Bobby Blue Bland
Bland, Bobby “Blue”
Bobby “Blue” Bland
As a singer, Bobby “Blue” Bland is regarded as the definitive blues stylist, the “black [Frank] Sinatra,” as Dave Marsh described him in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Often backed by a simple rhythm section and deftly arranged horn lines, Bland became known for his sexy, liquid-smooth approach. He rarely sang hard blues; his style was one of distilled fervor.
Although Bland never really crossed over to white audiences, as has his friend B. B. King, he has been enduringly popular. According to Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles: 1942-88, Bland is the Number 11 rhythm and blues chart artist of all time; in the blues genre he trails only King. In a listing of top artists of the 1960s, Bland is at Number Four, ahead of a slew of household names. Bland has never been highly visible; his core audience remains the black blues crowd. Another explanation offered for his neglected mainstream status is that he is mainly a singer and not an instrumentalist. Still, saying Bobby “Blue” Bland just a singer is akin to calling Picasso just a painter.
Bland was born January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee, and had a rural boyhood. He listened primarily to gospel and white country singers while growing up. At the age of 17, Bland moved with his mother to Memphis, where the youngster continued to sing in church and in secular street groups. His first group, the Miniatures, was short lived.
By 1949 Bland was working as B. B. King’s chauffeur and at times as Roscoe Gordon’s valet—anything to stay close to blues music. He was soon a part of the Beale Streeters, a vocal group that also included Johnny Ace, Gordon, and King. Based on a love of spirituals and the urban blues that filled the street for which they were named, the Beale Streeters continued on for a year.
By 1951 Bland had signed with D.J. James Mattis’s Duke Recordings. Prior to that the singer had cut three singles that were released on three different, although prominent, R&B labels: Chess, Modern, and Duke. Though he had yet to find his own style, Bland was in the thick of the R&B scene—the Chess sides were produced by Sam Phillips, the Modern single by Ike Turner.
In 1952 Bland was drafted into the U.S. Army; by the end of his tour he was performing in Special Services, covering Nat King Cole and Charles Brown songs. When he returned in 1955, Bland began touring as Junior Parker’s valet and opening act. In the meantime, rock and roll had arrived in the person of Elvis Presley; crossover possibilities for blackacts were subsequently opened. Duke had been purchased by Don Robey,
Born Robert Calvin Bland, January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, TN.
Briefly joined group the Miniatures, 1949; worked as B. B. King’s chauffeur, 1950; with Johnny Ace and Roscoe Gordon, formed the Beale Streeters, 1951; signed with Duke label, 1951; began playing 300 onenighters per year with Junior Parker, 1958 ; arranger Joe Scott and guitarist Wayne Bennett left Bland, 1968; signed with Malaco label, 1984; boxed set of the Duke recordings, I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, released by MCA, 1992. Military service: U.S. Army, early 1950s.
Awards: Nominated for a Grammy Award, 1989, for “Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time”; inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Record company —Malaco Records, P.O. Box 9287,3023 Northside Drive, Jackson, MS 39206.
a shadowy Houston businessman. Robey admired Bland and quickly teamed him with the Bill Harvey Orchestra, a Memphis group; the result was the song “It’s My Life Baby.”
When “Farther on up the Road” hit Number One on the R&B charts in 1957, it was the beginning of a tremendous run for Bland at Duke. The song’s success is difficult to pinpoint—it is typical blues in both arrangement and sensibility. The difference may have been that Bland was now telling a convincing story, making brief lyrical vignettes highly believable with his conversational style. All of his songs were written for him; even when a song was written by a member of Bland’s band, Robey would credit it to the anonymous pseudonym of “Deadric Malone,” thus pocketing songwriting royalties himself.
In 1958 Robey hooked Bland up with Joe Scott, a gifted arranger, writer, and trumpeter. Hits like “Little Boy Blue” and “Bobby’s Blues” kept coming, often increasing in orchestral sophistication and emotional facility. Bland was greatly influenced by the Reverend C. F. Franklin, soul sensation Aretha Franklin’s father, who cried out biblical passages in what Bland referred to as a “squall.” As he lost his high falsetto, Bland began combining the squall with a rapid vibrato—a style that would be a cornerstone of modern soul singing. With Scott, Bland continued to work on his diction and phrasing, making each song an entity unto itself. And the touring was nonstop; between 1958 and 1968, Bland played 300 onenighters a year for several years in a row. In addition to collecting gold records and critical accolades while continually working on the road, Bland also picked up a pernicious problem with alcohol. An alcoholic for 18 years, drinking up to three fifths a day, Bland would not confront his problem until the early 1970s.
Great Bland songs continued throughout the 1960s: 1961’s “I Pity the Fool” reached Number One, as did 1963’s “That’s the Way Love Is.” Other songs, including “Stormy Monday” and “Turn On Your Lovelight,” went on to earn the distinction of R&B standards. The body of work Bland created while with Duke—collected in 1992 in a CD boxed set—lifted him to the status of sole patriarch of soft soul singing; only B. B. King’s influence has been more enduring overall.
In 1968 Scott and guitarist Wayne Bennett left Bland. Between 1968 and 1971 the singer fought depression while touring with the Ernie Fields Orchestra, a Tulsa band that by many critics’ accounts inappropriately translated Bland’s distinct style. In 1973, after Robey’s death, Duke was purchased by ABC/Dunhill, a label that soon attempted to make Bland a mainstream artist, pairing him with Four Seasons producer Steve Barri for both His California Album and Dreamer. Both releases successfully crossed over to white audiences, though many blues fans felt the music to be compromised. In 1979, after experimenting with the disco sound, Bland moved to MCA Records. Although he was floundering artistically, Bland did record the monumental “Ain’t No Heart in the City,” later a hit for the rock band Whitesnake.
In 1985 Bland signed with Malaco, the fiercely independent R&B label based in Jackson, Mississippi. It has been a positive pairing for both artist and label. Unlike many blues and soul acts that were preeminent in the 1960s, Bland has matured well. His first album for Malaco, Members Only, was a triumphant return to form. He was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1989 for the song “Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time” and followed the achievement with the acclaimed Midnight Run, an album that spent nearly a year and a half on the R&B charts.
In 1991 Bland was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an honor evidencing the quality of his work and his influence on subsequent generations. It could be argued that more than any other figure, Bland moved the blues away from its arcane and primitive origins while still keeping its spirit intact. He was, as one of his greatest albums noted, “two steps from the blues”; yet he was also just a step from starting rock and roll.
Two Steps From the Blues, Duke, 1961.
Call on Me, Duke, 1963.
Touch of the Blues, Duke, 1968.
His California Album, ABC Dunhill, 1973.
Try Me, I’m Real, MCA, 1981.
First Class Blues, Malaco, 1987.
Midnight Run, Malaco, 1989.
I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, MCA, 1992.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage, 1982.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, fourth edition, Limelight, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, Straight Arrow, 1992.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, A Capella Books, 1991.
Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles, 1942-88, Billboard Books, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Don Snowden’s liner notes to I PitytheFool: The Duke Recordings, MCA, 1992.
Bland, Bobby “Blue” 1930–
Bobby “Blue” Bland 1930–
Bobby “Blue” Bland may be the preeminent vocal stylist of the blues tradition. A genuine musical institution after more than fifty years of performing, Bland has built a career on a vocal personality that took him many years to develop, but that no one else could imitate. Bland’s style was built in equal parts upon smooth popular crooning, gospel preaching, and the downhome blues of the Memphis area where he began his musical life—a disparate set of influences, but one that seemed so natural as to be foreordained when Bland took the stage and vocally caressed the throngs of female fans that reliably attended his concerts.
An only child, Robert Calvin Bland was born on January 27, 1930, in rural Rosemark, Tennessee. Raised by his mother (he met his father only after becoming a star), Bland moved with her to Memphis when he was 17. He worked during the day at a garage, but began to get acquainted with local musicians as a member of a gospel group called the Miniatures. Memphis at the time was in the middle of a musical golden age that would make its name almost synonymous with the blues, and legendary guitarist B. B. King was already displaying his talents on a weekly radio show.
It was King who became Bland’s most helpful backer as he began to dream of a musical career. “He’d let me hang around and get some kind of experience,” Bland told the Washington Post. “I drove his car; I did anything I could to get my foot in the door. He gave me the opportunity and I still thank him today.” King invited Bland to perform on his radio program and to join the Beale Streeters, a touring blues ensemble (with Johnny Ace and Junior Parker as other members) that enjoyed regional fame and frequently backed King in concert. Bland imitated King’s vocal style precisely in his early years, but King encouraged him to define his own sound.
That process began in 1951 and 1952 when Bland cut a few sides for Elvis Presley producer Sam Phillips and for Memphis’s new Duke record label, but was interrupted when the singer was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent two years in Japan and a year at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where he began to sing on weekends at amateur-night contests in nearby cities. He began to find his distinctive voice when he learned to emulate
Born Robert Calvin Bland, January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, TN; married four times. Military service: U.S. Army, 1952-55.
Career: Performed in Memphis with gospel group the Miniatures; performed with group the Beale Streeters and provided backup vocals to B.B. King; signed to Duke label, 1951; recorded for Duke, 1951-73; toured widely, performing up to 300 dates a year, 1950s and 1960s; signed to MCA label, late 1970s; signed to Malaco label, 1985; continued to tour, early 2000s.
