Bobby “Blue” Bland, a singer who became one of the most popular, electrifying and influential rhythm-and-blues entertainers in the late 20th century and who modernized the genre by blending elements of traditional blues, gospel and pop balladry, died Sunday at his home in Memphis. He was 83.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Willie Martin Bland.
If Bland lacked the pop-music name recognition of B.B. King and Ray Charles, that did not make him any less influential as an artist. Many of Bland’s recordings, such as the blues “Further On Up the Road” (1957), later covered by Eric Clapton, and the gospel-flavored “Turn On Your Love Light” (1961), covered by the Grateful Dead, became rock music standards.
Van Morrison, who covered Bland’s 1964 hit “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” often cited him as a seminal influence, and the two singers later recorded together. Bland’s version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” with an extended solo from guitarist Wayne Bennett, inspired a later version by the Allman Brothers Band. Rapper Jay-Z recently sampled Bland’s 1974 recording “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his 2001 album “The Blueprint.”
Bland placed 23 top-10 hits on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts between 1957 and 1975 and had a strong following on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” the ballrooms and clubs that catered to predominantly black audiences. He played as many as 300 one-nighters a year.
Other soul-blues singers such as Little Milton, Z.Z. Hill and Artie “Blues Boy” White borrowed heavily from Bland’s style, though none approached his career longevity.
“Bobby Bland brought the sound of black gospel music into the blues and thereby helped transform black music of the 1950s into the soul style of the 1960s,” rhythm-and-blues historian Robert Pruter said in an interview. “He is considered the pioneer of a distinct form of rhythm and blues called ‘soul-blues,’ thereby influencing a host of later blues singers.”
“It is not an exaggeration to say that Bobby Bland is one of the titans of late 20th century African-American music, close to equal in importance to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and James Brown,” Pruter added.
Bland could bring a tender, soothing vulnerability to the often-machismo world of the blues. When the warm, gentle side of his singing gave way to a harsh guttural scream, it served to emphasize the tension inherent in his songs.
He developed the squalling style from recorded sermons by Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, and adapted the rough, gargling sound that the senior Franklin used to exhort the congregation to his own singing voice.
During his affiliation in the 1960s with Duke Records, a Houston-based company, Bland’s work was often defined by the collaboration with trumpeter and arranger Joe Scott. Scott’s urbane horn charts, rooted in the big band era and modern jazz, contrasted with the brash soul sounds of Motown and Stax records. Bland’s slow songs such as “Two Steps From the Blues” were lushly scored, and his up-tempo songs pulsed with brassy fanfare that often built to a crescendo.
Scott, who died in 1979, coached Bland on vocal phrasing and pushed him to record ballads and even a few pop standards.
“Without Scott, I would not have been the singer I am,” Bland told music critic Barney Hoskyns in 1989. “I’d probably have been a spiritual singer.”
He didn’t like to be thought of strictly as a blues singer and frequently pointed out that gospel quartets, country music and pop singers such as Perry Como, Billy Eckstine and Nat “King” Cole influenced his approach as much as blues.
“I’d always wanted to sing, but I had been singing spirituals because the background was a church background,” Bland told the English magazine New Music Express in 1982. “It wasn’t that big a switchover, because the blues and spirituals have the same sort of phrasing, and you just sing ‘baby’ instead of ‘my lord.’”
When ABC records purchased Duke in 1973, the company paired Bland with B.B. King for a serious of shared live albums and tours. In 1985, Bland signed with the Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco label, an association with Malaco continued for nearly three decades. A country-flavored ballad for Malaco, “Members Only” (1985), became his signature song in later decades.
Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and he received a Grammy award for lifetime achievement in 1997.
Robert Calvin Brooks was born near Memphis on Jan. 27, 1930. His father abandoned the family, and Bobby later took the surname of his stepfather. He dropped out of school in third grade to work in the cotton fields.
He initially sang with gospel quartets but quickly shifted into the blues world. He worked as a chauffeur for King, a valet for blues singer Rosco Gordon and won amateur contests sponsored by the local black station WDIA. Drummer Earl Forest hired Bland for his Memphis band, the Beale Streeters, which also frequently featured pianist Johnny Ace and occasionally King.
Memphis pianist Ike Turner backed Bland on his first recording in 1951. The following year, he was drafted into the Army and served for two years, mostly in Japan as an entertainer in the Special Services branch. By the mid-1950s, he toured as blues singer Junior Parker’s opening act and served as his valet. Not long after his first hit, “It’s My Life Baby” (1955), Bland had his own valet.
Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Willie Martin Bland of Memphis; two children, Roderick Bland and Patrice Moses, both of Memphis; and four granddaughters.
Bland once explained the appeal of his songs: “Blues and soul … I think they are just one and the same. They are about facing the facts and seeing that things are as they are. It’s like havin’ a good woman. You got to cherish her, you got to try and see things how she sees them, and feel what she feels. … I call that facin’ ‘facts.’”