Bobby “Blue” 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 Little 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 during the same week The Beatles held down the Top 5 spots. Much more important to his legacy, however, is the fact that Bland’s records mostly sold on the R&B market and he chocked up an amazing 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.
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 the rock world with a 1977 cover by Scottish progressive rock band Cafe Jacques (album Round the Back, CBS Records), and then 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 a fine 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, who provided an empathetic environment and the singer has turned out a series of well-crafted albums in the ensuing years while continuing to tour and occasionally appear at concerts with fellow blues singer B. B. King. The two had collaborated for two albums in the 1970s. One of the finest singers in post-war blues, Bland need not apologize for never quite achieving across-the-board popular acclaim that his influence and craft deserves (such as that of B.B. King and even Muddy Waters) but his devoted, primarily older, African-American soul-blues fan base are content with his historic legacy as it is. Despite occasional age-related ill-health, Bland continues to record new albums for Malaco, perform occasional tours alone, with guitarist/producer Angelo Earl and also with B.B. King, plus appearances at blues and soul festivals worldwide. A DVD of a 1990’s Memphis nightclub performance is a popular Malaco title.
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. America’s Got Talent semifinalist Queen Emily covered Bland’s 1987 “No Easy Way to Say Goodbye” on her solo debut.
Bobby “Blue” Bland On the Web:MySpace
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