Robert Beck’s biological father was only in his life for brief periods during his childhood and then again as his young adulthood. He was a member of black Nashville’s emerging lower middle-class society. He married Beck’s mother Mary Brown somewhere around 1917, and they moved to Chicago, where Beck was born. As Beck told it, his father tried to leave him on the front steps of a church, and when Mary refused, he bounced his infant son off a concrete wall. He later worked for Mayor Big Bill Thompson as a chef, and Beck recounted watching his father stand up to the corrupt mayor in Thompson’s kitchen when he was being abusive.