Monday, June 24, 2013

Bobby “Blue” Bland: 1930-2013

Posted by on Mon, Jun 24, 2013 at 8:40 AM

Bobby Blue Bland at last falls Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
  • JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Bobby "Blue" Bland at last fall's Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
One of the key links on the road from blues to soul, Bobby “Blue” Bland, passed away yesterday, at age 83.

A Rosemark, Tennessee native, Bland first rose to prominence in Memphis as a member of the Beale Streeters, a group that also featured such future luminaries as B.B. King, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, and Rosco Gordon.

Bland started making his solo mark in the late ’50s for the Duke label, which had relocated from Memphis to Houston, scoring R&B hits such as “Farther Up the Road,” “Little Boy Blue,” and “I Pity the Fool.”

Lending his smooth but grave baritone to material that paved the road from blues and R&B to the emerging, gospel-fueled form known as “soul,” Bland was an artistic rival of such seminal figures as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, if not quite a commercial one. Bland's 1961 album Two Steps from the Blues remains one of the towering achievements in any of those forms and perhaps one of the most under-recognized classics in all of pop music. Among the highlights in "Lead Me On," a breathtaking record that at once suggests the depths of America's racial history and looks out to feelings more eternal and timeless.

Bland remained a traditionalist, uncrossed-over hit-maker in the ’70s, a period perhaps best remembered now for his “Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City,” later prominently sampled on Jay-Z's album The Blueprint.

As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, Bland settled in as a fixture on the so-called “chitlin' circuit,” signing with venerable Mississippi label Malaco and remaining a regional attraction among soul-blues partisans.

It was a career that landed Bland in multiple Halls of Fame: The Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and, most recently, an inaugural member of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame last year.

One of the greatest soul/blues/R&B albums ever made.
  • One of the greatest soul/blues/R&B albums ever made.
Bland made his last significant public appearance last November at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Bland took a seat on the Cannon Center stage that night and sang his classics “Goin' Down Slow” and “Stormy Monday Blues. His voice was worn but still graceful, with a range that went from his deep “yeah” to quavery high notes. He was helped to the stage and to a chair. When an early bit of feedback disrupted the beginning of his first song, Bland smiled and said “That's my fault.” And then he dug into “Goin' Down Slow,” adding extra gravity to the lines “Somebody please write my mother and tell her the shape I'm in/And tell her to pray for me and forgive me for all my sins.”

This lead into the standard “Stormy Monday Blues,” which was capped by a guitar solo from the house band's Niko Lyras that let Bland take a minute to survey the crowd. “Take your time, son, take your time,” Bland told Lyras. And with that he held up one hand in the air, smiled, and said a simple “Thank you.” But the gratitude was all ours.

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