It's a rainy, lazy Monday afternoon when I call Bobby "Blue" Bland, and I catch him in the middle of lunch. The 73-year-old bluesman is gracious, however, and after just a few more bites he pulls away from the table, ready to talk about his new album, Blues at Midnight.
"I think the material is pretty good," the legendary singer says, reeling off a few song titles with confidence. "'I Caught the Blues from Someone Else,' 'I'm a Blues Man,' 'Where Do I Go from Here' -- those three really stick out to me." And, of course, he mentions "I've Got the Blues at Midnight," the horn-driven opus that gave the album its name.
Bland's sandpapery vocals are right on target on Blues at Midnight, which pairs his talent with Muscle Shoals, Alabama, session musicians Reggie Young, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and David Hood and an equally capable crew at the Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi.
"I'm more comfortable in Jackson," Bland confesses, "because it's a smaller studio and I don't get lost in it. Muscle Shoals is a different environment entirely," he says. "It's a good studio -- don't get me wrong. But I'm used to the way things work at Malaco. We do demos, and then we have a chance to listen to the arrangements and see how the rhythm section is going, get familiar with the lyrics and see what we have to add to make the song right."
It's a long way from Duke Records, where, in the 1950s, he got his start. "That was a different era altogether," Bland says with a laugh. "The stories were a lot different. Now it's 2003. Some of the current blues lyrics don't really hit home for me, but we've got some good writers at Malaco like Larry Addison and George Jackson who take a little more time. I've been with Malaco for 18 years," he continues, "and things have become tailor-made for me there."
"It's the story that catches my ear," Bland explains. "I look for something I want to sing about. Larry gives me the picture, the flavor, which makes it much easier for me to do his material. George Jackson, who wrote 'Down Home Blues,' is one helluva writer. I really enjoy his songs, because I'm familiar with what he writes."
"Blues has such a different way of being presented now," Bland says. "We had better poetry back in the '50s and '60s. We knew what our audiences were about. Now, nobody wants the blues until they have the blues," he says with another laugh.
Born in Rosemark, Tennessee, in January 1930, Robert Brooks (he took "Bland" from his stepfather) loved music from the start. "When I was a boy, I was a churchgoer, because my mother wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "I loved to sing in the church, but I was really interested in blues. My mama wouldn't let us listen to any blues music at that time. We'd have to slip out and hear it." An itinerant bluesman, Mutt Pegue, "would come over with a guitar and a harmonica," Bland recalls. "He'd let me play sometimes. I knew then that I wanted to make a career out of music."
In 1947, the Blands moved to Memphis. "It was the first bright lights that I ran into. Beale Street caught my eye and my ear because everything was happening there," Bland says today. The family lived a block south of Beale, above the Sterling Grill at Third and Linden.
"There were a lot of chances for up-and-coming bluesmen, but I had to work some hard jobs until my opportunity came along," Bland says. He delivered groceries on a second-hand bike until, armed with a driver's license, he began parking cars for The Peabody hotel. Jobs driving trucks out to the cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta and ferrying customers to corn-liquor dealers in West Junction soon followed.
All his spare change went into the Wurlitzer at the Sterling Grill until his stepfather got a job repairing jukeboxes for the Cuoghi family at their Summer Avenue warehouse. "I got to change the records when he went around to collect the money," Bland recalls. "It was real good for me, because I'd get a chance to learn the lyrics."
The 78s on the Chess and Modern labels were his favorites. "The Bihari brothers were producing the things that were happening at that time," Bland remembers. "They had all of the spirituals and the blues singers. I wanted to get on the Modern label, but at my first tryout they didn't think I had a good enough voice to record."
"I tried to pick up an instrument, but my concentration wasn't good enough to go two ways at once," Bland says. "I loved tenor sax and I loved the guitar, but I couldn't get what I needed out of my voice if I had to think about what I was gonna play too. I concentrated on my voice, because that's what I was most sure of."
Bland learned to imitate such singers as Charles Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Big Joe Turner when he performed at the Wednesday night amateur shows at the Palace Theater on Beale. He took the top prize so often that he landed a deal with the fledgling Duke Records label.
But in the beginning, Bland's driver's license got him more gigs than his voice did. He drove Rosco Gordon, Johnny Ace, and Earl Forest to gigs in Mason, Covington, and Dyersburg. "I learned the business from those guys," Bland claims. "While Rosco gambled, I'd go onstage and sing."
"I had no originality," Bland says, laughing. "My main idol was B.B. King. That's what I wanted to capture -- the flavor that he put into the blues." After Bland became King's valet and driver, the guitarist put a stop to the impersonation. Today, Bland remembers every word of King's criticism: "I appreciate you sounding like me, but you have to get your own style so when people hear your records, they can recognize you for what you're doing."
"That was good advice," Bland says. "Soon enough, I had my own thing going."
After a stint with the U.S. Army in Korea, he returned to his promising career at Duke. In 1957, Bland hit it big with "Farther Up the Road," a torrid, grinding number that put him on the national charts. Dozens of hits -- "Little Boy Blue," "I Pity the Fool," "Two Steps from the Blues" -- followed.
Sixty albums later, Bland is still doing it, but now his blues come from a different source. "Self-respect is the key to world peace," Bland says, in reference to the then-impending war with Iraq. "All I ask is to love yourself and love other people. Beyond that, the only thing I can do is hope and pray that things will change."
It's a sentiment he covers on "Ghetto Nights," the last track on Blues at Midnight. "The system is failing," Bland warns. "People have so much hatred now. You don't know what they're gonna do."
I think back to something he said earlier in the conversation -- "Nobody wants the blues until they have the blues." And, suddenly, the blues seems like the most relevant music out there.