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If there was any justice, you would hear Bobby Bland on the radio at night. Especially on the car radio, when you were driving long stretches on highways that were new to you but looked familiar all the same. Past neon cocktail glasses and buzzing vacancy signs on beat-up motels where patrons choose to park around in back and everyone is registered under some novel name. His is the music of desire and regret, gaudy and permanent, like a tattoo of some woman’s name whose face you can hardly recall.
As the show-biz name he has worn and discarded will tell you, Bobby “Blue” Bland sings the blues, but that doesn’t really do him justice. Though he began as one of many Roy Brown imitators, shouting his way through the jump blues, he grew closer to — and further from — a true blues singer. In a number of remarkable songs (“Cry, Cry, Cry,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Turn on Your Love Light,” “Lead Me On”) recorded primarily in the 1950s and ’60s, Bland invented a sound that felt both unique and downright lived-in.
While the horn-driven Joe Scott arrangements that buoyed Bland’s work formed a natural bridge between the big band sound of the ’40s and the soul revues of the ’60s, there was something odd and angst-ridden about the tales they told. Beneath titles as lurid as pulp fiction paperbacks (“Woke Up Screaming,” “A Million Miles From Nowhere”), penned by anonymous artists under the single moniker of Deadric Malone (an arrangement that allowed Bland’s manager, Don Robey, to pocket all the proceeds), were songs that snuck in just under the curtain of kitsch. They were songs written in lipstick on bar napkins, found beneath half-empty glasses in roadside taverns. While Bland’s singing owed something to crooners like Tony Bennett and Perry Como, the sound was rougher — and just slightly removed. It was, as one of his early ’60s songs had it, “Two Steps From the Blues.”
Of course, there is no justice, and you won’t hear Bobby Bland on the radio, or much of anywhere, really. You are more likely to hear some white band covering one of his tunes. Eric Clapton is still performing “Farther up the Road,” the Grateful Dead used to close their early San Francisco shows with “Turn on Your Love Light” (Pigpen McKernan was no great singer, but the band’s two-drum attack owed something to blues revues) and the Band paid homage with “Share Your Love With Me.”
But Bland is still going strong. Despite bouts with drink, drugs and depression — not to mention a triple bypass in 1995 — he performed over 100 shows last year. (That’s down from the 300 gigs a year that was his standard for decades.) A fair amount of his work remains in print (the best of it captured on three double-CD packages from his day on the Duke label), he still records for the Malaco label (a sort of living Smithsonian for blues musicians) and he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And like some roadhouse Sisyphus, he seems by and large resigned to the life he has chosen.
“Oh, it gets kind of tiresome sometimes,” he told Peter Guralnick back in 1979, “but you get a schedule and you just go and do your work. Because, really, that’s what’s paying the bills.”
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“One month from the day I first met you/Your promises proved to be untrue
Step by step, I’ve been a fool/That’s why I’m two steps from the blues.”
The cover of Bland’s 1961 album “Two Steps From the Blues” is a work of art, a Mondrian in black and blue. It’s a color photograph of the singer standing in front of a one-story building at the bottom of, yes, two steps. His pants are gray, his shirt is black. His coat is thrown over his shoulder, Sinatra style, and dark glasses hide his eyes from the sunlight. The building that represents “the blues” is paneled in squares of blue and white — you would think it was his hotel room except his name appears on one of the panels, as if he were perpetually playing there. (Talk about bringing your work home with you.) In fact, the only thing that isn’t black or blue or white in the photo is Bobby Bland’s brown skin.
The road that brought Bland to this place of perpetual emotion began in the South and crisscrossed the country, six nights a week. The singer was born Robert Calvin Bland on Jan. 27, 1930, in the little town of Rosemark, Tenn., just outside of Memphis. He quit school in the third grade and remains practically illiterate today. He speaks in a garbled syntax at times, and is suspicious of talk he doesn’t understand.
“I didn’t like to work much, but I got a job at Bender’s Garage, which was $27 a week,” Bland told Guralnick in what remains the definitive piece about the singer (collected in “Lost Highway”). “And I started to sing on weekends. Spirituals. Just a small amount of it. We called ourselves the Pilgrim Travelers after a group that was big at the time. Then I started hanging around Beale Street with a bunch of guys. They used to give an amateur show down by the park at the Palace Theater every Wednesday night. Naturally we came to call ourselves the Beale Streeters.”
