By Dwight Hobbes
R&B great Bobby “Blue” Bland, born Robert Calvin Brooks, has passed away. With his passing, one of the last remaining original soul singers leaves behind a musical tradition that, with the industry’s shift to computerized music tracks and formulaic vocals, eventually will vanish from the scene.
Bland’s fluid, raw-edged quality, culled from equal parts gospel, Chicago-style blues and 1950s pop, distinguished him as a premier balladeer, known for such hits as “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”; “Farther Up the Road”; “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just as Bad),” originally done by T-Bone Walker; the historic, often-covered “Turn On Your Love Light”; and his final number-one song on the R&B charts from 1963, “That’s the Way Love Is.”
The seminal artist never enjoyed the crossover success of his contemporaries, i.e. Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and, decades later, B.B. King. His was a career of sustained longevity as an icon in R&B and soul music with a loyal following to whom he was a beloved household name and celebrated cultural fixture.
Essentially a son of Memphis’ legendary Beale Street scene, he started out there in 1947, at a mere 17, performing and palling around with what would later become the illustrious company of King, Parker, Johnny Ace and the regrettably unsung Rosco Gordon. Three years later he began paying the requisite dues, working with small labels including Sun and cutting records (below standard royalty rates) that didn’t find a market.
Undaunted, he persevered, gaining traction in the mid-1950s, touring the rural South in Parker’s band, Blues Consolidated, then finally hitting it big with “Farther Up the Road.” Though a mainstream breakthrough eluded him, Bland was a mainstay on the R&B charts into the 1960s.
His best showing on the pop charts, “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” hit No. 20 in 1964, competing with the Beatles, who during the same week held down the top five spots. Over the course of his career, he had 23 Top-10 hits on the Billboard R&B charts.
Bland hit a setback when money problems forced the singer to reduce his touring band and, in 1968, the group broke up, precipitating a bout of depression and struggles with alcoholism from which he recovered in 1971. After that, he made a strong comeback, including His California Album and Dreamer with industry notables Michael Omartian (arranger) and Steve Barri (producer) and 1977’s Reflections in Blue — all featuring many of L.A.’s most sought-after session musicians — followed by Come Fly With Me and I Feel Good, I Feel Fine in a string of albums going into the 1980s and 1990s up to 2003’s Blues At Midnight.
From beginning to end, including three live albums, two with B.B. King (Together for the First Time and Bobby Bland and B. B. King Together Again…Live), he had 31 releases. In a highlight from the 1970s, archived on You Tube, he and B.B. King chat with host Don Cornelius on the popular TV show Soul Train before collaborating on a rendition of King’s signature hit, “It’s My Own Fault.” Other collaborations are Bland’s recording debut Blues Consolidated with Junior Parker and a guest appearance on Van Morrison’s album The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3 for a duet on “Tupelo Honey.”
Morrison, a great admirer of historic soul singers, took advantage of several occasions to expose Bland to his fans with guest appearances at Morrison’s concerts. As is the case with many blues, soul and jazz artists, after his hey-days in America, Bland remained a strong draw at festivals in Europe. And he continued performing until shortly before his death, after what family members described as “an ongoing illness” of several years.
He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. After his death, his son told news media that Bland had recently discovered that blues immortal James Cotton was his half-brother.
Bobby “Blue” Bland died June 23 at age 83 at his home in Germantown, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis.