Until his health gave out on him, Bobby Blue Bland was the singer’s singer. One of the biggest black hitmakers of the ’60s, he had little crossover success but influenced countless other vocalists. He personified the sturdiest bridge in the transition from blues to soul music. And nearly everything you need to know about him can be found on three albums of two discs apiece: I Pity the Fool/The Duke Recordings, Volume 1; Turn On Your Love Light/The Duke Recordings, Volume 2; and That’s It, The Duke Recordings, Volume 3.
Born outside Memphis in tiny Rosemark in 1930, Bland moved with his mother to Beale Street when he was 17. He quickly fell in with an informal group called the Beale Streeters (B.B. King and Roscoe Gordon were also sometimes-members) and cut his first record in 1950. After an Army stint, he returned home and was signed to Duke Records, which was soon taken over by Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records in Houston. And that’s where the Bobby Bland story really begins.
Robey paired Bland, who’d moved to Houston, with trumpeter/bandleader/arranger/producer/writer Joe Scott of the Bill Harvey Orchestra, which was already backing the singer sometimes. Using mainly local musicians, Scott devised a jazzy, uptown blues sound that featured tough guitarists (Pat Hare, Roy Gaines or Clarence Hollimon before Wayne Bennett settled in to become Bland’s most celebrated foil) but was built around snazzy, blaring horn charts with roots in the big band era. Even Bland says Joe Scott basically created him, fashioning his sound and teaching him how to really sing by listening to the whole band rather than just the guitarist. Despite a voice animated by gospel fire, Bland admired Perry Como and Tony Bennett and could be just as smooth; his earliest records (“You or None”) suggest that in less racist times, he could have been king of the crooners – and Scott continued to develop the singer’s nonpareil ballad style. But he also mixed in some kinetic shuffles and uptempo tunes, allowing Bobby a little macho swagger to go along with his tenderness and vulnerability. Whatever he sang, Bland brought to it his anguished, full-throated intimacy, sailing elegantly through the melodies while adding just a touch of vibrato or melisma, and wearing his heart on his sleeve. No male singer understood women the way Bobby Bland did, because no male singer admitted to pain similar to theirs quite as readily as Bland did; that empathy made him seem more nurturing than his male peers, even if he himself also needed mothering sometimes. Between his own emotional delivery and the way Scott framed it, Bland’s records were not always blues, but they were always blue as could be.
And for all that Scott taught him and did for him, Bland didn’t truly come into his own until he added a device that was more of his own making. In the late 1950s, Bobby, like most black Americans, listened regularly to the sermons of Rev. C.L. Franklin of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, who was Aretha’s father and probably the most influential preacher within black America (by then, Franklin’s friend and civil rights ally Dr. Martin Luther King was well known outside the ghetto). Franklin was so popular that Chess Records released his sermons as albums; “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” was said to have sold gold several times over, though the label never submitted its sales figures for RIAA certification. While listening to that landmark sermon, Bobby focused on a guttural, gargling sound Franklin utilized to emphasize his points, and adapted it to his own voice and needs. Thus was born The Squall, as he called it. He’d always used his swooping and soaring falsetto to dramatic effect, but The Squall provided an equally powerful, and more singular, tool.
The Squall first appeared on the 1958 hit “Little Boy Blue.” Bland’s first R&B chart record, the classic Texas shuffle “Farther on Up the Road,” which is still performed regularly by seemingly every blues-based band in the state, had gone all the way to Number the summer before, but “Little Boy Blue” (which peaked at No. 10) marked his first return to the black Top 40. From then until 1968, when his band broke up while Bobby dealt with alcoholism and depression, he was never off those charts for more than a few weeks at a time. The material, tailored for Bland, usually came from Scott or from a small pool of Houston writers who sold their work to the hard-nosed Robey, who claimed authorship under his own name or his pen name of Deadric Malone. Bland’s persona (if that’s what it was) crystallized around tunes like “I’ll Take Care of You” (which uncharacteristically puts a funky organ where the guitar usually was) and “Lead Me On.” The casually vindictive “Cry, Cry, Cry,” one of Bland’s best-ever performances, feeds his fine and mellow voice on the verses into hair-raising gospel squalls on the bridge, while on “I Pity the Fool,” his vocal bursts out of some classy horn-and-guitar riffs. “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” is all weary resignation; “Turn On Your Love Light” is all authority as it rides a wild, churning rhythm. But those shining singles weren’t the whole story for Bland. “Wishing Well” offers one of Scott’s most complex and imaginative arrangements while remaining utterly accessible; on “You Did Me Wrong,” Bennett’s spiky guitar bites and crackles like barbed wire going through a grinder. Two Steps from the Blues (admittedly made up mainly of singles) is the album that invents soul-blues as a genre.
When Robey sold his record company to ABC-Dunhill in 1973, Bland’s contract was a crucial part of the deal. Though a poppier sound still didn’t translate into significant crossovers, his black popularity barely waned. In 1985, after the hits had stopped coming (though he remained a regular on the black touring circuit), Bland signed with Malaco, a label built on his Southern soul-blues sound; there, he enjoyed a brief chart resurgence, even though his voice had lost considerable range and power. He’s fought a succession of medical issues following a 1995 triple bypass, but is still known to take the stage every once in a while. The music he made with Scott, however, continues to sound rich and full, and will doubtless remain loved wherever men and women gather to curse their inability to do each other right.