Thinking of Bobby Blue Bland and other nice things

Near the bottom of the article you will find 7 magical performances from Bobby – enjoy!

Just a reblog from

In May, knowing Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland was terminally ill, I wrote a stock obituary for The Daily Telegraph. Here it tis:

Stock obit’s are common when it comes to the famous – an individual as famous as, say, Nelson Mandela (who, at time of writing, is knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door) will have had a stock obit’ that is regularly updated across his long, illustrious life – and I must say that I’m impressed that the Telegraph took the time to add a few details to my obit’ of Bobby: I never knew, for example, that Don Robey made the illiterate Bland sign a contract guaranteeing him half a cent per record sold as opposed to the industry norm of 2 cents per disc!

Anyway, I hope I did Bobby justice – he certainly was a magnificent singer, his voice capable of the rawest roadhouse blues (Further On Up The Road) and a tender croon (I’ll Take Care Of You). He had remarkable control – holding notes just for the right number of seconds so the song’s drama increased without ever getting theatrical, capable of caressing a lyric that made for great make-out music then suggesting an emotional isolation so deep you worried about the vocalist’s mental health. Like all great singers then, Bland was a master vocal actor: you followed the tales he told and believed what he had to express. Ironic that his surname was Bland as he was anything but bland as a vocalist.

Offstage it was another manner. Bobby appears to have remained the same shy, country boy he was when he first came to Memphis from rural Tennessee as a teenager in the late-1940s. Well, perhaps not the “same” but he never developed the alligator skin that characterises many a veteran entertainer and in interviews – which he obviously disliked giving – he was reticent, had little to say. The best portrait of Bland I have ever read is by Peter Guralnick in his masterful book Lost Highway – Lost Highway and its predecessor Feel Like Going Home are two of my very favourite music books, loving and insightful and not afraid of telling hard truths. The Bland Guralnick met is in the mid-1970s, now on ABC, past his halcyon of the early-1960s when he commanded a large African American following and set the pace for all male R&B artists yet over the late-1960s decline that saw him fall out with Robey, descend into alcoholism and even end up jailed for non-payment of child support. He is working hard if not particularly enamoured with the clubs he is playing (he wants Vegas – sadly, I don’t think he ever got to that level) and still believing mainstream success is possible. Guralnick finds him a very isolated character, barely leaving his hotel room, existing on room service and marijuana while letting the band leader make all the tough decisions. For those of us who dreamed of making music and taking to the road this portrait reveals just how numbing the job of a touring entertainer can be.

Bland never learnt to read although that does not mean he did not have someone read Guralnick’s chapter to him: I doubt he would of been happy with it, Guralnick praises the artist but suggests an emptiness at the core of the man’s life. Anyway, I’m unaware of any writer ever getting so close to Bland again and a biograper – a biography came out a year or two ago – had no access. Unlike his life long friend BB King Bland lacked both the confidence and ability to charm the media and rock music audiences. The vulnerability in his voice suggests just how insecure and private Bland was. I think this quality is why black American women of a certain generation reacted so strongly to BBB: they wanted to soothe his hurt even more than they wanted to be seduced by him.

I saw Bland perform twice. The first time was at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, London, in the early-1990s. The bill was Earl King-Irma Thomas-BBB and it remains the single greatest concert I have ever attended. Each of the artists played to their strengths and Bland, headlining with a young all-black band backing him, seemed in a very good mood. He started singing Aint No Sunshine to a young woman down front and when he asked her where she was from it turned out to be Australia which made him chuckle and imitate her accent. The next time I saw Bland was at the Mississippi Blues Festival in Greenville in 2006. The weather was unbearably humid and sticky and I constantly crushed ice cubes into my scalp to try and get some relief from the brain baking heat. Bland looked un-fussed by the temperature and sang beautifully, largely focusing on his Malaco hits of the 1990s: the audience was predominantly African American, the Southern audience who had supported him right from the start, and they sang along to numbers like Members Only. He looked somewhat frail but still commanded the stage.

While Bland never won the lucrative crossover audience that BB King did he did find himself honoured in later years with Lifetime Grammies and introduction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame plus all number of Blues awards. If his Malaco albums are no match for 2 Steps From The Blues and those other magnificent Duke recordings of the 1960s – and his mid-1970s abums on ABC have some strong moments too – he appeared to be a content man who knew that he had truly brought something special to American music. Rest in peace, soul-blues brother.

Here is a link to a 1999 interview with Dan Penn, the mighty white soul man, who speaks on BBB as his all time musical hero:

And here are 7 magic performances from Bobby – enjoy!

Stormy Monday – I think Bobby’s version of this great tune is my favourite!

I Pity The Fool – a stone classic of Bland’s 1960s repertoire. Video does not feature BBB but it has several American legends.

Aint No Love In The Heart Of The City – an anthem from the 1970s.

I’ll Take Care Of You – maybe my favourite ever BBB recording.

St James Infirmary – I first heard BBB’s version of this old New Orleans tune on his superb Two Steps From The Blues LP. As with Stormy Monday, I love Bobby’s version best.

Live on Soul Train with BB King

Members Only – his 1980s hit on Malaco that reestablished him with the Southern African American audiences he came from.


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