blues

Stagecoach To Somewhere – Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland

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.

Bobby BlandThe 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 atBobby Bland Dreamer 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 Two Steps from the Bluesopinion, 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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Elvis Presley Challenge No. 49 – Delbert McClinton

DelbertPaul Simon told us that he visited Graceland but he was coy about what he had on his feet.   I wore cowboy boots.  Not the black boots that Elvis favoured.  Mine were tan with ornate etchings.   I bought them in Amarillo.  I walked into a shop to buy a belt.  The salesman was all Southern charm and I left with a pair of boots.  I resisted the Stetson.  The cowboy boots were fine.  They made the denims hang well and they closed the gap between me and six feet.   Of course, everybody else wore boots.  All the men were two inches taller.    I drove all around the States wearing those boots, never once thinking that they may not be suitable for driving.   Tan cowboy boots, a pair of denims and a white T shirt is not Elvis but it is what I wore at Graceland and the Sun and American Sound Studios.  Elvis hardly wore denims.  He did not like clothes that made him anonymous.

Amarillo is pronounced aa-mah-rii-yo in Spanish.  ‘Lone Star’ is a fine movie about race relations in Texas.   Imagine left Lone Star posterwing polemic and Little Willie John and Freddie Fender on the soundtrack.  ‘Lone Star’ is not set in Amarillio.   The action takes place on the border between the States and Mexico.    ‘Lone Star’ is sympathetic to the minorities.  It implies that a responsible Texan would make the effort to be fluent in Spanish.

I have no idea whether Delbert McClinton speaks Spanish.  He may even be right wing and vote Republican although his fans would be surprised if he did.  To his British fans, McClinton is an all American working class hero.   He has good hair and he is photogenic.  He looks cool.  Usually, he wears cowboy boots, denims and a T shirt.  Occasionally, presumably if he is going somewhere important or has his lady to impress, he will wear a plain shirt with collar and cuffs.  When I saw him on stage in the Town and Country Club in London he was in T shirt mode.   He also drank a couple of cans of the appalling American Budweiser.  He is a man who appreciates his roots and to him those roots are more important than a continual quest to root out the exotic.  McClinton is a rhythm and blues singer.   His music reflects the world which seduced him.    He lacks Delbert McClintonthe curiosity of some dedicated musicians but this is only because he understands romance.  As the great German writer Hermann Broch wrote in his essential ‘Sleepwalker Trilogy’, the romantic needs limits and boundaries.   The curious like Simon dashing off to South Africa to add fresh rhythms to his records will make discoveries.   But the romantics, those attached to their roots, are also important.  The music of McClinton is like his clothes.  It is ideological.  The musicians on his records are black and white but they are usually from the Southern states.   He is not without invention but what he adds to his music only exists to enrich the genre, something he refines through his own American experience.

Without the waywardness of Elvis he avoids the sentimental.  He began backing blues singers like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.  McClinton can deliver a poignant ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ but he is unable to be tender.  His voice has a rough barroom edge that suits the music he plays, tough rhythm and blues and soul ballads which have just enough country influence to keep everyone in the bar happy.  The songs are realistic.  In his rockers, he either

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

celebrates or looks at life with wry amusement.  When he slows down he remembers why relationships are important.  He rarely sings about love.  Elvis is the introvert who is determined to understand his feelings and his bruised heart.  McClinton sings about life.  His songs deal with dependency, triumphs, celebration, mistakes and regret.  Inevitably, he has his weak moments.  His albums can sometimes run out of steam and the welcome realism is occasionally spoilt by a sense of overdeveloped male entitlement.  This is demonstrated in the appalling ‘Sending Me Angels’ where McClinton acknowledges the women sent to comfort his flawed masculinity.  But if that is a mistake and his specific identity limits what he can achieve on his albums, he is always listenable.   His output ranges from the irresistible, ‘Shot From The Saddle’ has a compelling groove’, to the merely toe tapping listenable, the music on his ‘Plain From The Heart’ album.    It is a form of consistency.   Within it, though, there have been many moments to make him proud.  ‘Two Bottles Of Wine’ which is about failure and the solace of alcohol is a song that compares with the very best.  Recently, he recorded ‘Down In Mexico’.  This addictive tale of a Vegas robbery mixes splendidly film noir and ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Lennon playing the harmonicaDelbert McClinton is based in Fort Worth but he is from Lubbock, Texas, like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely.   He is popular in his home state but he never quite made the really big time.  He had one top 40 hit, ‘Giving It Up For Your Love’, and a top ten hit, ‘Tell Me About It’, but that required him to duet with Tanya Tucker.   His life may not have been what he dreamed.  It has not consisted of back to back hits, mansions and limousines.  He may even feel resentful about how the more successful have sometimes taken advantage.  He taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica and Elvis half stole his arrangement of the Johnny Ace hit, ‘Pledging My Love’.

He still sounds positive.  There is no trace in his live performances of the disillusionment that is obvious in the later shows of Elvis.  I always missed McClinton when I was in Texas.  I had to wait for him to visit England.  He was worth the wait.  His fabulous show included a nine piece band as I knew it would.   Okay, I read these things but the cowboy boots made the small band obligatory.

Despite the reading, I doubt if I will ever know whether Delbert learnt to speak Spanish.   (I sometimes call him by his first name because I have all his albums.)   I hope he did.   He should watch a film called ‘El Sueno Derrotado’.  It is a documentary and it mixes archive material and interviews with old timers who remember the Spanish Civil War, the El Sueno DerrotadoFrench Resistance, the Second World War and the concentration camps.   The film captures the horror as it intends but it does more.  It reminds us that there is no exultation in success and achievement.  It exists only in endurance.  McClinton may not have had the hits but he managed to always earn a living as a musician.  He has loyal fans and the respect of critics.  He has done it by staying loyal to what is best about the people of his homeland, their sense of community and their music.  He has preserved not only his talent but the romance.  Delbert McClinton is entitled to his exultation because he earned it and because he has prevailed.  Elvis was talented but he was also exotica.  This was why he triumphed but later perished.   It is what they call success.

 

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And now for some Delbert: