Tim Tooher pays tribute to Bobby “Blue” Bland, who died this week aged 83:
First George Jones, and now Bobby “Blue” Bland. If Billie Holiday were still alive, she’d be feeling very nervous right now. Jones and Bland were both that good, good enough to be compared with the very, very best. George Jones has been gone for less than two months and yesterday Bobby Bland joined him. Popularly known as Bobby “Blue” Bland, he had a lachrymose juggernaut of a voice, an emotional earth mover. He was also sometimes referred to as the “Sinatra of the blues”, but as good as Sinatra was, he rarely sang with the same naked, sometimes brutal force that Bland was capable of.
Though Bland’s voice was capable of great power, he could also sing with sensitivity, lightness and no little sensuality, reflecting the influence on his singing of Nat “King” Cole, a singer who may not be the most fashionable these days, but who made some incredible records, such as 1955’s “After Midnight” album. Thankfully, part of the richness of blues and soul music is owed to the fact that the great blues and soul singers were not as purist in their tastes and influences as many of the people who would become their fans and obsessively collect their records. It was this combination of raw and smooth, often within the same song, that made Bland stand out.
Born in a small country town near Memphis and later, at the age of seventeen, moving to the city itself, Bobby was in the perfect place for someone looking to make a career as a blues singer. His singing career started in Memphis, when he joined a group called the Miniatures, who sang spirituals. Before long he’d left the Miniatures and was part of a loose-knit group of musicians who hung out on Beale Street and were known as the Beale Streeters. His fellow members were B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, Earl Forest and Junior Parker. That’s the kind of schooling most people can only dream of. Bobby’s early records were good, but not great, but, after a stint in the army, he started to develop the sound that would make his name. In 1958, he cut “Little Boy Blue”, a showcase for his deliberate, controlled style and the first record to feature what would become his trademark, a guttural squall of sound which shifted word into noise and lyric into feeling. According to Bobby, it’s a trick that he picked up after hearing the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s dad.
From that point on, he started to produce records that were touched by magic on a supernaturally frequent basis. 1959 saw the ethereal “I’ll Take Care of You”, a record that is as much spell as song. Bobby’s voice forever threatening to break into the squall, but never quite getting there. There is power in knowing that he could if we wanted to, power in the restraint he. 1960 brought “Lead Me On”, another masterpiece of restraint on the most sublimely glorious bed of strings. Again the voice never really lets go, kept on its leash until the very end, but you can hear it straining to be set free every inch of the way. The same year’s “Cry, Cry, Cry” doesn’t follow suit, his voice is given full rein to cross the line between song and perfectly controlled noise. You can hear the damage being done to his throat, as he forces sonic explosions and implosions out of his mouth.
The following year’s “I Pity The Fool” is more of the same, with Bobby outmuscling the full-bore horn section, who play a riff that’s both primitive and hypnotic. He carried on like that, year after year, producing records of immense craft and power, only slowing down in the mid-1970’s, and now he’s gone, what we’re left with is that music, subtle, forceful and stained with the pain and joy of life.
As I sit here writing this, the songs that I want to hear are his elegant version of Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be?”, which is more supper club than road house. Not many people could do a Charlie Rich song as well as Charlie himself, but Bobby manages it, but then maybe that’s because they had so much in common in terms of their influences and their personas. Another of Bobby’s performances that has something of Charlie Rich about it is his version of the blues standard “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. It’s one of those records that seems to have the power to bend the rules of time, making each second deeper and longer than it would otherwise seem. It’s a beautifully constructed collage of silence and sound, put together by arranger Joe Scott and underpinned by Wayne Bennett’s lyrical, intelligent guitar, which builds so richly upon the legacy of T-Bone Walker. For me making records shouldn’t be about seeking perfection, great music is about something else, something messier and more visceral, but perfection is what Bobby and his friends achieve here, somehow managing to carve the sound of the calm at the centre of a storm into dirty black vinyl.
1972’s “Do What You Set Out To Do” was one of his last outings for Duke Records, which had been his home for the previous twenty years. It’s one of those records that can be heard as a song to one woman or to a more general audience, the title line having a feeling of universal exhortation . The squall is at its growling best. It’s no coincidence that someone has posted it on YouTube as the soundtrack to a selection of clips of events in the Civil Rights struggle. It’s a song that drips with empowerment, the lean and muscular backing creating the space in which Bobby can weave his magic.
In 1973 ABC Records bought Duke, so it was on ABC that he found his new home and recorded two of the songs that he’d perhaps best known for outside the world of blues and soul. First up, on his first album released post-Duke, was the Gerry Goffin-Barry Goldberg composition “It’s Not The Spotlight”. Bobby was no stranger to smooth, but things here are suddenly a whole lot more West Coast, the sound a lot fuller than on his Duke recordings, with less sense of space, but Bobby is still Bobby. It’s the kind of song they don’t write anymore and Bobby pulls everything from it, even embellishing it with a couple of Grade A squalls that, for once, feel like they’re there at the producer’s behest rather than because they’re what the song needed, though their impact is in no way lessened. A couple of years later, Rod Stewart did his own version of the song on “Atlantic Crossing”. As good as Rod was back then, you’ve only got two listen to the two versions side by side to hear exactly how special a singer Bobby was.
Bobby’s music had always been loved by the British musicians of the Sixities blues boom, but in 1974 he released a song that would later be turned into an enormous hit by British heavy metal band Whitesnake. “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” is a song with a dark foreboding hypnotic whirlpool of a chorus. The sound is suffocating, only leavened by the verses which, buoyed by soaring strings, provide some glimmer of musical hope that the world isn’t about to come to an end. Bobby’s voice is again perfection itself, restrained yet still sounding like it’s at the point of breaking.
In 1974, Bobby also enjoyed great success collaborating with his old musical accomplice B.B. King, but the following years found him increasingly earning his living back on the Chitlin’ Circuit, which would see him eventually recording for Malaco Records and making some fine albums, including 1986’s “Members Only”.
Though Bobby recorded something like thirty albums in his more than sixty-year-long career, it’s the first that featured Bobby on his own that he’ll ever be remembered for. Released in 1961, “Two Steps From The Blues” is a record that has come to be as much manifesto as it was record. Everything about it is just right, from the title to the cover. It’s a record that has inspired countless singers and musicians, setting the template for what soul and blue could be. It’s a record that creates its own universe, the music otherworldly. It was a turning point and a starting point, perhaps the place where southern soul began, where Stax and Muscle Shoals found their inspiration. Dan Penn, one of the greatest of Southern Soul songwriters was even known as Bobby “Blue” Penn by his friends. In 1999, Penn had the following to say to Oxford American journalist and author of “The Art of Listening” Les Back, “Bobby Bland was just the Man. You wanted to be like him, at least I did—just a great, great singer. He had exceptional delivery and understanding. He made you understand what the song means to him. He didn’t just shuffle through, you know—it’s also blood and guts. The r&b records that I loved are not prominent or in your face. Listen to “Share Your Love with Me,” the one with the strings—that’s my favourite. That one, and “Two Steps from the Blues” are the two that stick out for me. I have to say that I’ve never heard records any better than those. No gimmicks, just pure blues pop. Nobody’s ever beat ’em.”
Like the other genre-defining artists mentioned at the start of this piece, Bland might be gone, but he’s also left us the incredible gift of his music. Music that is peerless in its emotional impact and sheer instinctive brilliance.