RIP: Bobby Bland

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Posted June 24, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Legendary bluesman dies at the age of 83

Bobby “Blue” Bland, a stalwart singer of the blues, died Sunday at the age of 83. According to his son Rodd, Bland died around 5:30 p.m. due to complications from an ongoing illness at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was surrounded by family and loved ones.

Bobby Bland’s confident singing style added new pages to the blues songbook, a style that never rose to the peak of soul shouting or R&B evangelizing. Instead, it relied on a much calmer style that seemed birthed out of the postwar blues. It was always punchy when it wanted to be, but one that ultimately relied on the heartbreak and emotion that rested beneath the notes. It became his signature style, one that could only be duplicated by B.B. King, another servant of the blues. But at his peak, Bland found a way to produce a squall, something he learned from Aretha Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. That trademark became a part of Bland’s musical divinity. In later years, Bland adopted a hog-like snort that sounded like a bad case of phlegm attacks. It too was part of Bland’s modus operandi.

Born in Rosemark, Tennessee, Robert Calvin Bland began his career singing gospel in local group in Memphis, but turned to the blues after performing regularly on Beale Street. After recording a few sides for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records that virtually went ignored, Bland rose to prominence as a blues singer on the Duke label cutting sides with a Sam Cooke pop style culled by Johnny Board and his Orchestra. The merging of Bland’s blues with Board’s horns and jazzy embellishments worked like magic and helped him to score four Top 40 hits. They included 1962’s “Turn On Your Love Light” and continued with “Call on Me,” “That’s the Way Love Is” (number 1 R&B for two weeks) and 1964’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.” Although Bland’s run on the pop charts ended shortly after “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” he remained a viable presence on the R&B charts with 23 Top Ten hits on that chart, making him the thirteenth all-time best selling artist in the genre. Many of those tunes included “I Pity the Fool,” “Share Your Love With Me,” “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Lead Me On.”

Over the years, “Turn On Your Love Light” has been re-recorded and performed by a large constellation of artists ranging from Tom Jones to Solomon Burke, from Bob Seger to The Young Rascals. Here’s one memorable footnote in rock history: The Grateful Dead performed a thirty-seven minute version of “Turn On Your Love Light” in their set at Woodstock on Saturday, August 16, 1969. Their set was cut short when the stage amps overloaded and speakers exploded at the very end of the song.

As blues detoured away from the mainstream and the average black consumer in the ’70’s, Duke Records was swallowed up by ABC/Dunhill, which gave him a major opportunity to grab a larger audience. He tried an attempt at Barry White-styled disco and failed to rebound his career.  Bland later returned to blues by recording with the Jackson, Mississippi independent soul label, Malaco Records, where he released Southern soul records like the 1985 R&B hit, “Members Only.”

He occasionally paired up with blues legend B.B. King in live concerts and on several live recordings. The double-disc Together for the First Time…Live, rolled out in 1974 and was followed up with yet another reunion album in 1976. Bland’s association with the legendary guitarist goes back to his days in Memphis where he briefly served as King’s chauffeur and valet.  But even King celebrates Bland for being a better singer: “If I could sing like Bobby Bland, I’d be a happy man,” King told Rolling Stone.

Often hailed by his peers as “The Lion of the Blues,” Bland never regained his prominence on the charts, regulating him to a few hundreds shows per year towards the chitlin’ circuit and recording good to sub par albums for Malaco. His last for the label was 2003’s Blues at Midnight. Thankfully, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1997, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone polled Bland at number 44 on their list of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” He has also influenced a number of versatile musicians spanning rock, blues and hip-hop, including the likes of Van Morrison, Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton and Jay-Z. The latter sampled Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his best-selling 2001 album, The Blueprint. Clapton has also recorded “I Pity the Fool” and often uses “Further On Up the Road” in his live shows.

 

FURTHER READING >>

Bobby Bland – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Bobby Bland – 100 Greatest Singers of All Time (Rolling Stone)

Blues Singer Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland Dies at 83 – NPR.org


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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