Washboard Sam was a journeyman musician best known for being a decent enough instrumentalist and a strong singer and songwriter. He was born Robert Clifford Brown between 1903 and 1910 in either Walnut Ridge, Arkansas or Jackson Tennessee.
What is known is that by the 1920s he had arrived in Memphis, Tennessee and took to the streets playing solo and in acts with other hungry musicians. Memphis proved to be bustling but crowded at the time and by 1932 he had moved on to Chicago. The scene was just kicking off and he found a place quickly. Performing as a backing musician to popular acts on the scene as part of Bluebird Records. Washboard Sam would make a name for himself by 1935 as he displayed his singing and writing talents for Bluebird and Vocalion.
He had a roughly three-decade career in the music industry but would ultimately wind down. His record sales and show attendances began to die down as country blues fell out of favor. He was able to weather the late 1930s and the 1940s as the electric guitar was gaining popularity.
Retirement and Return
By the late 1940s, blues had become centered around the age of electric blues. Unfortunately for Washboard Sam, he hadn’t adapted to this change and his style of straightforward, folk-style blues wouldn’t see a reemergence until the 1960s nostalgia movement. He recorded one last time as a solo artist in 1949 on the RCA Victor label and retired from the business. Sam worked as a Chicago police officer for several years before recording with close contemporaries Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim in 1959 on the Folkways label.
Washboard Sam would spend his last few years as a live artist in Chicago before dying of heart complications in late 1966.