Few artists are as distinctly “Memphis” as soul pioneer Bobby “Blue” Bland. His story is the story of Memphis music, from being raised in rural Tennessee and getting his start singing in storefront churches, to his move to Memphis with his single mom when he was still a teenager. Like lots of Memphis kids in the late 1940s, he worked a menial day job, in his case at a garage, and dreamed of bigger things. And for Robert Calvin Bland, his future far exceeded those dreams. A key figure in the evolution of rhythm & blues into modern soul, Bland, with a dynamic vocal style rooted in the passion of gospel, has never gone out of style. And he’s never really left his Midsouth roots. After decades of hits on various record labels, he continued his rigorous national performance schedule up until his death in June, 2013 at the age of 83.
Born on Jan. 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee, Bland’s late teenage years were spent working in his garage by day and hoping for a break on Beale Street by night. Beale was jumping in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, enjoying a postwar boom and thriving music scene that included such WDIA broadcast personalities as Rufus Thomas, host of the Palace Theater’s famed amateur contests. In 1951, Bland, by then a husky youth of 21, took the $5 first prize, a rite of passage for so many of the city’s music legends-in-the-making.
Bland was soon performing in an informal group of future greats known as The Beale Streeters, including B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Johnny Ace, Willie Nix and Earl Forest. He made his early records for outside labels recording in Memphis, going in front of Sam Phillips’ microphone at 706 Union in sessions for Chess, and with Ike Turner for Modern, which released his first single, “Dry Up Baby.” He was developing his own sound and his voice was maturing, but his music career was postponed in 1952 when he received an army draft notice. After his discharge in 1954 he joined The Johnny Ace Revue, headed by his old friend and fellow Duke recording artist. But Ace’s accidental death on Christmas that year when he was playing with a gun backstage tragically ended that gig. By then, Bland was on his way, releasing his first Duke single under his own name, 1955’s “It’s My Life, Baby.”
In 1956, Bland began working with Junior Parker, also serving as his valet and driver, services the modest singer had also provided to Rosco Gordon and B.B. King. He wouldn’t be a valet for long. The Duke label had begun in Memphis, but by the time of Bland’s first release, it was based in Houston, having been taken over by Texas entrepreneur Don Robey, who’d made his fortune through a taxi business and allegedly, other, less legal enterprises.
Bland’s sound would blossom on Duke, in a close relationship with producer/bandleader Joe Scott that resulted in some of the best, most distinctive R&B ever recorded. In 1957, Bland created a certified blues masterpiece, “Farther Up The Road,” which shot to No. 1 and made Bland a top R&B star. The record, with Pat Hare’s stinging electric guitar slicing through The Bill Harvey Band’s horn-driven arrangement, set the template for Bland’s string of Duke hits, which would feature such masterful guitarists as Wayne Bennett and Mel Brown. Bland’s emotional voice, punctuated by that distinctive, hoarse cry, was equally at home on that record’s hard-driving Texas blues shuffle, heartfelt gospel-tinged ballads like “I’ll Take Care of You,” the sophisticated blues of “I Pity the Fool” (long before Mr. T made it a national catch phrase) and even on one of Bland’s more obscure classics, a brilliant take on his Memphis neighbor Charlie Rich’s bluesy country classic, “Who Will the Next Fool Be.”
Unlike B.B. King, Bland never achieved much crossover success, no record ever passing No. 20 on the pop charts. But many of his songs found new life in covers by rockers like Eric Clapton (“Farther Up the Road”), The Grateful Dead (“Turn on Your Lovelight”) and Van Morrison (“Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”). Guitarist Lonnie Mack, acknowledged by many as the father of blues-rock, credits Bland with giving him his entire vocal and band approach.
Bland’s Duke hits kept coming in the 1960s, including “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Call on Me,” Don’t Cry No More” and more. By the end of the ‘60s, funk and Philly soul had eclipsed classic R&B and in 1968, Bland had to break up his band.
In the ‘70s, many of the independent labels were absorbed by the majors and Duke became part of ABC Records. Bland began recording in Los Angeles with such top pop producers and arrangers as Michael Omartian, with backing by the cream of West Coast session players, resulting in a contemporary sound that returned him to the R&B charts with such hits as “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog.” Another Bland hit from that era, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” was later covered by the hard-rock band Whitesnake and sampled by Kanye West and Jay-Z. But for blues fans, the best thing to come out of the ABC deal was an extended reunion with labelmate B.B. King for two albums and tours that continued into the 21st Century. In 1980, Bland went back to his Duke Records roots, recording Sweet Vibrations, a tribute album to the architect of his original sound, Joe Scott.
In 1985, Bland returned to the Midsouth music scene, signing with Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco Records, producing a series of albums featuring an update of his classic approach, the same seamless blend of blues, soul and R&B that would become known as ”The Malaco Sound.”
But though his recordings continue having an impact today, especially on soundtracks (his classic, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” was featured in the 2011 film The Lincoln Lawyer), Bland’s heart and soul has always been in live performance, just as when he sang on Rosemark’s streetcorners or at Beale’s Palace Theater. Soul music has always been all about connection, and no one ever connected more deeply than the great Bobby “Blue” Bland.