Those guys — Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Earl Forrest — were playing for free in the late ’40s. Heavily influenced by guitarist T-Bone Walker, they were forging a blues style that would define the next couple of decades. And what they were doing did not go unnoticed. Bland’s first recording (backed by Gordon) was produced by Sam Phillips and later released on Chess records. In 1952, four songs produced by Ike Turner appeared on the Los Angeles-based Modern label. The man had something — these blues mavens could smell it — and in 1953 he signed to the Duke label, then owned by Memphis DJ David James Mattis.
Almost immediately, Bland was drafted, and he celebrated by recording the mournful “Army Blues” (“Uncle Sam done got me/That is the awful news”). After a two-and-a-half year stint, Bland returned to civilian life to find that the Duke label had been sold to Houston music entrepreneur Don Robey — a Mephistophelean character who would define Bland’s life and career, for good and ill, over the next two decades.
Half-black and half-Jewish, Robey came from Houston’s middle-class black community. He had dropped out of high school and hustled a living gambling and running a taxi business before stumbling into the music business. He promoted concerts and ran a record store in the ’30s and ’40s, where he doubtless got a good look at the seamier aspects of the racket. His gospel label, Peacock, recorded such legendary acts as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. In 1952 he merged the label with Duke and doubled his roster, crossing into secular territory with such popular Duke acts as Ace (who achieved immortality playing Russian roulette on Christmas Eve, 1954), Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and the relatively untested Bland.
History has not been kind to Robey. While some apologists note the difficulties a black man must have faced running his own label (10 years before Berry Gordy), most musical historians tend to dwell on Robey’s pugnacious nature and sheer greed. Typical are the remarks of Francis Davis, who in “The History of the Blues” limns Robey as “a 100 percent sleazeball,” and adds, “as if claiming co-composer credit for most of his performers’ songs wasn’t bad enough, he also threatened them with bodily harm or death when they objected.”
While Davis characterizes Bland as “one of Robey’s field hands,” the singer has a different outlook. “There’s some people that told me the best thing for me is go to the country and getcha plow and mule,” he told a reporter in 1999. When pressed on Robey’s shady business practices (there is scant evidence that the entrepreneur contributed as much as one line to the songs he took credit for), the singer demurred. “Well, he’s in business. Each company that you get with does the same thing. But Robey did a lot of people a lot of favors — me, for one, gettin’ a chance to record.”
A chance to record and a chance to define himself. Pairing the singer with producer-arranger Joe Scott and band leader Bill Harvey proved an act of genius. Of Scott, Bland says simply, “I’d say he was everything.” He was like Nelson Riddle to Bland’s Frank Sinatra, creating a landscape in which the singer’s complex, vibrant tones could play while reining him in with rhythm. Working with Scott, Bland learned phrasing and timing, and to this day the singer can do more with a simple lyric — racing it like a motorbike one minute, toying with it like a yo-yo the next — than almost any blues singer you can name. If Robey was Bobby Bland’s serpent, Joe Scott was his apple.
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Bland’s early outings on Duke were riveting, if not exactly groundbreaking. “It’s My Life, Baby” (1955) could have been done by Muddy Waters (no small praise). It’s exciting even now: Roy Gaines’ electric guitar slices though the rolling horns like a hot knife through butter, and Bland’s vocal exudes the kind of dick-swinging confidence that was the staple of most blues singers. The lyric (attributed to Robey and “Ferdinand Washington”) was rather tongue-in-cheek, while foreshadowing the singer’s future problems: “Well you’re always tellin’ people I drink too much/but everytime I get a bottle you add your little touch.”
Other early hits gave scarcely a glimpse of the sensitive-guy persona Bland would later perfect. The 1956 “You’ve Got Bad Intentions,” another roadhouse blues, contains this put-down: “You say you can’t go on living/If you can’t be by my side/Gonna send you a bottle of poison/Please commit suicide.” (Well, he did say please.)
