Bobby "Blue" Bland
Blue is his middle name for a reason.
Bobby “Blues” Bland mesmerized audiences with a voice both velvety and primal, controlled and impassioned. His career was one of innovation and artistic integrity, spanning nearly his entire life.
Bobby “Blue” Bland was born Robert Calvin Bland on January 27, 1930 in Rosemark, Tennessee, a small town near Memphis.
When he was 17, he and his mother moved to Memphis. He worked at a garage during the week and sang spirituals on weekends. At various times, he served as a chauffeur for B.B. King and Roscoe Gordon and as a valet for Junior Parker. He soon began hanging out on Beale Street, and he eventually became part of a loose-knit group called the Beale Streeters, which included Billy Duncan, Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Earl Forrest and Junior Parker.
After making some recordings for Duke Records, Bland was drafted into the Army in 1953. He returned to Memphis in 1955, only to find that everything had changed. Rock and roll was breaking down the old barriers between “race” and “pop,” and Duke Records had been sold to Don Robey. Bland spent the latter half of the Fifties maturing into a masterful singer and assured entertainer. His hallmark was his supple, confidential soul-blues delivery. As a singer, Bland projected a grainy, down-to-earth quality, punctuated with guttural growls and snorts that would come to be known as the “chicken-bone sound.” Yet his voice was simultaneously smooth as velvet, allowing Bland to bring audiences under his hypnotic spell as he walked a fine line between passionate expression and exquisite self-control.
Working with Joe Scott—a band leader and producer—Bland recorded straight blues such as 1957’s “Farther On Up the Road,” which reached Number Five on the R&B charts, and the following year’s “Little Boy Blue,” a record of surprising intensity and power. That record marked the end of Bland’s hard-blues period, and he subsequently evolved into more of an intimate soul-blues stylist. “I’ll Take Care of You,” which reached Number Two on the R&B charts in 1960, marked the beginning of the Bobby Bland sound. It was also the first of a dozen straight Top 12 R&B hits, including “Lead Me On,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Turn on Your Love Light.” The latter song became an R&B standard.
Bland’s painstakingly crafted records featured his deliberate, resolute vocals set over a backdrop of dazzling horn fanfares, supple rhythm parts and Wayne Bennett’s T-Bone Walker–style guitar. The quality of the records was stunning, and Bland’s vocals were the centerpiece. He projected warmth and intimacy, but he could also growl and howl. As a measure of his considerable appeal to black audiences, Bland placed an amazing fifty-one singles on the R&B Top 40. However, he crossed over into the pop-oriented Top 40 singles chart only four times and never got higher than Number Twenty (with “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” in 1964).
In 1971 Robey sold Duke to ABC-Dunhill. The label paired Bland with producer Steve Barri, who moved Bland back to a more bluesy vocal style and provided songs written by the likes of Leon Russell and Gerry Goffin. His California Album (1973) and Dreamer (1974) as well as a series of duets with B.B. King introduced Bland to white audiences and were among the most popular albums of his career. Then, in the early Eighties, Bland signed with Malaco Records, and the label reinforced his Southern soul connections.
Bobby Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1997 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Bland released Memphis Monday Morning in 1998, a potent reminder of his inimitable soul-blues vocal style. As a septuagenarian, Bland recorded Blues at Midnight (2003) and the blues troubadour continued performing well into the aughts.
Bland passed away on June 23, 2013 at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 83.
Inductee: Robert Calvin Bland a.k.a. Bobby "Blue" Bland (vocals; born January 27, 1930; died June 23, 2013)