July-August 2007

Bob Westbrook: The Life and Death of a Troubadour

By Ross Altman

Beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly, play the death march as you carry me along; put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall. The man who was singing that cowboy classic, Streets of Laredo, was no cowboy, singing or otherwise. He was a city kid, born and raised on the streets of Hollywood, son of the legendary WW II flying ace Bob "Westy" Westbrook, a man who lived the life that Errol Flynn portrayed on the silver screen.

But put a guitar in Bob Westbrook Jr.'s hands and you would swear he had learned it on the Chisholm Trail. Bob knew about death better than anyone should have to, after losing his father at the age of five and his mother at the age of twelve. Like the character in perhaps the greatest cowboy song of all, Bob could say as if it were his own life, "Once in the saddle I used to go dashing, once in the saddle I used to go gay; first down to Rosie's then down to the card house, got shot in the breast and I'm dying today." Bob was dying too, and he knew it, of emphysema-for which there was no cure except a new lung. So Bob got on a transplant list and waited his turn. Death had other plans.

The best folk musician in Los Angeles died last Saturday, March 24, 2007. Did anyone notice? There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, wrote Shakespeare, but this sparrow lived and died without Providence paying much attention. He lived under the radar screen of popular culture, and managed to squeeze out only an album's worth of songs since his body started to fail him three years ago.

But no one who heard Bob Westbrook sing Over the Rainbow at McCabe's guitar shop at the time-his one public performance at a night club on the touring schedule of nationally known artists-will ever forget it, or disagree with my contention that no one besides Judy Garland ever came close to Bob's transcendent performance. And Judy Garland did not have to play guitar while she sang it.

Bob played it on his beloved Ramirez classical guitar-to his own arrangement-as he played and reworked every song that was lucky enough to be drawn into his orbit. He learned to play guitar from the late Bud Dashiell-of Bud and Travis, the popular folk duo of the 1960's-but he embellished the lucid, classically influenced folk style of his mentor, and made every song he arranged his own. f

In Bob's extraordinary hands, Hank William's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry ceased being a country song and became a requiem-for all the lost hopes and dreams of a lifetime of longing, not some lost romantic love only, but for the great loss and love of his life-his father, World War 11 Air Force hero Bob "Westy" Westbrook, the P-40 and P-38 fighter pilot who set his squadron's record for most enemy aircraft downed before he went down in a firefight on November 22 in 1944.

Bob was only five years old when he lost his father, but those earliest memories became an animating force that sustained and inspired him to the end of his own life.

When Bob sang the Jimmy Cox classic blues Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, he didn't just tell Jimmy Cox's story, he sang his own-every line was as true for him as for any blues singer from Beale Street in Memphis. He once did live the life of a millionaire, and he did take his friends out for a mighty good time-often at his own restaurant on La Cienega's Restaurant Row-which he bought with his munificent inheritance when his mother eerily and almost preternaturally was also killed in an airplane tragedy-not an accidental crash-but by being sucked out of a faulty door next to her seat just seven years after Bob's father crashed into the Pacific over the Makassa Strait.

Bob heard the news indirectly but indelibly when his aunt, who was caring for him in his mother's absence, picked up the phone and was told that her sister had died, and how she had perished. All Bob heard were her screams that rent the air for what seemed like an eternity. Somehow he knew what the screams meant before she told him.

His parents' death left him with a huge inheritance and a sense of fatalism about life that could only be comforted and assuaged by what soon became his lifelong passion-music.

He lived through his teen years-graduating from Hollywood High School-and twenties as a high roller who could buy his way into all aspects of a rarefied Hollywood lifestyle-including a boy toy relationship with Ava Gardner that ended only when Frank Sinatra put a stop to it.

Soon thereafter Bob was just as suddenly cast adrift on a sea of poverty when he was swindled out of his fortune by a lowlife predatory uncle who Bob had mistakenly trusted to manage his business affairs. Like a character in an 18th century picaresque novel he was cast down as low as he had been raised up, and for the first time had to live by his wits.

After finding and losing the true love of his life-the only daughter of film noir and Western legend Alan Ladd-through his youthful arrogance and sense of entitlement he had also inherited with his unearned riches, he finally managed to settle down long enough to marry and raise a family-his surviving daughter Robyn. At the same time he began to take his music more seriously, since it became the vehicle through which he could begin to make sense of the extraordinary ups and downs of what had once seemed like a charmed life, and which now seemed cursed and doomed.

