Robert Belfour was born in a small plank house several miles South of Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1940. It was one of several shacks on the Hurdle farm, part of which his father rented until his death in 1953.
The specific part of Mississippi where Robert was born is the hill country in the northern part of the state. This region has a distinctly different culture than the more famous Mississippi Delta and the Blues from that region is strong and unique.
Like most of the other accomplished performers from the area R.L. Burnside, Fred Mcdowell, Joe Callicott, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, and Charlie Feathers-- Robert Belfour, was submerged in the area's rich musical heritage. Robert's first memory is that of his father playing a resonator guitar in a style similar to that of Charlie Pattons. Robert ate at picnics held by Othar Turner, and at church sung gospel songs led by Syd Hemphill. When free from chores, Robert could be found in the company of neighbor, and future label mate, Junior Kimbrough. Robert was 13 when his father died bringing and end to his childhood. From then on all of Robert's energy went to helping his mother provide for him and his younger brother. Robert spent what little free time he had In 1959 Robert married Norene Norman and they moved to Memphis, Tennesse. A year later Robert went to work for Choctaw construction a hard gig that lasted thirty-five years.
In the 1980s, Belfour began playing on Beale Street and in 1994 he had eight songs featured on David Evans's compilation album, The Spirit Lives On, Deep South Country Blues and Spirituals in the 1990s, released by the German Hot Fox label. This led him to Fat Possum Records and his first album What's Wrong With You, released in 2000.
The album, Pushin' My Luck, followed in 2003 to a positive critical review.At sixty, Belfour's guitar playing was mature and highly accomplished; his voice, clear and powerful, and the sound is pure country blues. Robert left the hills of North Mississippi forty years ago but his music never did,learning to chord his father's guitar.
In this very spot back in 1952, in Bessemer, Ala., you might have found Henry "Gip" Gipson on the porch giving an impromptu guitar lesson to little Earl Williams, or anybody else who came and wanted to learn, and there were lots of them. Soon after, a few friends would have stopped by to shoot the breeze, have a beverage, and play. Black, white, young, old, it didn't matter; everyone was welcome at Gip's place.
Some 60 years later, not much has changed. Kids still come to learn and play, like the 15-year-old boy from Helena that Gip says is "every bit of Jimi Hendrix." Little Earl "Guitar" Williams still comes, though he’s not little anymore and now has his own following as a lead blues guitarist.Gip's friends still come by to play, too, but now they include big-name musicians who seize the rare chance to play at what’s grown over the years into a bona-fide juke joint—basically a stand-alone garage behind the house, converted into a stage and decorated with strings of Christmas lights and a smattering of metal chairs and tables that spill out into the yard. People come from miles around—sometimes hundreds of miles—to hear the music at Gip’s Place, with the capital “P” one of the very few nods to officialdom that you’ll find here, along with the $10 armbands sold to help cover the electric bill. No alcohol is sold, though coolers are welcome, and what passes for a concession stand is just a backyard barbecue, with Gip’s son Keith and Gip’s old friend Ms. Bay serving up fried fish, chicken wings, and sausage dogs. Many guests are regulars, while others are making a first appearance, but none of them are strangers for the simple reason that Gip has never met one.
In fact, if Gip's is famous for one thing other than the sweet sounds that emanate from the stage, it's the open arms Gip extends to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, money, or anything else. This is a melting pot in the form of a house party.
"Music doesn't care about color," he says emphatically, noting that an early inspiration was the race-transcending rocker Chuck Berry, who once gave Gip one of his guitars as a present. "It ain't about the black and the white.”
Over the years, Bobby Rush, Microwave Dave and the Nukes, Mikey Junior, T-Model Ford, Kent and Cedric Burnside, Liz Brown, and countless other greats have appeared (even Tina Turner was scheduled, though she got sick at the last minute and had to cancel). But you almost get the impression that for Gip, whoever happens to be onstage is less important than what the crowd takes away from the experience. He sees the music as a form of love itself, bringing people together and spreading a little joy. In the world according to Gip, it’s as simple as loving thy neighbor as thyself. The music takes care of the rest.
Gip’s faith in mankind is reaffirmed every Saturday when the fans come back, again and again, regardless of heat, frost, or football—even near-tragedy, as when a fire on the property threatened to take down the stage this past summer. The flame consumed some of Gip's most treasured possessions, including that guitar Chuck Berry gave him, but Gip got out safely, and the juke joint was spared. "More people were here that Saturday after the fire than have ever been here before," he says proudly.
Gip keeps the spotlight away from himself, but he's always good to play some John Lee Hooker, his favorite, or the "Uniontown blues" from his hometown of Uniontown, Ala., upon request from some of the older folks in the crowd. It all comes so naturally to Gip that he's been known to sing and play even when he's by himself at one of the three cemeteries he owns and where he still shows up to dig graves every day. Suffice to say, fame, even of the underground variety, has not gone to Gip’s head. If it translates to more enthusiasm for the music, that’s all that matters. While Gip’s Place is known for the blues, Gip himself is wide open to whatever kinds of music people want to play or hear. There are country nights, too, and gospel almost always makes it into the mix, fittingly enough for a place whose namesake never tires of quoting scripture and begins each Saturday night with a prayer from the stage. "God bring peace on everyone here."