Tibbs was born Melvin Andrew Grayson, in Columbus, Ohio, United States. As a boy he sang in Baptist choirs in Chicago, directed by Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington. He was influenced by Ivory Joe Hunter and Arnold "Gatemouth" Moore. From 1947 to 1949, Tibbs originally recorded for Aristocrat Records. His debut single was "Bilbo Is Dead" b/w "Union Man Blues", recorded whilst Tibbs was eighteen years old. The tracks were both co-written by Tibbs and Tom Archia, and caused controversy.