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 do, 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 exceptionally soulful singing and the downhome ritual of his shows. Few indeed are the performers who match Bland in creating such an intimate dialogue with listeners, his based on a shared sense of heartache and the healing power of sex; "I know just what you've been through," is how he puts it in "I'll Take Care of You," a 1959 single that remains a calling card. Speaking of rituals, when I hosted an R&B radio show in Worcester, MA in the '70's, I never came to work without a short stack of Robert Calvin Bland, as every Friday night the phones would light up with ladies requesting “Little Boy Blue" and "St. James Infirmary" and "Yield Not to Temptation."
Bobby Bland specializes in blues and ballads of a decidedly adult nature, by which I don’t mean R- or X-rated, of course, but mature, romantic, and hard won. Moreover, he does his thing solely as a singer, which may be the chief reason why he’s never fully crossed over in the way his longtime friend and collaborator B.B. King did with his guitar. Not that his music lacks for six-string dynamics, it's just that Bobby's left the guitar playing in the hands of such masters as Roy Gaines, Clarence Holliman, Wayne Bennett, and Mel Brown. As a singer, Bland utilizes 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 sings about is 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."
Bobby's 82nd birthday was on January 27. Here he is in peak form singing the Merle Haggard classic “Today I Started Loving You Again,” with the late Nashville legend Johnny Jones on guitar. And here he is in St. Louis with an audience favorite, "Members Only."