R&B Singer Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland Dies at 83
Vocalist Bobby “Blue” Bland, one of the seminal figures of post-World War II popular music and a major headliner on the soul and rhythm & blues circuits, died June 23 at his home near Memphis, Tenn., at age 83.
Bland, whose silky smooth vocal style and captivating live performances helped bring the blues out of Delta juke joints and into urban clubs and upscale venues, placed more than 60 songs on the r&b charts from the late 1950s through the ’80s. Influenced by Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Nat “King” Cole, as well as gospel music and early blues, Bland developed a seductive style of intimate crooning that he would occasionally pepper with trademark shouts and other dramatic effects.
Discussing his signature “growl” in an interview published in the Sept. 12, 1974, issue of DownBeat, Bland said: “I used to sing real high, a falsetto, you know, like Al Green does. [B.B. King] was the inspiration for it. I loved him so much and then copied him in the way I sang. … Then I started to feel the [loss] of my falsetto. I tried to sing a high note one night. I did one of B.’s tunes that I had been working on for a long time, and when I stretched for a note I usually could get, it wasn’t there. So after that I started to really concentrate on different, I guess you would call them, gimmicks. That’s what falsetto is, a trick voice or whatever. So I just hollered one day and I started working on that. My first attempt at the new style was ‘Little Boy Blue’ [in 1958].”
Bland, who was born Jan. 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tenn., joined a loose-knit assemblage of Memphis-based musicians called the Beale Streeters during his late teens. The group—which at different times also included future blues stars B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon and Junior Parker—forged an electrified blues style that combined elements of Delta blues, gospel, big band jazz and country & western music during the early 1950s.
Bland joined the Army in 1951, and while he was enlisted he put out two records on the Duke label. After his discharge from the military in 1954, his recording career with Duke began in earnest. April 1955 saw the release of Bland’s first hit, “It’s My Life, Baby,” followed by a long string of singles, including r&b chart-toppers “I Pity The Fool” (1960) and “That’s The Way That Love Is” (1963).
Four of his singles—“Turn On Your Love Light,” “Call On Me,” “That’s The Way Love Is” and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”—crossed over to the pop Top 40 during the 1960s. His early ’70s recordings The California Album and Dreamer (both on ABC/Dunhill) helped him earn wider recognition among pop audiences.
Bland was a major influence on rock and blues performers of his day. The Grateful Dead regularly performed Bland’s “Love Light” in concert. The Band recorded his “Share Your Love With Me” on its 1973 album Moondog Matinee, and Van Morrison did a version of “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” on the 1974 live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now.
Bland toured frequently with a driving, bluesy, brassy band led by trumpeter-arranger Joe Scott, who served as Bland’s longtime musical director and had a major impact on the evolution of his sound. He had strong ties to B.B. King, who served as an early mentor and later shared frequent double billings with the singer.
In the biography Soul of the Man: Bobby “Blue” Bland (University Press of Mississippi), writer Charles Farley cited an Aug. 7, 1969, DownBeat article by J.B. Figi in which the critic quotes his own alter-ego pseudonym, novelist James Bey: “Bobby’s voice is the lion which lies down with the lamb, a large sunwarmed brindle beast, tough but oh-so-gentle, smooth, muscle under suede, and plenty of male equipment. He’s the only singer I have fully trusted since Lady Day.”
Bland was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1997. He remained active as a performer until shortly before his death.
Bland is survived by his wife, Willie Mae; a son, Rodd; a daughter, Patrice Moses; and four grandchildren.