Bland was developing the formula for his ultimate success (a success that would yield more than 30 Top 20 R&B singles) even as he was breaking through with a familiar blues sound. “If Bland’s greatest natural gift was his ability to make even his shouts sound intimate, his genius (or Robey’s) was in realizing that women bought blues records, too,” wrote Davis. Photos of Bland performing in the ’50s testify: Women reach out to touch the hem of his sharkskin garment while the singer — a big man with a croissant of a nose and an ungainly, “Eraserhead” pomp — caresses the microphone like a lover. He left the rambling-guy songs to other singers; Bobby “Blue” Bland wanted to stick around and talk about love.
“It was ’57 before I got a style of my own,” the singer said years later. “Well, I was listening to Franklin a lot at the time — that’s Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s daddy — ‘The Eagle Stirreth His Nest’ — and that’s where I got my squall from. After I had lost the high falsetto. You see, I had to get some other kind of gimmick, you know, to be identified with.”
If “the Squall” — a honking, throat-clearing verbal tic that sounds at times like a prelude to cardiac arrest — was taken straight from the church, so were other aspects of Bobby Bland’s act. “You could go out on Saturday night and have a ball,” he told Guralnick, “but on Sunday church was a must.” Lyrics were inspired by gospel songs and scripture; “Yield not to temptation (while I’m gone),” he commanded in one song, while “You’re the One” twisted a familiar lyric thusly:
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows but you.”
For in the songs that Bland sang — songs specifically crafted for his act — there is always a sense of identification with another. It is not the loneliness of one he sings about but the loneliness of two. “You know how it feels,” he sang in the epic 1959 song “Lead Me On,” “you understand/What it is to be a stranger/In this unfriendly land.” Here the singer plays both Orpheus and Eurydice, reaching out a hand to lead and be rescued, simultaneously.
Is it any wonder the women all went ape-shit for Bobby “Blue” Bland? While most blues singers were dusting their broom or throwing their women out the door, Bland was embracing commitment. He made responsibility sound downright sexy. Between 1959 and 1963, with a series of hits with titles like “I’ll Take Care of You”, “Don’t Cry No More” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” Bland brought the blues into the bedroom and paved the way for the seductive sounds of soul. His influence could be heard in the later recordings of crossover artists like Otis Redding and Sam Moore, and even white boys like Welshman Tom Jones.
But try and hear Bobby “Blue” Bland …
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“Without a warning, you broke my heart/You took it darlin’ and you tore it apart
You left me sitting in the dark crying/You said your love for me was dying.” — “Turn On Your Love Light,” 1961
Bland saw some crossover success himself with songs like “Turn on Your Love Light,” a great tune that could be a blueprint for many of his best records. The jubilee-style big-brass opening sets up the listeners’ expectations for something happy — until Bland’s big baritone comes in and cuts the melody off at the knees. By the time he hits the chorus, beseeching his fickle lover — “Turn on your light! Let it shine on me!” — the song has moved right back into church even as two drummers jive with the singer. It is a supremely sad song in an almost joyous setting, and the tension these conflicting forces create is still breathtaking.
But for all his successes, Bland was not getting rich. With label-mate Junior Parker he toured constantly (under the banner “Blues Consolidated”), staying loyal to Robey even as friends pointed out that he was getting ripped off. “I’ve had several offers, you know,” he told Jim and Amy O’Neal in the periodical Living Blues, “but this was the first offer that really got me out of the gutter, was Duke label. So I feel more or less partial to the company.”
Throughout the ’60s, Bland continued to tour beneath the radar of most white audiences. “I played the chitlin circuit,” he said, “black only. I have my own people to thank for keeping me out here this long. They the only ones who had a chance to hear me.”
While former band-mate (and onetime boss) B.B. King conquered rock arenas, Bland remained largely in obscurity (even as white stars like Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison touted his work). Perhaps it was because he didn’t play an instrument, or write his own songs. Like country’s George Jones, Bland was the instrument, a living embodiment of all he sang about. Any other ax would have been played out by now. Even as his phrasing bespoke a greater sophistication, the emotion beneath it was hard won. Asked in a concert interview in 1998 about his influences, Bland commented, “Nat King Cole for the diction. The feeling came from disappointments and what have you.”