He found new meaning in a classic country song by Jack Rhodes and Red Hays-Satisfied Mind: "Once I was living in fortune and fame/Everything that I needed to get a start in life's game/Then suddenly it happened I lost every dime/But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind." And once again, hearing Bob sing it was as if you were hearing it for the first time-it was no longer just a song, it was the story of his life in every word, and Bob made you feel the tragedy-not just the easy affirmation of spiritual contentment-in those timeless lyrics.

When Bob sang One For My Baby, and One More For the Road, you were standing in that long ago bar room-he put you right behind the bar. When he sang, "Set ‘em up, Joe," you felt-you knew-he was talking to you-you became a character in Bob's story. And for the first time since you ever heard the song, you didn't hear Sinatra in the background-you didn't need to-it was again as if you were hearing the song and story from the inside out. He did it Bob's way.

Bob lived on a house boat-the only possession outside of his guitar and five-string long neck Pete Seeger style Vega banjo he managed to hang onto. The boat was his pride and joy-the only remnant of the good times he had left behind-and he knew every square inch of it, having sanded and varnished it like he had built it himself. Anyone lucky enough to be invited onto his boat understood he had a friend for life-for Bob valued friendship-and loyalty, after the many times he had misconstrued it before he found the real thing-above all else. Every conversation ended the same way-he told you he loved you, man or woman, he didn't care which-and he wasn't ashamed to say it.

I  loved Bob Westbrook like a brother. As different as our lives were-and as divergent as our politics-Bob was a Republican, and belligerently pro-Bush, pro-war, even pro-male chauvinism-none of it mattered, I couldn't help loving him. He was like a figure from another world, and his politics never interfered with his humanity and innate decency and generosity towards those whose lives he touched.

Bob Westbrook, Jr. Republican folk singer, nonetheless sang the most powerful antiwar song of all, Johnny, I Hardly Knew You, with more feeling than anyone I ever heard. And, just as Streets of Laredo ended on the image of "Beat the drum slowly," Bob ended his heartbreaking performance of this Irish protest song with the soft, plaintive sound of drums receding in the distance: With your guns and drums and drums and guns, huroo, huroo. Where did they come from, these drum beats? There were no drums on stage. Bob had learned from the best, as I mentioned earlier-Bud Dashiell, who taught him how to fold over each other the bottom two bass strings on his guitar to simulate a drum roll when tapped lightly with his fingers. It took him a year to master this, so seamlessly that the audience never even noticed what he was doing, a magician as well as a musician at work. That's why Bob was the best this city had to offer. He did it the old-fashioned way-he earned it-maybe not his initial inheritance that was here today and gone tomorrow, but his lasting legacy.

At the end, when he was confined to a nursing home and hooked up to an oxygen tank, you never felt sorry or pity for him-indeed in his presence you could not even realize he was dying. Even when he was taken off the lung transplant list because his doctors concluded he could not withstand the surgery, Bob seemed larger than life-even as it was ebbing out of him.

It was then-like the final dream sequence in Jose Ferrer's portrayal of artist Toulouse Lautrec-his old friend and first love came back into his life. Alana Ladd, now happily married to radio talk show hall-of-fame broadcaster Michael Jackson, sought him out and they were able to find a measure of peace for the life that had once been within their grasp and which Bob had thrown away.

His hero had always been his father, but Bob was my hero-not for any heroic deeds, certainly not the daredevil exploits that had made his father famous, nor even for his extraordinarily talented musicianship-a gift he was finally able to realize and bring to fruition when he saw the clock ticking overhead. No, Bob was my hero because he knew how to love, and knew what was important, and wasn't afraid to be the odd man out, as he often was-surrounded by his liberal friends.

In the end, they proved him wrong-more down and out he could not have been-with tubes coming out of his nostrils and struggling for every breath-nonetheless they knew him and clung to him with a fierce devotion. "Sometime happy, sometime blue, glad that I ran into you," he had sung to them, "Tell the people that you saw me passing through."

I told them, Bob. Say hello to Hank, and Frank, and Judy-you belong in their company. I know they have saved you a seat at the bar.


  Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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