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Dead Unsung Heroes in Music: Bobby Bland

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Bobby Bland is considered by many blues enthusiasts to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest blues singer of all time. “Blue” became part of his name in the mid-fifties, as he was influenced by other blues singers, but he had a very unique and individual style. Because he did not play the guitar (or any other instrument) may be one reason he never achieved widespread fame in his lifetime. Unfortunately, he could also not read or write, which likely held him back, as well. Indeed, with his inability to read contracts, he may have been further taken advantage of, and the success he did obtain could have perhaps been more lucrative for him.

Bobby began singing at an early age in 1947 with gospel groups in Memphis, including The Miniatures. He became part of a group of musicians known as the Beale Streeters which included B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace. During a two-year Army stint, he was in a band with Eddie Fisher. When he returned to Memphis in 1954, he found some of the Beale Streeters had obtained some success. His friends helped him get a record deal with Duke Records. He then had some success on the R&B charts, including a #1 song “Further Up the Road” in 1957. Perhaps taking advantage of his illiteracy, his contract gave him only one half a cent per record sold, rather than a more standard (for the time) two cents. After another hit “Little Boy Blue” in 1958, he made an album with Junior Parker called “Blues Consolidated”. With bandleader Bill Harvey, and arranger Joe Scott, he had a string of hits in the early sixties. He became known for ballads, and had the perfect voice which was at times sweet and low, with smooth transitions into soulful shouting. Among his twenty-three Top Ten R&B hits are “Turn on Your Love Light”, “I Pity the Fool”, “That’s the Way Love Is”, “Poverty” and “Cry Cry Cry”. The highest ranked on the Pop charts (#20) was “Aint Nothing You Can Do” in 1964. His band broke up in 1968 which led to a period of drinking and depression until 1971. He then signed with ABC Records, and notable albums from the early seventies include “His California Album” (1973), and “Dreamer” (1974). These albums were arranged by Michael Omartian, and produced by Steve Barri. Hits from this period include “This Time I’m Gone for Good”, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”, and “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog”. This period features a more mellow sound, with the vocals a bit restrained. He still maintained a distinctive, inviting vocal style could grab and hold listener’s attention. He attempted a more-mainstream album with “Get on Down” in 1975 produced by Don Gant and Ron Chancey. This was the first album he did which brought in contemporary sounds. From the seventies on, he recorded under the name simply Bobby Bland. This may be an attempt to avoid typecasting him as strictly a blues singer. This album does have some blues tunes, but like all his albums, most of the songs are ballads. So, he really is a ballad singer, or torch singer. In 1977, he reunited with Omartian and Barri for the “Reflections in Blue” album. He moved to a jazzier sound with “Come Fly With Me” in 1978. He made a tribute album to Joe Scott with “Sweet Vibrations” (1980). No matter what the production or arrangements were on these and subsequent albums, the songs are solid, and his voice ultimately dominates even the most lavish arrangements.

He collaborated with B.B. King on two 70s albums, then another series of albums after 1985 with Malaco Records. This was at a time when B.B. King started to became more widely recognized, as was common for older blues artists that had been around for many years. B.B. King was only one artist that tried to get Bobby Bland the recognition that eluded him for the rest of his life. In 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and said to be “second in stature in Beale Street only to B.B. King”. Bobby continued performing as much as possible until the end of his life, earlier this year (2013). His voice deserves to be discovered by more people. Each album throughout his career maintained an admirable level of quality. Bobby Blue Bland was a genuine original with a raw, emotional delivery loved by so many, and unmatched by so few.

Links to some of Bobby Bland's songs:

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“Turn on Your Love Light”

“I Pity the Fool”

“That’s the Way Love Is”,

“Poverty”

“Cry Cry Cry”

“This Time I’m Gone for Good”

“Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”,

“I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog”.

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