As the Polka turns
Tune into "Dark Side of the Highway" this Sunday (June 23) at 1 AM for a special memorial tribute to legendary Memphis blues and soul singer Bobby "Blue" Bland...
Robert Calvin Bland (January 27, 1930 - June 23, 2013)
Robert Calvin "Bobby" Bland (January 27, 1930 – June 23, 2013), also known as Bobby "Blue" Bland, was an American singer of blues and soul. He was an original member of the Beale Streeters, and was sometimes referred to as the "Lion of the Blues". Along with such artists as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Junior Parker, Bland developed a sound that mixed gospel with the blues and R&B. An imitator of Frank Sinatra, he was also known as the "Sinatra of the blues"; his music was also influenced by Nat King Cole.
Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
Bland was born in the small town of Rosemark, Tennessee. Later moving to Memphis with his mother, Bland started singing with local gospel groups there, including amongst others The Miniatures. Eager to expand his interests, he began frequenting the city's famous Beale Street where he became associated with an ad hoc circle of aspiring musicians named, not unnaturally, the Beale Streeters.
Bland's recordings from the early 1950s show him striving for individuality, but any progress was halted by a spell in the U.S. Army. When the singer returned to Memphis in 1954 he found several of his former associates, including Johnny Ace, enjoying considerable success, while Bland's recording label, Duke, had been sold to Houston entrepreneur Don Robey. In 1956 Bland began touring with Junior Parker. Initially he doubled as valet and driver, a role he reportedly fulfilled for B. B. King and Rosco Gordon. Simultaneously, Bland began asserting his characteristic vocal style. Melodic big-band blues singles, including "Farther Up the Road" (1957) and "Little Boy Blue" (1958) reached the US R&B Top 10, but Bobby's craft was most clearly heard on a series of early 1960s releases including "Cry Cry Cry", "I Pity The Fool" and the sparkling "Turn On Your Love Light", which became a much-covered standard. Despite credits to the contrary, many such classic works were written by Joe Scott, the artist's bandleader and arranger.
Bland continued to enjoy a consistent run of R&B chart entries throughout the mid-'60s. Never truly breaking into the mainstream market, Bland's highest charting song on the pop chart, "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" peaked at #20 in the same week that the Beatles held down the top five spots. Bland's records mostly sold on the R&B market and he had 23 Top Ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts and in the 1996 Top R&B book by Joel Whitburn, Bland was rated the #13 all-time best selling artist.
Financial pressures forced the singer to cut his touring band and in 1968 the group broke up. He suffered from depression and became increasingly dependent on alcohol. He stopped drinking in 1971; his record company Duke was sold by owner Don Robey to the larger ABC Records group. This resulted in several successful and critically acclaimed contemporary blues/soul albums including His California Album and Dreamer, arranged by Michael Omartian and produced by ABC staff man Steve Barri. The albums, including the later "follow-up" in 1977 Reflections in Blue, were all recorded in Los Angeles and featured many of the city's top sessionmen at the time.
The first single released from His California Album, "This Time I'm Gone For Good" took Bland back into the pop Top 50 for the first time since 1964 and made the R&B top 10 in late 1973. The lead-off track from Dreamer, "Ain't No Love In the Heart of the City", was a strong R&B hit. Later it would surface again in 1978 by the hard rock band Whitesnake featuring singer David Coverdale. Much later it was sampled by Kanye West on Jay-Z's hip hop album The Blueprint (2001). The song is also featured on the soundtrack of the crime drama The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) starring Matthew McConaughey. The follow-up, "I Wouldn't Treat A Dog" was his biggest R&B hit for some years, climbing to #3 in late 1974, but as usual his strength was never the pop chart (where it hit #88). Subsequent attempts at adding a disco/Barry White flavor were mostly unsuccessful. A return to his roots in 1980 for a tribute album to his mentor Joe Scott, produced by music veterans Monk Higgins and Al Bell, resulted in the album Sweet Vibrations, but it failed to sell well outside of his traditional "chitlin circuit" base.
In 1985, Bland was signed by Malaco Records, specialists in traditional Southern black music for whom he made a series of albums while continuing to tour and appear at concerts with fellow blues singer B. B. King. The two had collaborated for two albums in the 1970s. Despite occasional age-related ill-health, Bland continued to record new albums for Malaco and perform occasional tours alone, with guitarist/producer Angelo Earl and also with B.B. King, plus appearances at blues and soul festivals worldwide.
The Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison was an early adherent of Bland (he covered "Ain't Nothing You Can't Do" on his 1974 live album It's Too Late to Stop Now) and has on occasion had Bland as a guest singer at his concerts. He also included a previously unreleased version of a March 2000 duet of Morrison and Bland singing "Tupelo Honey" on his 2007 compilation album, The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3.
In 2008 the British singer and lead vocalist of Simply Red, Mick Hucknall, released an album, Tribute to Bobby, containing songs associated with Bland. The album reached 18 in the UK Albums Chart.
Bland died on June 23, 2013 at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, after an ongoing illness. He was 83.