Born Robert Calvin Bland, January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, TN. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, early 1950s. Addresses: Record company--Malaco Records, P.O. Box 9287, 3023 Northside Drive, Jackson, MS 39206.
As a singer, Bobby "Blue" Bland is regarded as the definitive blues stylist, the "black [Frank] Sinatra," as Dave Marsh described him in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Often backed by a simple rhythm section and deftly arranged horn lines, Bland became known for his sexy, liquid-smooth approach. He rarely sang hard blues; his style was one of distilled fervor.
Although Bland never really crossed over to white audiences, as has his friend B. B. King, he has been enduringly popular. According to Joel Whitburn's Top R&B Singles: 1942-88, Bland is the Number 11 rhythm and blues chart artist of all time; in the blues genre he trails only King. In a listing of top artists of the 1960s, Bland is at Number Four, ahead of a slew of household names. Bland has never been highly visible; his core audience remains the black blues crowd. Another explanation offered for his neglected mainstream status is that he is mainly a singer and not an instrumentalist. Still, saying Bobby "Blue" Bland is just a singer is akin to calling Picasso just a painter.
Bland was born January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee, and had a rural boyhood. He listened primarily to gospel and white country singers while growing up. At the age of 17, Bland moved with his mother to Memphis, where the youngster continued to sing in church and in secular street groups. His first group, the Miniatures, was short lived.
By 1949 Bland was working as B. B. King's chauffeur and at times as Roscoe Gordon's valet--anything to stay close to blues music. He was soon a part of the Beale Streeters, a vocal group that also included Johnny Ace, Gordon, and King. Based on a love of spirituals and the urban blues that filled the street for which they were named, the Beale Streeters continued on for a year.
By 1951 Bland had signed with D.J. James Mattis's Duke Recordings. Prior to that the singer had cut three singles that were released on three different, although prominent, R&B labels: Chess, Modern, and Duke. Though he had yet to find his own style, Bland was in the thick of the R&B scene--the Chess sides were produced by Sam Phillips, the Modern single by Ike Turner.
In 1952 Bland was drafted into the U.S. Army; by the end of his tour he was performing in Special Services, covering Nat King Cole and Charles Brown songs. When he returned in 1955, Bland began touring as Junior Parker's valet and opening act. In the meantime, rock and roll had arrived in the person of Elvis Presley; crossover possibilities for black acts were subsequently opened. Duke had been purchased by Don Robey, a shadowy Houston businessman. Robey admired Bland and quickly teamed him with the Bill Harvey Orchestra, a Memphis group; the result was the song "It's My Life Baby."
When "Farther on up the Road" hit Number One on the R&B charts in 1957, it was the beginning of a tremendous run for Bland at Duke. The song's success is difficult to pinpoint--it is typical blues in both arrangement and sensibility. The difference may have been that Bland was now telling a convincing story, making brief lyrical vignettes highly believable with his conversational style. All of his songs were written for him; even when a song was written by a member of Bland's band, Robey would credit it to the anonymous pseudonym of "Deadric Malone," thus pocketing songwriting royalties himself.
In 1958 Robey hooked Bland up with Joe Scott, a gifted arranger, writer, and trumpeter. Hits like "Little Boy Blue" and "Bobby's Blues" kept coming, often increasing in orchestral sophistication and emotional facility. Bland was greatly influenced by the Reverend C. F. Franklin, soul sensation Aretha Franklin's father, who cried out biblical passages in what Bland referred to as a "squall." As he lost his high falsetto, Bland began combining the squall with a rapid vibrato--a style that would be a cornerstone of modern soul singing. With Scott, Bland continued to work on his diction and phrasing, making each song an entity unto itself. And the touring was nonstop; between 1958 and 1968, Bland played 300 one-nighters a year for several years in a row. In addition to collecting gold records and critical accolades while continually working on the road, Bland also picked up a pernicious problem with alcohol. An alcoholic for 18 years, drinking up to three fifths a day, Bland would not confront his problem until the early 1970s.
Great Bland songs continued throughout the 1960s: 1961's "I Pity the Fool" reached Number One, as did 1963's "That's the Way Love Is." Other songs, including "Stormy Monday" and "Turn On Your Lovelight," went on to earn the distinction of R&B standards. The body of work Bland created while with Duke-- collected in 1992 in a CD boxed set--lifted him to the status of sole patriarch of soft soul singing; only B. B. King's influence has been more enduring overall.
In 1968 Scott and guitarist Wayne Bennett left Bland. Between 1968 and 1971 the singer fought depression while touring with the Ernie Fields Orchestra, a Tulsa band that by many critics' accounts inappropriately translated Bland's distinct style. In 1973, after Robey's death, Duke was purchased by ABC/Dunhill, a label that soon attempted to make Bland a mainstream artist, pairing him with Four Seasons producer Steve Barri for both His California Album and Dreamer. Both releases successfully crossed over to white audiences, though many blues fans felt the music to be compromised. In 1979, after experimenting with the disco sound, Bland moved to MCA Records. Although he was floundering artistically, Bland did record the monumental "Ain't No Heart in the City," later a hit for the rock band Whitesnake.
In 1985 Bland signed with Malaco, the fiercely independent R&B label based in Jackson, Mississippi. It has been a positive pairing for both artist and label. Unlike many blues and soul acts that were preeminent in the 1960s, Bland has matured well. His first album for Malaco, Members Only, was a triumphant return to form. He was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1989 for the song "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time" and followed the achievement with the acclaimed Midnight Run, an album that spent nearly a year and a half on the R&B charts.
In 1991 Bland was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an honor evidencing the quality of his work and his influence on subsequent generations. It could be argued that more than any other figure, Bland moved the blues away from its arcane and primitive origins while still keeping its spirit intact. He was, as one of his greatest albums noted, "two steps from the blues"; yet he was also just a step from starting rock and roll.
by Stewart Francke
Bobby "Blue" Bland's Career
Briefly joined group the Miniatures, 1949; worked as B. B. King's chauffeur, 1950; with Johnny Ace and Roscoe Gordon, formed the Beale Streeters, 1951; signed with Duke label, 1951; began playing 300 onenighters per year with Junior Parker, 1958; arranger Joe Scott and guitarist Wayne Bennett left Bland, 1968; signed with Malaco label, 1984; boxed set of the Duke recordings, I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, released by MCA, 1992.
Bobby "Blue" Bland's Awards
Nominated for a Grammy Award, 1989, for "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time"; inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
- Selective Works
- Two Steps From the Blues, Duke, 1961.
- Call on Me, Duke, 1963.
- Touch of the Blues, Duke, 1968.
- His California Album, ABC Dunhill, 1973.
- Try Me, I'm Real, MCA, 1981.
- First Class Blues, Malaco, 1987.
- Midnight Run, Malaco, 1989.
- I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, MCA, 1992.
- Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage, 1982.
- Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, fourth edition, Limelight, 1992.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
- Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, Straight Arrow, 1992.
- Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, A Capella Books, 1991.
- Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles, 1942-88, Billboard Books, 1990.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Don Snowden's liner notes to I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, MCA, 1992.