On 27 January 1930, the voice of one of the great 20th century soul stylists was heard for the first time. Robert Calvin Bland, later to become a seminal part of the history of rhythm and blues music as Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, was born in a tiny community in Shelby County, Tennessee, about 25 miles north of Memphis.
“I used to pick cotton,” he told this journalist, in what may have been the performer’s last press interview, in 2010, for Classic Rock Blues magazine. “But I never liked it. I was about eight or nine, and it was just too hot out in the field, man. Boy, it was burning up. I knew there was something else better to do.”
Bland may still not be the most household of names, but those who know the distinctive vocal imprint he put on records for about half a century all recognise his trailblazing greatness. Among his devotees are British blue-eyed soulsters Paul Carrack and Mick Hucknall and American blues-rock giant Boz Scaggs, who met Bland in later years.
“I made a point of getting to know him over the years, not that I knew him well,” said Scaggs, speaking in the same magazine piece. “But he came down to the studio when we were making the Memphis record a couple of times. He sat in the control room and listened to the playback of some of the songs, and he was treating me very fatherly, where he’d say ‘Here’s where you’re going to go here,’ and he was singing to me as the track was playing back. Then we got a chance to talk.
“It was like a lot of that part of his life, his music, was intact, and he was very vivid about that, vivid in talking about his early influences, it was all there. He was obviously frail, and it was hard for him to get around, but when he settled down, he loved talking about his life and his craft.”
The unique, soulful cry Bland put into his classic recordings became known as the “squall,” as he built a collection of landmark singles. That list included ‘Farther [also known as ‘Further On’] Up The Road’ and ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ in the 1950s, and any number of 1960s gems from ‘I Pity The Fool,’ ‘Lead Me On’ and ‘Two Steps From The Blues’ to ‘That’s The Way Love Is,’ ‘Ain’t Nothing You Can Do’ and ‘Share Your Love With Me,’ all from Bland’s long tenure on Duke Records.
In the 1970s, his time on ABC brought such highlights as ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City,’ later covered by Whitesnake, ‘This Time I’m Gone For Good’ and his collaborations with old friend B.B. King. Then came a remarkably fruitful new adventure at southern soul indie Malaco, on such soft-soul numbers as ‘Members Only.’ Bland continued to record into the early 2000s and was still performing until shortly before his death in 2013, at the age of 83.
As the great southern soul songwriter Dan Penn once said of Bobby: “He had exceptional delivery and understanding. He made you understand what the song means to him. He didn’t just shuffle through. It’s also blood and guts.”
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