Bobby “Blue” Bland is one of the greatest living practitioners of soul music and today is his birthday. He was born on January 27, 1930, in a little town called Rosemark just outside of Memphis. Wanting more for her son than Rosemark had to offer, Bland’s mother moved to Memphis in 1947. There Bland started singing in a group that came to call itself the Beale Streeters. Its members at one time or another included B.B. King and Johnnny Ace. Between 1950 and 1952, Bland recorded to no great effect along with his fellow Beale Streeters on three independent labels, the last being Duke. When Bland was drafted by the Army in 1952, he was a completely undistinctive blues singer.
By the time Bland got out of the Army, Elvis had broken open the music scene in Memphis and Duke Records had been sold to Don Robey in Houston. Through the combination of Bland’s maturation in the Army and Duke’s production, the hits started coming almost immediately in 1955. In Peter Guralnick’s profile of Bland in Lost Highway, Bland dates the discovery of his distinctive voice to the following year:
It was ’57 before I got a style of my own. Well, I was listening to Franklin a lot at the time — that’s Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s daddy — and my favorite at the time was B.B. King, of course, that had the high falsetto. Well, actually I was listening to a whole lot of different things, whoever had the hottest record on the jukeboxes, really. See, I developed the softness by listening to different singers like Nat “King” Cole or Perry Como or Tony Bennett. Man, they have a lot of feeling in their voice, they have a lot of what I call soul….But the thing is, I’d been listening to Reverend Franklin a lot — “The Eagle Stirreth His Nest” — and that’s where I got my squall from. After I had lost the high falsetto. You see, I had to get some other kind of gimmick, you know, to be identified with. So I thought that was a good thing. And the first thing I tried it was in ’56, I think it was, when I tried “Little Boy Blue.” And I think it paid off.
Indeed it did. I learn from reading Guralnick that Joe Scott was the invaluable producer/arranger behind Bland’s succession of Duke hits (as well as the composer of “Turn on Your Love Light,” which is credited to Scott and Robey under Robey’s pseudonym, Deadric Malone). Bland himself acknowledged Scott’s contribution: “I would say he was everything.” As Guralnick observes, however, Scott must have sensed a special potential in Bland.
Bland is responsible for a catalogue of lasting value. Among my favorites is “Stormy Monday Blues,” combining Bland’s vocal “softness” with his “squalls” (Guralnick calls it “Bobby’s gargled vocal interpolations”) as well as Wayne Bennett’s crucial instrumental voicing on guitar. Listen up to “Stormy Monday Blues” and continue with Bland’s classic attack on “Turn On Your Love Light.”