|Track||Single / Album|
|Don't Want No Woman||Duke 167 / Two Steps From The Blues|
|Farther Up The Road||Duke 170 / Blues Consolidated|
|Little Boy Blue||Duke 196 / Two Steps From The Blues|
|Cry Cry Cry||Duke 327 / Two Steps From The Blues|
|I Pity The Fool||Duke 332 / Two Steps From The Blues|
|Don't Cry No More||Duke 336 / Two Steps From The Blues|
|Turn On Your Love Light||Duke 344 / Here's The Man !!!|
|Blue Moon||Duke 347|
|Stormy Monday Blues||Duke 355 / Here's The Man !!!|
|Call On Me||Duke 360 / Call On Me|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
Without a warning you broke my heart
I always picture the late Bobby Bland as a man who could cry for England, or in his case, for Memphis/Houston. Both cities need a mention since he was part brought up in the former but recorded much of his magnificent work for the Duke label in Houston, Texas. Of all the ‘big’ soul names he is undoubtedly the most obscure to readers in the UK. It’s with those words that I opened my piece on Bobby “Blue” Bland in “RocknRoll”. And I’m unashamedly borrowing several other chunks from that source.
In the mid sixties I was living in Chatham, Kent which was an ideal location to pick up UK Pirate Radio as it was termed at the time and largely still is. After loads of twiddling I found a station – I’ve subsequently learned it was Radio 390 – which featured a daily R&B show, an hour long, hosted by a gent called Mike Raven. To say this was a breakthrough was to drastically understate the importance of this find both to myself and to a handful of other like-minded blues and R&B fans. Mike played records which you just didn’t hear on any other radio station broadcasting to a UK audience. He used to feature what he termed ‘The Three B’s’ or the three biggest names in soul music, all of whose surnames began with the letter B. The B’s were James Brown, Bobby Bland and Solomon Burke. I was well aware of the last named. The self styled King of Rock ‘n’ Soul recorded for Atlantic Records, which was distributed by London in the UK, and he’d had several hits. The other two were mysteries even though Brown had started recording in 1956 and Bland, way back in 1951. This is what Bobby sounded like in ’51:
That’s his second single, though the first to be credited to Bobby Bland. It was released by Modern Records of L.A. but produced by Sam Phillips at the Sun Studios in Memphis. Ike Turner was on piano and, according to the downloader’s note, Matt Murphy on guitar. That said, the drenched-in-feedback electric guitar does sound like Willie Johnson – both Johnson and Murphy played on the Howlin’ Wolf singles also recorded in the Sun Studios. The single was Crying All Night Long/Dry Up Baby but the A-side’s not on YouTube. Shame. Bobby evidently started crying at a relatively early age!
That’s my cue for some biographical stuff. Robert Calvin Brooks, later known as Bobby Bland or Bobby “Blue” Bland, was born in Barretville, Tennessee in 1930 but the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1947. The surname Bland came from his stepfather, Leroy Bridgeforth who was also known as Leroy Bland. Like virtually all soul singers – well I haven’t found an exception yet – he sang in gospel groups in his youth. His singing brought him into contact with a loose group of musicians based around the famous Beale Street area of Memphis, and known as the Beale Streeters. That group included B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon and Junior Parker.
He cut records for Modern and Chess in 1951 and ’52. They were recorded at the Sun Studios during the period prior to Sun handling its own distribution (and of course, B.E. or Before Elvis). From 1952 onward he recorded for Duke Records which at that time was based in Memphis. However in the summer of that same year, Don Robey, owner of Peacock Records based in Houston, Texas, bought Duke outright and relocated the operation to Houston alongside Peacock
Farther Up The Road in 1957 was the first Bland single to breach the R&B Chart in a major way – it reached the illustrious #1 spot and even nudged into the lower levels of the US National Top Fifty. It was the culmination of a series of records that generally get classified as Modern Texas Blues, a genre that was largely created by T-Bone Walker. It is characterised by prominent stinging lead guitar – in Bland’s case this axe work often came from Clarence Holliman or, in later days, Wayne Bennett, though on this record Pat Hare (Junior Parker’s guitarist) did the honours – with a small backing group often featuring one or more riffing horns.
The format continued until roughly the end of the decade but even as early as 1958, largely coincident with the arrival of arranger Joe Scott, records started appearing with a less formalised blues structure and added instrumentation. The remarkable Little Boy Blue is an excellent example. The impression is that Bland has been told in no uncertain terms not to hold anything back. While the lyrical theme may have been broadly blues, it wasn’t blues as we thought we knew it. Whether this was a reaction to what James Brown was doing to the blues up in Cincinnati we’ll probably never know, but this record and the ones to follow from Bland, heralded the appearance of an artist very much in his own right. Whereas his earlier records might have been seen as refinement of the output from contemporaries like Gatemouth Brown and Pee Wee Crayton, from somewhere around the end of the fifties, these were Bobby Bland records which bore limited resemblance to anything else around.
Just hold that thought re music that bore little resemblance to anything else around, while I return to Mike Raven, pirates and what I got up to in digs in Chatham. It didn’t take me long to realise that Mike’s musical tastes were remarkably similar to my own and that he’d be a reliable recommender for records. As a consequence I ordered the first Bobby Bland LP, Two Steps From The Blues and, over time, others including James Brown’s famous Live At The Apollo. None of these were in stock items; they all needed ordering. Over coming months I also bought a shedload of Bobby Bland American singles, usually with the centres punched out, from that cellar shop in Lisle Street, Soho which specialised in US imports. Memory failed me on the name but I’ve subsequently confirmed via the wonders of Google that it was called Transat Imports. Bought a B.B. King best-of on Modern there as well, plus loads of Excello blues.
Two Steps From The Blues was a remarkable album. Apart from perhaps a couple of tracks there was little on it that sounded like the soul music I’d heard from Messrs Cooke, Charles and Burke, or the newer guys like Redding and Pickett. Again, apart from maybe a couple, there was little conventional blues. And yet the sleeve notes did make a special mention of blues. If I can quote from the sleeve writer, Dzondria LaIsac:
“It has been Bobby’s job to show, in his own special way, that the blues is a many splendoured thing – subtle, primitive, sometimes gutsy and harsh, yet a delicately beautiful art form … and he has done his job well! At the same time he has done something for the blues, something vibrantly warm and wonderful, creating a special acceptance-climate the world over for this great music form.” (italics as per sleeve)
A first reading of that chunk of text – and bear in mind that it’s surrounded by not dissimilar paragraphs that could only have come from a sleeve of the era – leaves an overly flowery (or even yukky) impression. And yet repeated listening to the album confirms that there’s considerable truth in what Dzondria – fabulous name – was trying to tell us. It is blues even if not the form of blues that we were used to. (And I think I’ve said something like that before!) Between them Bobby Bland and Joe Scott had conjured up something new, something that took advantage of the gospel grounding of Bland and the versatility and strong musical background of arranger (and trumpeter) Joe Scott. The term Soul Blues was later coined to cover music such as this. I later discovered that Bland wasn’t the only soul blues man around in the late fifties and early sixties. Little Willie John was ploughing a broadly similar furrow and Chuck Willis, who died early, would sometimes dip into soul blues.
While LPs weren’t really the norm in blues music at that time, whoever compiled this one did a brilliant job. Yes it’s all singles (though some would have been released after the album), but without exception, they’re fabulous tracks with no dip in quality throughout. While it’s certainly true that Bobby’s recordings during this period included many that I’d call classics, not absolutely everything was at this level. The compiler – probably the very hands-on Don Robey – gave us the cream of the crop as it were, ruthlessly excluding anything that wasn’t quite up to snuff.
It’s at this stage I should come clean and let the reader know that my entire Bobby Bland Toppermost is drawn from his Duke days. Indeed, I could almost have culled my Ten from Two Steps From The Blues. As it is, half my tracks can be found on that album and I started with an even higher number.
Let’s pick up on some of the exceptions first. Bobby declared his independence on Don’t Want No Woman which was set to an archetypal Texas Blues Shuffle format, and was one of the earliest tracks, session-wise, on the album, with the single having been released in Spring ’57. It was the release that preceded Farther Up The Road. Between them, these two pretty well defined Texas Blues Bobby Bland style. Maybe there was a feeling that “we’ve done as much as we can in this medium – it’s time to move on.” It sits slightly oddly on the album as a statement of where we’ve come from, but tasty for all that.
Don’t Cry No More is a complete contrast. One of Bobby’s rare fast tracks, released in ’61, it’s also one of the few that benefits from a Memphis Horns style backdrop (albeit to a latin guitar riff) plus a scorching sax solo. Rarely, she’s the one crying this time but Bob’s in fully blown shout & scream mode. And there’s a world of difference between the delivery and the content which could have been framed by one of those soulful ballads which populate much of the rest of the album.
You cried me a river
You cried me a sea
And now I believe without a doubt
That you really, really, really love me
Near identical lyrical phrasing pops up again on the slow-to-medium tempo ballad Cry Cry Cry, only this time Bobby wants her to cry him a river and cry him a sea while he’s upfront with enough tears pouring forth for both of them. The horns are here as well and are very much in response mode a la Ray Charles but that Texan guitar is also included and that’s very much Bobby Bland. All in all this is as close as the album gets to soul music as we thought we knew it.
I’m reminded of the phrase from Dzondria, “blues is a many splendoured thing “when listening to I Pity The Fool. It alternates twelve bar blues verses with Bob in conversational style with a chorus where our man’s agonised screaming is echoed by screeching horn riffs with the volume turned up to eleven. In between Bob finds time to perform some elegant duetting with that ever present guitar. A triumph for vocalist Bobby, arranger Joe Scott and the lyricist who would appear to be the ubiquitous Don Robey again (see Footnotes). I’ve heard a few covers of this track including one by an early Bowie in the Manish Boys but none come anywhere near the remarkable original.
Look at the people
I know you’re wonderin’ what they’re doin’
They’re just standin’ there
Watchin’ you make a fool of me
In the above I’ve covered the exceptions and/or the more striking songs on Two Steps. A more typical track though, was slow with relatively lush orchestration, with intelligent lyrics and only occasionally following a traditional blues structure (though some were disguised like Lead Me On). Blues was usually inferred via the mood set rather than in your face. A good example is track #3, I’m Not Ashamed:
Notwithstanding the instrumentation and the lyrics, it was that voice that carried the songs. How does one describe it? There are no easy comparisons which is something in itself – many singers start off emulating someone else but Bobby’s voice was distinctive even on those pre-Duke records and it became even more so after he’d hooked up with Joe Scott. There’s precision there and often a hurt form of warmth. And he could move from little more than a whisper to full bodied screaming, or what I’m inclined to call crying, in an instant. But he never bludgeoned you. His best records – and I include most of the Two Steps contents in that category – were two or three minute journeys with Joe painting the scenery and Bobby telling and acting out the story.
Other good examples on Two Steps are Lead Me On and the minor key I’ll Take Care Of You, both of which tend to get well deserved mentions from Bland devotees. But I’m particularly sorry that St. James Infirmary didn’t make the cut. Long a favourite of mine, it was a highly unusual choice for Bobby or his producer, a traditional number that I’d have expected from someone like Josh White, or at least someone with fingerpicked guitar. Bobby and Joe don’t rock it up; there are no overt histrionics; Bobby just tells the story, Joe plays the trumpet break and “She’s gone, God bless her”:
In his peak period (which for me is roughly 1957 through to 1964), Bobby rarely recorded what I’d call pop songs, unlike, say, Sam Cooke. But there were some exceptions. Call On Me was one and it’s wholly delightful. The reward was one of his best placings in the US National Chart.
I’ve commented already on the fact that Bob recorded only a small number of fast numbers, whether this was down to his own preferences of those of his producers I don’t know but I suspect the former was the case. The fact remains that some of those numbers are among his best, and best known, tracks. Turn On Your Love Light and Yield Not To Temptation are both stunners. The former, in particular, has to be one of the greatest up-tempo soul dance tracks of the era. On this the soul tropes are in play; the emphatic horns, prominent piano, the pleading from Bobby, the switch from intimate to screaming. It even features a semi quiet spot in the middle where the band disappears leaving Bobby to emote over drums. It’s one of his most covered songs with versions from the Grateful Dead to Jerry Lee Lewis. I can’t resist the opportunity of playing you the Killer’s take which is even faster than the original, and, does he beat Bobby? I’ll leave that to you:
As mentioned, Yield Not To Temptation is also an up-tempo stormer and this time arranger Scott throws in a femme chorus in true Raelettes style. It’s another that almost made the list but was kept out by one that some might consider a corny song choice, Rodgers and Hart’s Blue Moon, but it’s Blue Moon as you might not have heard it before. Joe Scott gives it one of his most striking arrangements which grabs your attention from the first few bars. It’s tempting to say that this is Bob in Tony Bennett mode but he’s his own man even if you know damn well that he’s listened to them all: Como, Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.
Bland Duke singles from 1959 onwards very often featured full orchestration. However, in the earlier part of that period it was only relatively infrequently that they took on the form of big band blues that had been established by the likes of Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon. Bob himself only rarely indulged in what is often termed blues shouting. A few of this ilk, though, could be found on the second album, Here’s The Man!!!, notably 36-22-36 and Billy Eckstine’s Jelly, Jelly. The album was also notable for containing Turn On Your Love Light and my last selection:
Stormy Monday Blues (see Footnotes for an attempt to clarify some of the confusion surrounding this title) is a song I first heard sung by Herbie Goins accompanied by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated on Red Hot From Alex in 1964. With its imaginative lyrics and sympathetic arrangement it was the standout track from the album. A year or two later when I heard the Bland version I understood fully where the inspiration had come from for the Goins/Korner take on the song. Later again, I heard the T-Bone Walker original, or to be more precise, one of the many versions T-Bone had recorded of the song. It was one he was constantly going back to as if he was never quite satisfied. I very nearly excluded Bobby’s cut from my Toppermost because it wasn’t the original. Common sense prevailed though as I suspect you’ll be pleased to hear. There’s room in my heart for both the Walker original and the Bland cover on which he and Joe Scott (and guitarist Wayne Bennett) create almost a new song from T-Bone’s ingredients. In the unlikely scenario that you’ve never heard the song I’d comment that it takes the theme of the Lewis/Domino song Blue Monday and expresses it with a higher level of elegance and wit.
In the sixties, Bland picked up an alcohol problem which worsened as the decade progressed. His record sales also dropped off in the second half of the decade. In ’68 he split with Joe Scott and guitarist Wayne Bennett. In 1973, after the death of Don Robey, Duke Records was sold to ABC/Dunhill. The label marketed Bland more directly to white audiences which led to some success. Both His California Album and Dreamer have their fans. ABC also released joint live albums with B.B. King, an exercise that probably sounded better at the drawing board stage than in execution. In 1979, Bobby switched to MCA and then in ’85 he moved again, to Malaco Records. The first Malaco album Members Only did garner some acclaim but I don’t find too much remarkable about it. It does, though, give me an excellent excuse to feature his version of the Little Willie John classic Need Your Love So Bad which is present in the set:
Bobby Bland never received that late career boost from someone like Rick Rubin or Joe Henry that could have given him substantially greater recognition in his declining years. However, the body of work that he laid down from the start of his Duke stay until roughly the middle of the next decade still seems to resonate through the years. There have been covers of Bobby’s songs from artists as varied as Stevie Wonder and Mick Hucknall, bless him. I’ve opted for a version of his Ain’t That Lovin’ You from long term fan, Doug Sahm (with marvellous backing from the Atlantic label rhythm section supplemented by Dr. John):
There were so many great Bobby Bland records that had to be overlooked that I’m listing a few here. I’d add the usual rider that these are, in the main, personal favourites, rather than objective selections if that were at all possible:
It’s My Life Baby (1955) – first real Texas sound from Bobby with the Bill Harvey orchestra
You Got Bad Intentions (1956) deserves inclusion for title alone!
