Who was the greatest singer to emerge from the unique creative conditions that marked the Memphis music scene in the early fifties? For most there can be only one answer. However, if the blues means anything at all to you then Bobby Bland and not Elvis must surely take the prize. In fact, without in any way decrying the achievements of the white pioneers of rock 'n' roll, when you listen to Bobby "Blue" Bland you enter a world of grown-up emotions -- of male desires, dreams and frailties that "popular" music seldom claims as it own. In an era when Boy and Man were terms deeply imbued with political ramifications, Bland explored and expressed a complex, psychological landscape with a searing intensity that has lost little of its power. Listen to "I Pity the Fool" or "Cry, Cry, Cry" and marvel. These were records not made for restless, hormonal adolescents in the suburbs but for (and about) the black working-classes and the troubles that beset their lives. No one ever dismissed Bobby Bland as a "teenager" -- even if they may have called him "Boy" (behind his broad back, I suspect).
Singularly gifted, even amid the wealth of talent that was drawn to Beale St.( that most evocative of place-names), Bland -- a garage hand out of Rosemark, Tennessee -- carved out a career of remarkable consistency and longevity. Not only that but he kept a black audience when the blues was struggling to survive, barely ever made a bad record and repeatedly managed to update his sound without sacrificing one ounce of integrity. The uncrowned king of the "chitlin' circuit" (as recently analysed in these columns by Mark Antony Neal), he was able to do all this simply because he possessed a voice that was unique, instantly identifiable and perfectly tailored to the requirements of that most personal and profound of all American musical genres.
There is a tendency to forget that the Blues is essentially a vocal art form. Such has been the impact of the 12-bar and AAB structures, so ubiquitous the influence of blues guitar licks -- not to mention the endlessly copied harmonica,piano and sax riffs -- that it is easy to overlook the fact that the human voice is the emotional and spiritual centre of the music. Hence the tendency of instruments to try to emulate cries, moans and pleadings.Even today, eighty years on, you can play someone two choruses of Bessie Smith singing and say, "That, my friend, is the Blues." and they -- ancient and arcane as the accompaniment might sound to them -- will fully understand. It is the same with Bland. His authority and profundity of feeling are unmatched in the post war period. The sheer weight with which he invested even the most casual of lyrics puts him in the most exclusive of clubs.
If this collection was a biography then the term "definitive" would be appended to it. That is so even if the compilation stops before dealing with his (successful) latter years at Malaco. Fifty tracks from 1952-1982 -- including all the key singles, informative liner notes from historian Bill Dahl, plus detailed info about each session -- add up to a package that no blues, soul or rock 'n' roll fan can afford to miss. I would also add that no social historian or literary critic who deems him or herself interested in African-American culture should be without a copy -- though, sadly, I have little confidence in that recommendation being taken up.
Starting with the mournful "Lovin Blues" -- an "after hours" track so redolent of period and place you can almost reach out and touch it -- this double CD takes the listener on a journey that is epic in its scope but intimate in each of its moods. We pass through the driving blues of Bland's early years with the maverick impresario Don Robey. The young hero shows a forceful, aggressive side to his personality as guitar gunslingers like Ray Gaines and Clarence Holliman cook up Saturday night storms behind him. "It's My Life Baby" and "I Woke Up Screaming" are raw, rocking affairs that work hard for their money. Then enter trumpeter Joe Scott. "I knew I had a good voice but I didn't know what to do with it until Joe came along" declared Bland, not quite truthfully but fittingly. Scott became Bland's arranger and took some real chances -- adding nods to other genres, sometimes including sweeping strings and complex horn arrangements -- crucially, encouraging the strong gospel side to Bland's vocal and generally upping the emotional register.
Scott ushered in the golden age. For a decade, from 1958 on, Bland developed a soulful, increasingly easy-paced blues style that yielded classic after classic, all of which registered on the Rhythm and Blues charts and significantly few of which crossed over. The songs were generally built around a world-weary persona who let you glimpse all of his deepest feelings and frustrations. Whether revisiting and, amazingly, often improving on standards like "Stormy Monday" or "Chains of Love", tackling social issues on tracks such as "Poverty" or endlessly charting the travails of the heart ("Don't Cry No More", "That's the Way Love Is", "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" etc.) barely an inflection or a sentiment is out of place. The white blues-rock fans found it an overly rich diet and Bland never became one of their heroes (anyhow, you could rip-off a guitar lick but what the hell were you going to do with that voice?). The black record-buyers stuck with him though and a remarkable 45 R&B hits for an "outdated" style, in a notably non-nostalgic market, is testimony to the rapport between singer and audience that was engendered by these sides.
As in all the best heroic sagas the Gods had a hand in things. In 1957 Bland was laid low and a tonsillectomy robbed him of his upper register. What could have been a disaster was averted by Bland's adopting the Rev. Franklin's ( Aretha's dad) throaty "squall" and he then proceeded to turn it into a trademark technique. There is nothing like it -- although Bobby Womack has made good if rather more frenetic use of the same device. In Bland's control it is added to the end of lines to do what artists have always tried to do -- to express the inexpressible -- that which is beyond language. If that sounds over intellectualised -- just say it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. In itself it would guarantee immortality. As a component of a formidable battery of talents it was merely the finishing touch to a soul-drenched, Southern style that set the standard for the period. Those Duke singles show a tenderness, a strength and an almost unbearable intensity that made Bland number one in his field. Try "Who Will the Next Fool Be" or "Blind Man" for good examples of the complete product -- although any of a dozen cuts will do.
The long association with Robey's label eventually ended. Bland had kept working, in the studio and on the road, mixing gospel and soul with the basic recipe, but surely the sound had now had its day. Not so. By moving to California the bluesman, now in his forties, finally found that white audience that had generally run scared from his work. He did so, not by ditching his black fans and jumping on the revival circuit, but by teaming up with a new wave of jazz-funk, jazz-rock session men for a series of big albums for ABC. The California Album saw a more lugubrious, less gospel-toned singer mixing old time tunes ("Going Down Slow") with new urban material ("This Time I'm Gone for Good", "Aint No Love in the Heart of the City") to the delight of a new younger audience. Next, he teamed up with B.B. King and the two great Memphis ambassadors made some memorable live appearances. A sample from one is included here. He made a country album, showing an ease in that milieu shared by many Southern black artists. He also had a very seventies-style club hit with "It Ain't the Real Thing", much derided by critics at the time but now sounding like a great forgotten slice of two-step soul.
This anthology ends with some almost Nat King Cole type cocktail hour numbers as Bland's relaxed side almost took over. The blues would return in force with tracks like "Members Only" in the Reagan decade but in truth it never went away. Nor has Bobby Bland. Now in his eighth decade he is, happily, still with us and can look back on a recording career of singular distinction, which is what this magnificent and lovingly compiled collection now allows us all to do.
Hard as it is to pick one tune from fifty memorable ones, I think "Ask Me 'Bout Nothing" from 1969 says all that needs to be said. Over a luxurious but purposeful arrangement Bland admits to his ignorance of many things in this world but asserts his one sure area of knowledge -- the blues -- what it feels like, what causes it, how to bear it. The performance has grandeur and great humanity and reveals fully what modesty prevents him from stating -- that he, better than almost anybody, knew how to articulate, enunciate and just plain SING the genuine, born under a bad sign, raised in poverty, hard times survival kit that is the one and only African-American Blues.