Sample said. "He would dive into a song by himself a cappella and we would have to find out what key he was in. There were lots of moments like that."

      Sample's wife, Helesia Luke, recalled many times when Bibb would show up at the family home on Saturdays to rehearse with her husband. 

      "For our children, that was just normal to have Leon Bibb singing in the living room," she told the Straight by phone. "I remember thinking, 'someday, they'll have a context for that.' "

      Luke described Bibb as a "very devoted friend".

      Bibb is a member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame and was appointed to the Order of B.C. in 2009.

      A Step Ahead countered bullying and discrimination

      In the early 1990s, Bibb launched A Step Ahead, which was offered in more than 120 schools to create greater understanding about diversity, racism, bullying, and multiculturalism.

      Sample said that Bibb would gather the entire school population in gymnasiums. One of his techniques to break the ice was to do a version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and get the kids doing hand movements.

      "Some of them were skinheads and some of them were very racist," Sample recalled. "Some of them were very homophobic. Leon would stand there and talk to all of them about that."

      One of the directors of the foundation that funded this work was Bibb's friend Paul Winn. Today, Winn told the Straight by phone that he's feeling "extremely sad" about Bibb's death.

      "He was always a kind, gentle person," Winn said. "That's how I knew him. We had some great laughs and good times."

      Bibb's daughter Dorie said that he would ask her or Amy to go on the Internet to research information. Then he would incorporate this into his school presentations.

      "We were most proud of that work," Dorie said.

      She explained that her father was deeply affected by being of African American descent in Western Canada at a time when there wasn't a great deal of diversity.

      "I think he wanted to ensure that the Canadian population, who would not have ordinarily known a lot about African American history, understood it better," she said. "He thought it was important."

      Bibb's other daughter, Amy, said that he often included a "teaching element" while entertaining people. As an example, she cited his first solo show, The Candyman, which premiered at the Orpheum in 1977. It was adapted for CBC TV the following year.

      In 2010, one of Bibb's greatest dreams came true when performed at the Orpheum with his son Eric and granddaughter, Yana Bibb, who's a jazz and folk singer based in New York.

      According to Bibb's daughters, there will be a memorial for their father in Vancouver later this year, likely in December. 

      "Our families are going to come back here," Dorie said. "Eric is going to perform."