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Epilogue | John Gilbert

Dancing mechanic John Gilbert wore 'Rap' nicknames well

ST. PETERSBURG — To get John "Dirty Rap" Gilbert going, all anyone had to do was put on some music. If the song had a pulse, and the pulse throbbed, it got his feet moving.

Mr. Gilbert kept a radio at his business, Rap Auto Shop. Friends called him Rap because he loved rap music; "Dirty Rap" because of the grease and motor oil on his clothes.

They kept him company; he kept them entertained.

Mr. Gilbert kept the shop at 1747 22nd St. S for about 15 years. Then the shop folded and he went to Marianna. It was supposed to be a short visit, but he never came back.

Mr. Gilbert died May 19 in Marianna. He was 68 and had HIV, his family said.

A lean, vigorous man, he challenged others to foot races well into his 40s. Usually, he won. He drove fast, sometimes for fun at Sunshine Speedway. "He never used the brakes," said his daughter, Audrey Williams, 25.

As a child in Marianna, Mr. Gilbert formed the strongest bond of his life — to his mother. She nursed him through rheumatic fever. She understood him.

At 16, he dropped out of high school and went to New York.

"He was the type who liked to travel and move around," said Annette Williams, 51, who has lived with Mr. Gilbert for about 28 years.

He lived in New York and Jacksonville for several years each. Williams doesn't know what he did there. In the late 1970s, he moved to St. Petersburg and worked for the city's transportation department.

Mr. Gilbert had loved 1970s fashions. He wore platform shoes and flared pants long after the disco craze ended. He loved neighborhood parties and often supplied the food: pig's feet, collard greens, homemade corn bread. He enjoyed rabbit and could prepare it himself. No one else would eat it except his son, John.

His children remember Mr. Gilbert's antics at parties. He squared off against friends in mock fighting posture and challenged them to bring it on. He announced that he was the better dancer and broke out his moves.

Neighbors called him "Pops" because they knew he didn't like it. His family called him "Bro Rap," a shortened version of "Brother Rap," which they shortened again to simply "Burrap."

After the '70s were over, Mr. Gilbert made small concessions. He gave up platform shoes but kept alligator shoes. He kept his Afro, but sometimes allowed his daughter, Chantell, to braid it into cornrows.

He also began hoarding odds and ends, such as bicycle parts. The city cited him in 1996 for storing junk.

Rap's Auto Shop closed several years ago. It has since been demolished, part of the city's 22nd Street revitalization.

His health deteriorated about two years ago, a general weakening his doctor couldn't diagnose until he tested for HIV.

Around the same time, Mr. Gilbert learned that his mother was dying. He headed to Marianna to be with her. His obsession with collecting seemed to increase. He saved bicycles, and parts that were strewn about the front porch. Boxes of empty liquor bottles sat nearby, said his daughter, Anneliese Gilbert, 26.

His family said they had room for Mr. Gilbert, but not all his bottles and bicycles. Mr. Gilbert said he wanted to go home but seemed unable to give up his collections. "All the stuff he had wasn't worth bringing back home," said Anneliese Gilbert.

The family visited when possible. "He loved to see us when we came down to Marianna," his daughter said. "But when we would leave, he had this look on his face like he didn't want us to go."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


John David Gilbert

Born: March 1, 1941.

Died: May 19, 2009.

Survivors: sons, John Gilbert Jr., Gregory and Rashad Williams; daughters, Stacy and Anneliese Gilbert, Audrey and Chantell Williams; brothers, Elijah, Joseph, Tony and Abraham Gilbert; sisters, C. Black, Erma Gilbert; close friend Annette Williams; 16 grandchildren.

Dancing mechanic John Gilbert wore 'Rap' nicknames well 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 6:33pm]
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