Selected awards: Grammy nomination, 1989; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
Addresses: Recording label —Malaco Records, P.O. Box 9287, 3023 Northside Dr., Jackson, MS 39206.
the smooth styles of the then-popular Nat “King” Cole and of West Coast bluesman Charles Brown and to combine them with the Memphis blues he knew well.
Back in Memphis after leaving the Army, Bland discovered that the Duke label had been purchased by hard-driving entrepreneur Don Robey. Robey sent Bland bus fare of $13.80 to come to Houston, signed him to the label, and teamed him with the Texas-born trumpeter Joe Scott, a gifted arranger who found ways of showcasing Bland’s maturing voice. At about this time Bland also encountered recordings made by the Rev. C. L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin and, as Bland told the Washington Post, “one of the greatest Baptist preachers that ever was.” Incorporating aspects of Franklin’s preaching style into his singing—notably a snort-like interjection that Bland called a “squall”—Bland arrived at a blues vocal style marked by both a crooner’s smoothness and a simmering underlying passion.
The result was a string of hit records for Bland, beginning with the rhythm-and-blues number one “Farther Up the Road” in 1957 and continuing for a quarter-century; Bland would land on the R&B charts at least once every year through 1982. Several of his 24 top ten R&B hits, such as “I Pity the Fool” (1961) and “That’s the Way Love Is” (1963) became blues standards, and his fusion of blues and gospel influenced the genre known as soul that was on its way up in Bland’s hometown of Memphis. Many of his recordings during his years with the Duke label were composed (or claimed) by Robey, but even after Duke was absorbed by the more mainstream ABC label in 1973 he continued to enjoy success with such contemporary releases as The California Album. In the late 1970s he recorded for the MCA label and even flirted with disco music.
Indeed, the problems Bland faced at mid-career were not musical but personal. In his prime years at Duke, Bland benefitted from the label’s small size and familylike atmosphere, with special support given by Robey’s assistant Evelyn Johnson. “He had a lot of complexes,” Johnson told Texas Monthly. “When he hit the stage he was Bobby Bland, but offstage he was just Bobby. He was so shy, and he took no responsibility for anything. You had to lead him around. I was like a mother: ‘Did you take a bath today, Bobby?’” Bland, who married four times, developed a worsening alcohol dependency after his musical relationship with Joe Scott fell apart in the late 1960s. At one point he was reported to be drinking three fifth bottles of liquor a day.
Bland gradually brought his drinking under control, however, and though his popularity fluctuated it never nosedived. Although he never really attracted the attention of white blues revivalists in the way that B. B. King did, his career attained equal longevity. A Bobby “Blue” Bland concert in the early 1980s was a heavily romantic affair, often held in a lavish downtown big-city auditorium, attended by crowds of middle-aged African Americans who had followed his career for decades. Among Bland’s hits of this period was “Ain’t No Heart in the City,” which was later covered by the white heavy metal rock band Whitesnake.
What kept Bland happy and productive into old age was his move to the Jackson, Mississippi-based Malaco label in 1985. Malaco devoted itself primarily to classic southern soul and blues styles, and its atmosphere was congenial for Bland. “Malaco has a family atmosphere like Duke used to have,” Bland explained to the Washington Post. “The people there know how to explain things to you; they show an interest in you as more than just a singer.” Bland remained a strong concert draw into the 21st century; his 1998 Malaco album Live on Beale Street showcased his skills in front of an audience. The man whom Rolling Stone Record Guide critic Dave Marsh called “the black Frank Sinatra” had become a true institution of the blues. Bland was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1981 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
Blues Consolidated, Duke, 1958.
Two Steps from the Blues, Duke/MCA, 1961.
Call on Me, Duke/MCA, 1963.
The Soul of the Man, Duke/MCA, 1966.
Touch of the Blues, Duke, 1967.
If Loving You Is Wrong, Duke, 1970.
California Album, ABC, 1973.
Woke Up Screaming, Duke, 1974.
Reflections in Blues, MCA, 1977.
Sweet Vibrations, MCA, 1980.
Here We Go Again, MCA, 1982.
After All, Malaco, 1986.
First Class Blues, Malaco, 1987.
Midnight Run, Malaco, 1989.
Portrait of the Blues, Malaco, 1991.
Years of Tears, Malaco, 1993.
Live on Beale Street, Malaco, 1998.
Memphis Monday Morning, 1998.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: The Duke Recordings, MCA, 1998.
Greatest Hits, Vol.2: The ABC/Dunhill/MCA Years, MCA, 1998.
20th-Century Masters: The Millennium, MCA, 2000.
The Anthology, MCA.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 12, Gale, 1994.
Marsh, Dave, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone, 1979.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Baltimore Sun, February 17, 1995, p. Features-20.
Down Beat, August 1998, p. 96.
Texas Monthly, August 1997, p. 58.
Washington Post, January 15, 1999, p. N15.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim