Robert Nelson played Chicago-style blues and sang with a Louisiana twang.
Widely known as “Chicago Bob,” the Louisiana native was a staple on the traditional blues scene for decades.
“Bob was very traditional,” said friend Eric King. “He really stuck to the basic Chicago-style blues formula. He never got into the bands with the hot guitar pickers. It was always the blues harp and singer up front and maybe a sax player, but he was very traditional.”
Blues harp — the common harmonica played with an earthy note-bending style — had been Nelson’s instrument of choice since he was an 8-year-old, friends said. His father played the harp and he picked it up too. Nelson was sent to Chicago during the summers during his youth and there he came to meet blues legends like Muddy Waters, who gave him his nickname.
“He would sit in everywhere he could in Chicago,” said King, who is a co-owner of the Atlanta blues club Blind Willie’s. “So one day Muddy looked at him and said something like, ‘You’re all over Chicago, Bob. Everywhere we play, you are there.’ And from that point on, he was known as ‘Chicago Bob.’”
Born in Bogalusa, La., Nelson had been living in Atlanta for some time when Blind Willie’s opened in 1986, said Sandra Hall, a friend and performing partner. He played the club regularly and toured the southeast U.S. and Europe, until declining health diminished his energy to perform.
Robert Lee Nelson, of Atlanta, died Jan. 17, from several health complications, including heart and kidney failure. He was 69.
A funeral is to be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Willie A. Watkins, Historic West End Chapel, which is also in charge of arrangements. Burial will follow at South-View Cemetery, Atlanta.
Hall said Nelson mingled with blues greats like Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. She said he worked other jobs for several years before deciding to become a full-time musician.
“We toured all over together,” she said. “We did a lot of places here in the U.S. and Europe.”
Roger Gregory, another friend and co-owner of Blind Willie’s, said he admired Nelson for his commitment to music.
“He loved music so much that nothing would keep him from it,” Gregory said. “He worked other jobs so he could play music when he wanted to.”
In a 1998 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Nelson told a reporter how he felt about the blues: “It’s just fun and profitable. Well, not that profitable. I’ve thought about doing something else from time to time, but I think it’s too late to do anything else.”
Why, after all of his time in Atlanta, did he keep the moniker Chicago Bob? Because he liked it. “I miss Chicago a lot, especially the music scene,” he said. “But, hey, I wanted to get out of the snow.”
Nelson’s survivors include a daughter, son and sister.
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