Bobby "Blue" Bland (Saw Us Through) 1930-2013
There he is, the great Bobby "Blue" Bland, soulful and swinging, brassy and blunt, singing one of his most-requested, "That's the Way Love Is." The singer died last night at age 83. As it happened, we were in Worcester listening to Irma Thomas, and when her old friend guitarist Ronnie Earl arrived, he backed her on "I'll Take Care of You." I doubt anyone knew Bobby's status at the time, but his death in Germantown, Tennessee was announced at 7:49 CST, just about the same time (EST) that Irma and Ronnie were performing the song that Bland first recorded in 1959. (Irma recorded it with Earl in 2001. Hear it here.)
The tender feel of "I'll Take Care of You" represented a break from the harder-edged blues that Bland wailed and moaned in the '50's, and it's hard to think of another blues great who developed such ballad mastery and displayed such vulnerability as a singer. Bobby's mature style, which he credited to the influence of Frank Sinatra, Arthur Prysock, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Nat King Cole, later influenced Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and modern soul singing. Cole was especially important for teaching him "how sing the blues and pronounce it the right way." Bobby's clear enunciation was critical to his success, and as early as 1959 it helped land him a spot on Amercan Bandstand, the first time Dick Clark ever hosted a blues singer.
Remember Radio Raheem? He’s the boom-box toting antagonist in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing who’s continually blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Raheem (Bill Nunn) manages to aggravate just about everyone he encounters on his odyssey through the 'hood, including the cats on the corner. Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie, Paul Benjamin as ML, and Frankie Faison as Coconut Kid play a veritable Greek chorus, and as Raheem rounds the corner sporting an outlandish new haircut and complaining of another perceived injustice, Harris bellows, “Why don’t you picket that barber who cut your hair, and put some Bobby “Blue” Bland on that box.”
I didn’t mind Raheem’s hairdo, but I was in full accord with the request for "B-O-B-B-Y." Ever since I first purchased Two Steps from the Blues as a teenager, I’ve been a devoted fan of Bland’s soulful singing and the downhome ritual of his shows. Few indeed are the performers who've matched Bland (though Irma Thomas comes to mind) in creating such an intimate dialogue with listeners, his based on a shared sense of heartache and the healing power of sex. Speaking of rituals, when I hosted an R&B radio show in Worcester in the '70's, I never left for work without a short stack of Robert Calvin Bland, as every Friday night the phones would light up with ladies requesting "Further On Up the Road," “Cry Cry Cry," "Honky Tonk," "Yield Not to Temptation," and what many hail as the definitive version of Stormy Monday Blues, which featured Wayne Bennett on guitar.
Bobby Bland specialized in blues and ballads of a decidedly adult nature, mature, romantic, and hard won, and some of it went right over my head as a kid. Moreover, he did his thing solely as a singer, which may be the chief reason why he never fully crossed over in the way his longtime friend and collaborator B.B. King did with Lucille. Not that his music lacked for six-string dynamics, it's just that Bobby left the guitar playing in the hands of such masters as Roy Gaines, Clarence Holliman, Wayne Bennett, and Mel Brown.
As a singer, Bland utilized everything from full-throated exhortations to nasal moans to whispered pleas to gutteral growls and snorts (this latter effect known as the "squall"); and what he sang about was love and longing and cheatin' and lyin' and "When you got a backache, a little rubbin' will see you through, but when you got a heartache, there ain't nothin' you can do," and "When you hurt some, you gotta heal some," and "If you're gonna walk all over my love, at least take off your shoes," and “Further on up the road, someone’s gonna hurt you the way you hurt me,” and “You’re only Queen for a day."
At the 1983 Long Beach Blues Festival, Bland sang Merle Haggard's, "Today I Started Loving You Again." He joked that Merle wouldn't recognize his own tune in Bobby's down-home rendition, but country & western was a major influence on Bland down through the years. He often cited Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Acuff, and Eddy Arnold as favorites, and said that, "A lot of people didn't understand country & western because they thought it was white people music or whatever. But they have the best stories that you ever want to listen to...blues and country & western tell the most serious stories."
The New York Times obituary quotes Bobby on the influence that Reverend C.L. Franklin, "Aretha's daddy," had on his singing. Read it here. Franklin's famous sermon, "The Eagle Stirreth His Nest," inspired Bland's appreciation for the story elements of a sermon-song, in addition to his use of the squall and other elements of gospel singing. His impassioned 1958 recording, "Little Boy Blue," was a breakthrough. "I got the ideal for how to deliver it from C.L. Franklin," he recalled.
B.B. King, five years his senior, was a prime influence on him in the early 50's, and Bobby served briefly as B.B.'s valet and driver before he was drafted into the Army in 1952. Upon his discharge, he served in a similar capacity for Junior Parker, and later toured with Parker, by then his Duke Records label mate, as Blues Consolidated. When they were all still getting their footing around Memphis in the late 40's, Bland, King, Parker, Roscoe Gordon, and Johnny Ace were collectively known as the Beale Streeters. Here's Bobby sitting in with B.B. on Soul Train in 1975.
I keep going back to Bobby's performance at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1981. It's a littly blurry, but the show is outstanding, and the band includes both Wayne Bennett and Mel Brown, who are a sideshow in themselves. Two years earlier, for Peter Guralnick's definitive profile of Bland, Little Boy Blue, Bobby said, "I'm fortunate to have...two guitarists, Wayne Bennett and Mel Brown, who both have that mellow, hollow kind of sound and basically had the same idol. Which is T-Bone Walker. See, if they hear a lyric, they say, 'Well, Blue would phrase it this way'."
As prominent as the guitar was in his music, Bobby said it was Joe Scott's songs and brass-heavy arrangements that, "gave me a kind of identity." In this 2002 interview with Jacquie Maddix, he said, "I had the voice but I didn't know what to do with it. Joe Scott taught me how to use my voice which he loved to use to tell his stories. He taught me how to approach them, what to say...and how to make it real...The stories I was telling during that time, I didn't know how strong they were until I got a little older and [realized] those stories was pretty much my life." Here it's Bobby's later music director, trumpeter Mel Jackson, at the helm of the band. Guralnick recognized Jackson as Bland's "organizer, business manager, friend, and smooth-spoken conduit to the outside world." Bobby, on the other hand, was a conduit for the rest of us to that interior world of body and soul. Thanks "Blue" for seeing us through.