Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Steps from the Blues

On Sunday, Bobby "Blue" Bland passed away in Memphis, TN at the age of 83, from an undisclosed illness.  He enjoyed a career that spanned eight decades, beginning in Memphis-area gospel groups in the late 40's and continuing until just a few weeks before his death.  He's a member of the Blues Hall of Fame (1981), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2012), and was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 1997.

When I started listening to the blues, every record store I visited had a fairly small blues collection, usually a couple of columns or rows.  Among the regular names that I saw in those rows were artists like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and a host of artists who recorded for local labels, most notably Malaco Records out of Jackson.  These artists included Z.Z. Hill, whose "Down Home Blues," became a standard in the mid 80's, former Stax Records stalwarts Little Milton Campbell and Johnnie Taylor, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Bland with B.B. King 
Bland had numerous recordings on display, and not just the Malaco selections, but many with MCA Records, with whom he had recorded through the early 80's, and even a pair of albums with B.B. King.  When I started building my blues collection, one of the first albums I bought was a Malaco recording by Bland (Blues You Can Use).  Though I had seen pictures of him, I'd never heard him sing because, well, that sort of music didn't get played a lot on the stations I listened to.  The rock stations didn't play it and the R&B stations didn't, either.

When I heard him, I thought....not a bad voice, suitably gritty, expressive, a little weather-worn from the years, but very effective.  Then I heard it......the squall.  I didn't know what it was called then, but the first time I heard it, I stood straight up, which was hard to do because I was driving at the time.  I was totally caught off guard by that sound.  It basically sounded like a combination grunt and snort.  I was like....what the devil!!!!  I couldn't listen to it for awhile, because he did it on just about every song.

A few days later, I was talking to one of my co-workers, a blues fan from way back and told him I had bought a Bobby "Blue" Bland tape.  He looked at me and asked, "What did you think?"  I told him basically what I said in the previous paragraph and he started laughing.  I continued to listen to Bland because, by then, I had found a station that played blues (WMPR 90.1 FM in Jackson) and they would play some of his new releases, but I never heard any of his older stuff, and didn't really know how long he had been recording.

A few months later, my friend suggested I check out a few of Bland's earlier recordings, one called Two Steps From The Blues in I did, and my whole perspective changed.  That was a great place to start, because Two Steps From The Blues, released in 1961, is one of the greatest blues albums ever and maybe THE greatest soul/blues album great song from start to finish.  Throughout his early career, Bland sought that perfect blend of blues, gospel, and soul and, with this release, he came as close to perfection as anyone ever before or since.  When I heard this masterful voice at the height of its power, I understood what all the fuss was about.

I also got to see him perform a few months later.  Back in the 90's, Jackson, MS had an annual Zoo Blues show, which benefited the city's zoo.  Bland appeared there on a regular basis, so I decided to come see him.  While I still didn't know a lot of his music, I was amazed at the response he got from his fans, especially the women.  He would do that squall and they would scream frantically.  He sounded great that day and he had the audience eating out of his hand for the duration, just as he had for the previous 40 years.

Bobby "Blue" Bland was born Robert Calvin Brooks in late January, 1930.  He later took the name "Bland" from his stepfather, Leroy Bland.  He moved to Memphis with his mother in his late teens, soon singing with several of the area's gospel groups.  Bland's vocal style was influenced by several diverse sources, including Frank Sinatra (Bland is often called "The Sinatra of the Blues"), Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and even B.B. King, for whom he served as valet and driver during the mid 50's.  He recorded for Chess and Modern in the early 50's, but didn't have any success to speak of and went into the army in late 1952.

By time Bland was discharged in 1955, he had improved considerably, recording for Duke Records, and backed by a marvelous band and an all-star list of guitarists, who are regarded as some of the best ever today.  Guitarists like Roy Gaines, Clarence Hollimon, and Pat Hare provided excellent backing for the remainder of the decade as Bland enjoyed hit after hit ("I Smell Trouble," "You Got Me Where You Want Me," "Don't Want No Woman," "Farther Up The Road," "I'll Take Care of You," and "Little Boy Blue").

It was in the late 50's where Bland picked up his most distinctive vocal trait, the squall.  He picked that up from Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father, who used it during his sermons at times, notably in his "The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest" sermon.  The incredible "Little Boy Blue" is the first track where Bland used this technique, and it stands as one of his finest vocal performances.

Another key component of Bland's sound were trumpet player Joe Scott, who was part of Bill Scott's band that backed Bland in the beginning.  Scott soon was serving as a mentor for Bland, not only doing horn arrangements, but also helping Bland perfect his singing.  Throughout the 60's, guitarist Wayne Bennett's elegant, T-Bone Walker-styled guitar work was a mainstay on Bland's recordings, most especially the singer's exquisite take on Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues."

The 60's brought even more hits for Bland.  Songs like "Turn On Your Love Light," "Yield Not To Temptation," "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," "Call On Me," and "I Pity The Fool" (a radio hit long before Mr. T copped the phrase) are familiar to most blues fans today.

In the early 70's, Duke owner Don Robey sold all his record labels to ABC Records, so Bland moved there and recorded through most of the 70's.  Bland's work with ABC wasn't as strong....he and Joe Scott had parted ways.....though he did release two albums with B.B. King that are still popular today, and he fulfilled a lifelong dream by releasing a country album.  He did release some noteworthy songs, like "This Time I'm Gone For Good" and "Ain't No Love In The Heart of The City."

Bland recorded for ABC (which soon merged into MCA Records) until 1983, when he moved to Jackson, MS-based Malaco Records, which was a perfect fit, given the label's interest in southern soul blues from the likes of Z.Z. Hill, Latimore, and Little Milton.  He struck gold right out of the box in 1985 with Members Only, which featured the excellent title track that sent Bland back into the R&B charts.  Though his vocal gifts had declined quite a bit since his beginnings (and he became increasingly dependent on the squall, which can be heard on the second tune below, "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time"), he stayed within his limitations and his delivery was still without peer, so he remained a blues superstar with ten releases over the next eighteen years where he continued to blend blues, soul, and even country.  Though Bland didn't record again after 2003, he continued to tour, even after his health began to decline over the past few years.

Bland has influenced countless singers over the years, including Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, Mighty Sam McClain, Eric Clapton, and O.V. Wright.  "Further Up The Road" has been a big part of Clapton's live show for several decades, and Morrison has recorded several songs associated with Bland since his mid 60's beginnings.  Mick Hucknall, formerly of the 80's pop group Simply Red, recorded a tribute disc to Bland, Tribute To Bobby, in 2008.

Sad to say, we may never again hear or see a performer of the power and magnitude of Bobby "Blue" Bland.  These days, it's almost required for every blues singer to be a guitar slinger to achieve any significant measure of success in the genre, but Bland instrument of choice was his voice and few played that instrument better than he did.  He will be missed and probably never replaced.

Selected Recordings

(I should probably call this my favorite recordings...there are dozens of choice Bobby "Blue" Bland albums out there that collect his best moments with Duke, ABC, and Malaco.  These are my choices and cover things pretty well, but please don't just take my word for it....find as much as you can and enjoy all of it)

If you only have one Bobby "Blue" Bland album, it might as well be his masterpiece, Two Steps From The Blues.  You will miss out on several other hits from later in his career, but this is one of the best blues albums ever and there's not a bad song on it.  However, it's not recommended to only own one Bland disc under any circumstances.  There are several single disc sets of his Duke hits, such as MCA's Greatest Hits Volume One, The Duke Recordings, or there's a two volume set from the UK's Ace Records (The "3B" Blues Boy and The Voice) that is a little more comprehensive.  I prefer the two Ace sets myself......more bang for the bucks, but the MCA set may be easier to find.

Bland's ABC/Dunhill/MCA work was not quite as consistent as his Duke recordings, with more forays into MOR territory and even country, but there were some nice moments.  Dreamer is one of the better albums from this era, or His California Album is another good choice, or even one of the Bland/B.B. King collaborations.  However, MCA's Greatest Hits Volume Two, The ABC/Dunhill/MCA Recordings puts most of his choice tunes on one disc and would be a good choice as well.  There is also a fine two disc set, The Anthology, that covers Bland from 1952 to 1982

For Bland's Malaco recordings, you really can't go wrong with any of them.  My favorites would be Members Only, Midnight Run, or Memphis Monday Morning.  While his voice wasn't what it was, he was still very good.  A couple of years ago, the label released a "Best of" set that covers things pretty nicely, Unmatched:  The Very Best.

For other media options, there's a biography (Soul of the Man:  Bobby "Blue" Bland, by Charles Farley), or you can check out Peter Guralnick's excellent profile of Bland from his book, Lost Highway:  Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.  Malaco released a DVD capturing one of Bland's late 90's performances on Beale Street that shows the old tiger still had plenty in the tank.

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