As the existential British novelist, Graham Greene, realised long before his death eighty years is a long time to be unhappy. The great soul and blues singer, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland died last Sunday. He was eighty-three years old, four years younger than the gloomy Greene who died at 87. Most of his long life, Bland has shared sadness with his fans. Marriage or a commitment to a life with someone else is an act of optimism rooted in anything but logic. The price for such foolishness is inevitably high, and Bland, rather than merely observe like some do, has insisted on picking up the tab.
The middle name ‘Blue’ is important. Bland managed to mix styles – gospel, blues and soul – and could with the right arrangement be more than effective with an up tempo number. But his speciality was the mournful ballad. ‘Always On My Mind’ is not necessarily the best record by Elvis but important because it defined his nightmare and, equally important, the inability of the conquering male to understand the constituents of heartache. ‘As Soon As The Weather Breaks’ is not the greatest creation by Bland but, like Elvis, the competition in his catalogue is very tough. Nevertheless, it defines this soul singer perfectly. The record captures his wary expectation and resignation. Patience is just as much a part of human nature as impulsiveness and ‘As Soon As The Weather Breaks’ confirms what we all know secretly. Most if us are trapped in a fatal mix of dependency and ambition that cannot be trusted. The best thing we can do is wait for a change in the weather and hope that the good in the ones we love will outweigh the bad. Those who avoid this trap of fatalism are either very lucky or blessed with selective blindness.
Bland has gone to his grave or something like that, and nobody will ever be able to accuse him of myopia. His 1974 album for ABC, ‘Dreamer’, produced two memorable singles. These were ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ and ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog’. Neither were big hits but they did cross over into the pop charts. White people listened. The inside cover of the album had Bobby pictured on a yacht drinking a cocktail and smiling at two bikini clad sleek women. I bought the album and, because naivety is part of my nature, I assumed that Bobby was enjoying his good fortune. If he did enjoy high-grade female flattery, and most men do, it was not evident in his music. The soulful ballads continued, and one of his finest records of his ABC period was his version of the Johnny Paycheck song, ‘Someone To Give My Love To’. Surely, we can believe Bland when he sings about looking for love rather than sex with younger flattering women. His music insists that he is serious but perhaps he is simply a great singer. Undoubtedly, the voice is fabulous. It is a strong baritone and he has a seductive growl, which allows for both anger and despair. Bland has been compared to Sinatra and, although their music is very different, the comparison is valid. Like Sinatra, Bobby Bland has fabulous breath control and impeccable timing. He will not be hurried and knows what to emphasise in a song and how to do it. Supposedly, Bland always wanted a career in Vegas. This news astonished blues fans but it makes sense. The first time I heard Bland live was in Antones in Austin, Texas. His singing was supreme, and the mainly black audience was responsive so it was a fine night but I could also imagine him wanting a quieter crowd. He appeared to be a private man, someone who was singing for his own pleasure rather than the fans. Later, I saw Bland in the Lancashire town of Colne, and we had a couple of Northern Soul fans in the audience, determined to dance. Bland was not a man with a temper, there is always another day and it may or may not rain, but he had contempt for those who believed in an entitlement to ecstasy. I can easily imagine Bland in Vegas, grooming his broken heart as if nobody else is there and, after the song has finished, quietly saying thank you to the Nevada darkness for the opportunity to brood and remember.
Bland sang around Memphis from the late forties but he first came to prominence when he moved to Duke Records and after he met arranger, Joe Scott, who complemented the fine voice with tasteful and restrained big band arrangements. Scott was not the only minimalist producer to emerge from the South but the mix of minimalism and a big sound make these records by Bland unusual if not unique. The partnership produced not only successful singles like ‘Farther On Up The Road’ but an album called ‘Two Steps From The Blues’. In my opinion, it is the best soul album ever. The album does not include the fine but way overrated ‘Turn On Your Love Light’. The only serious attempt at a dance track on the album is ‘Don’t Cry No More’. This is okay but nowhere near the standard of the rest, which form a queue to be acknowledged as individual masterpieces. ‘Lead Me On’ combines alienation with high blown romance. It begins with the often-quoted lines, ‘You know how it feels, you understand, what it is to be a stranger in this unfriendly land.’ Not what we hear at Republican or Tea Party rallies. The rest of the song, though, is an open admission of male dependency and exposes why men need women. Without them, we destroy ourselves. The other tracks are just as fine. ‘Little Boy Blue’ is a great blues record and uses the format to combine desperation and stubborn insistence. As the anger of the singer increases we are shocked to hear his identity crumble. The track ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ must have been selected as a single because Elvis bought it for Priscilla as a token of his love. Elvis was no cheapskate so I like to think he bought her the album as well. As a token of love, though, the single is perfect, describing how initial love can inspire confidence and why that is important to compassion and empathy. The musical timing of Bland not only helps the song but also confirms the assurance of a man suddenly blessed by love. ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ is Bland at his most positive but he imagines ascetic serenity rather than fun. Elvis was a big fan of the record but it did not save him, either. Money and everything else soon spoiled cherished visions of purity. For Bland, disillusionment happens because of experience and the impact of time. Immediately after ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ on the album, he sings ‘I Don’t Want No Woman’, and the words and his performance convince us that optimism while worthwhile rarely prevails. The conclusion is inevitable. The album ends with Bobby complaining ‘I’ve Been Wrong For So Long’. The album is that great it probably needs a book but, briefly, other favourites include ‘Cry Cry Cry’ and ‘I Pity The Fool’. The former, with its desire for mutual equal suffering, evokes palatable vengeance. The latter has a strange narrative. At one point, he sings to his ex-lover and, at another, he warns the new boyfriend. Elsewhere, he consoles him with the mantra ‘I Pity The Fool’. At least, others will suffer. The misery of rivals is a consolation to us all and especially to singers as open and as honest as the very special Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Perhaps there were not enough of us to get him to Vegas but he did record nearly 30 albums and, because we needed him, he may have even enjoyed the diversion on the yacht.
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A particularly insightful piece which truly reflected Bobby Bland’s enduring appeal to soul fans.
There goes one more Beale street legend….he had just recently found out blues singer James Cotton was his half brother.
His version of ” Stormy Monday” is one of my favorite songs.
Great piece and I have learned so much more about soul music and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Very insightful and informative. May he rest in peace.
Beautiful tribute to a great voice.