What Bland had, among other things, was a monumental drinking problem. “I was an alcoholic for 18 years,” he told Guralnick. “The reason I can say it is because I know it happened.” While he boasted of never missing a gig, “I was drinking up to about three fifths a day, man. I’m just so happy that I found out that I don’t have to do that no more, that’s why I can talk about it now.”
Not surprisingly, Bland’s drinking bottomed out about the same time his career did. In 1968, after more than a decade of solid touring, Joe Scott left, never to collaborate with Bland again. His replacement, Mel Jackson, still leads the band in the Scott style much as a series of guitarists (most notably Wayne Bennett) traded licks with Bland in a call-and-response dialogue style derived from T-Bone Walker. (On numbers such as “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Black Night,” Bennett sounds like the singer’s conscience, an empty bottle and a broken heart all at once.) But the end of the Scott-Bland union signaled a sea change in the singer’s career.
Bland quit drinking in 1971, Two years later, ABC-Dunhill bought the Duke label and released a duet of “comeback” albums (though, in fact, Bland had never gone anywhere), “His California Album” (1973) and “Dreamer” (1974). By relying on such studio stalwarts as guitarist Larry Carlton and material made popular by others — “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” — the records brought him to a wider audience without breaking any new ground. His collaborations with B.B. King (“Together for the First Time,” 1974, and “Together Again,” 1976) also proved popular, if rather uninspired.
Through it all he kept working, touring, recording. He divorced his wife Marty in the ’70s and now travels with Willie Mae, his wife of 20 years. After moving to Malaco Records in 1984, Bland found himself playing more dates off the chitlin circuit. It was about then that I saw him at the San Francisco Blues Festival, an annual event held on a vast lawn in the city’s pristine Marina district. Even as band leader Joe Hardin tried to warm up the crowd by telling them anyone can have the blues, the atmosphere put the lie to his testimony. Chinese kites sailed in a cloudless sky as below, while white blues fans tried to decide which microbrew to try next.
Bland’s set was rather perfunctory, and the vaunted squall was more of an annoyance than anything else: Most of the time it sounded like he was going to spit on the Frisbee-tossing crowd. But down in the middle a group of black women were hollering like an amen choir, waving hats and scarves at the singer who beseeched them to remember him “late in the midnight hour, when you don’t have your main squeeze around.”
In 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 1998 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation. (Before the ceremony, held at Dan Ackroyd’s House of Blues in Los Angeles, Bland and his party had to wait outside while the management found passes for them.) That same year, Malaco filmed Bland in concert back on Beale Street; the videotape (“The Night, the Street, the Man”) shows the singer in fine fellow, three years after his heart surgery.
Slow and stately in a three-piece white suit, sporting a diamond pinkie ring as big as the Ritz, Bland appears unbowed by four decades of hard living. Some of the higher notes have been replaced by a pained whisper, and he takes a stool almost immediately, handing his bow tie to his valet (a job he once performed for King and Junior Parker).
The folks in the audience, including fellow blues veterans Johnny Taylor and Otis Rush, treat him like it’s old home week, shouting during his act. They go crazy when the valet hands him a black handkerchief as he launches into “I Pity the Fool,” and cheer perversely when he announces, “It seems like my luck’s been running bad here lately.”
It’s a good set, tight but not by-the-numbers, though Bland never looks completely at ease. Maybe it’s the cameras, catching his every move; maybe it’s the floral arrangements at the front of the stage that create a barrier between him and his fans. Whatever it is, his eyes betray a certain wariness as he sings the funereal “St. James Infirmary” for the millionth time. That’s a song about seeing your lover dying — the ultimate break-up — but Bobby “Blue” Bland keeps right on living.
I’ve seen that look in his eyes before, in an old photograph collected in Robert Palmer’s “Rock & Roll: An Unruly History.” Behind a shuttered motel, Bland and some of Duke’s men are gathered on a break between shows on the chitlin circuit. The hair is conked, the rings are big. Junior Parker seems to be licking his fingers while the other men are all jiving and laughing at some unseen joke. Only Bland, hunkered down in the center, looks like he’s ready for the worst. His focus is somewhere behind the camera, and his hat is in his hand as he tries to stay just a few steps ahead of oblivion.
Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Sean Elder.
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