All the rest of the songs from Two Steps From The Blues (1961)
Between February 1962 and April 1965 he recorded no less than five songs which started with the word ‘Ain’t’. I’d list Ain’t That Loving You, Ain’t Nothing You Can Do and Ain’t Doing Too Bad (in two parts) as near classics
Who Will The Next Fool Be (1962) – the Charlie Rich number of course and a great reading
Yield Not To Temptation (1962) plus its flip, How Does A Cheatin’ Woman Feel
Blind Man/Black Night (1964) – another great two sider
Dust Got In Daddy’s Eyes (1965) – a relatively straightforward mid-tempo big band blues – full of life
Poverty (1966) – predictable perhaps but still works well
Goin’ Down Slow (1973) from His California Album, an unusual version of the blues classic just slightly marred by the snorts
I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog and Cold Day In Hell, both from Dreamer (1974)
Today I Started Loving You Again from Get On Down (1975)
“What Nat did to those pop ballads, I wanted to do to the blues. I wanted to keep that blues feeling that I loved so well, but I wanted to smooth it out. Make it real dreamy and romantic.” Bobby Bland in an interview with Rolling Stone shortly before his death
“Bobby “Blue” Bland who has died at the age of 83 was one of the finest rhythm and blues vocalists of the last half century; unlike his great friend B.B. King, however, he never crossed over to a white audience.” Daily Telegraph obituary
“Bobby “Blue” Bland, who has died aged 83, was among the great storytellers of blues and soul music. In songs such as I Pity The Fool, Cry Cry Cry, Who Will the Next Fool Be, he created tempestuous arias of love, betrayal and resignation, set against roiling, dramatic orchestrations, and left the listener drained but awed.” The Guardian obituary
“Without a doubt, Two Steps From The Blues is the definitive Bobby “Blue” Bland album and one of the great records in electric blues and soul-blues. In fact, it’s one of the key albums in modern blues, marking a turning point when juke joint blues were seamlessly blended with gospel and Southern soul, creating a distinctly Southern sound where all of these styles blended so thoroughly it was impossible to tell where one began and one ended.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AllMusic review of Two Steps From The Blues
“Bobby Bland was the last great blues singer.” Dave Marsh, “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”
“The black Sinatra? Assuredly the smoothest of the hard R&B singers.” “The Rolling Stone Record Guide”(1979 edition)
“Bobby put his whole soul into the music. You can hear it in all his great numbers from his signature adaptation of T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday” to one of the most beautiful (and resigned) of racial declarations, “Lead Me On.” I could pick out several dozen of Bobby’s greatest (did I mention “I Pity the Fool”?) – but it doesn’t really matter. Choose your own. But don’t hold back. Let Bobby draw you in, the way he always would. Let Bobby lead you on.” Peter Guralnick from his blog
1. The phrase ‘Cry for England’ (substitute verb as you please) will be familiar to UK readers but probably not to anyone else. Google doesn’t come up with an instant meaning but I can say in this context that our man didn’t half put out a lot of songs that involved crying – there are three in a row on Two Steps just for starters.
2. After his time with the pirates, Mike Raven took his R&B themed show onto BBC Radio 1 when the latter was mopping up soon-to-become-ex-pirate DJ’s at a rate of knots. He left radio presenting in the early seventies and switched to acting, mainly in horror movies. In the second half of the decade he moved to Cornwall and started farming, then branched out into sculpture. He died in 1997 and was buried in a grave he had dug for himself on Bodmin Moor (source Wiki).
3. Part of the reason for Bobby’s low profile in the UK is that his records were distributed here by Vocalion/Vogue, and (a) Vocalion records rarely got radio play and (b) they didn’t start to release him until 1961.
4. One of Bobby’s biggest early influences, which he has alluded to in interviews more than once, was the Reverend C.F. Franklin, father of Aretha, who had a strong pleading style.
5. In 1955, after he returned from what we in the UK would term national service, he commenced touring as the valet of the already established Junior Parker and was the opening act for him. The pair were frequent touring partners throughout Bobby’s career.
6. While Bobby’s Duke records up to roughly 1958 fit neatly in the modern Texas blues category, he was most unusual in that he didn’t play any instrument, let alone electric guitar on stage. That role wasn’t even filled by one guitarist, a whole host of string strikers provided those stinging sounds: Roy Gaines (a blues singer in his own right), Clarence Holliman, Mel Brown, Pat Hare (from Junior Parker’s band) and Wayne Bennett. The last is the name most usually quoted and he was usually present on Bobby’s Duke records from ’58 onwards.
7. The name “Deadric Malone” often appears in the song writing credits on Bland records. It’s an alias for Don Robey (whose undisguised name also appears in loads of credits). How many of these songs were actually written by Robey we’ll never know. He was one of the more brazen exponents of practices like adding his name to someone else’s credits, or buying out the rights to a song from the actual writer(s). There’s speculation that many of the songs from ’58 on were actually written by Joe Scott.
8. Even the cover of Two Steps From The Blues received praise. From dipping into the Charles Farley biography I noted: “The cover of Bland’s 1961 album Two Steps From The Blues is a work of art, a Mondrian in black and blue. It’s a color photograph of the singer standing in front of a one story building at the bottom of, yes, two steps. His pants are gray, his shirt is black. The coat is thrown over his shoulder, Sinatra style, and dark glasses hide his eyes from the sunlight. The building that represents “the blues” is paneled in squares of blue and white – you would think it was his hotel room except his name appears in one of the panels, as if he were perpetually playing there.”
9. My copy of Two Steps has Bobby’s face and hands coloured a deep pinkish red (think aging tory politician inclined to start drinking well before eleven). This doesn’t seem to be the case in images I’ve seen of the sleeve. I have to assume that it was down to a faulty print run since I would hope that Vogue/Vocalion weren’t attempting to pass Bobby off as white!
10. I liked Two Steps so much that I even included it in a Top Twenty all time albums list solicited by one of the music mags in, I think, the eighties. My other blues submission in the list was the Wolf’s Rockin’ Chair album.
11. Stormy Monday Blues is a song written by Billy Eckstine and a couple of others and it was recorded and released by him accompanied by the Earl Hines Orchestra in 1942. Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad) is a different song written by T-Bone Walker and recorded and released in 1947. Both songs are slow twelve bar blues but both have entirely different lyrics. The Bobby Bland version of the T-Bone Walker song was released in 1961 and incorrectly given the title “Stormy Monday Blues”. The incorrect titling was continued on several later covers of the song. These days it is commonly referred to as “Stormy Monday”.
12. Bobby made eight albums while he was at Duke though the content of most was little more than singles. The first one of these, i.e. prior to Two Steps, was a joint compilation shared with label mate, Junior Parker. It was called Blues Consolidated and it came out in ’58. Bobby had one side and Junior the other. It’s a good ‘un from both artists, with Bobby’s side focussing on his Texas blues. I used to own it and the only reason I don’t have it now is down to a flat burglary in the early seventies. I can only state that said burglar showed taste. He/she also took the Blues Incorporated LP I referred to.
13. A good way of purchasing most of the key Duke material is via two albums from Ace Records UK. The titles are Bobby “Blue” Bland: The “3B” Blues Boy: The Blues Years: 1952-1959, and Bobby Bland: The Voice: Duke Recordings 1959-69.
14. In his ‘late period’ Bobby affected a rather strange snorting sound which he was inclined to throw in almost at random in songs. Reportedly, he did this when he was no longer able to achieve his falsetto. I confess that I find it irritating and would also remark that it seems a strange addition to his musical vocabulary when in other respects he was very careful with his diction.
Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX