Charles Farley – Soul Of The Man: Bobby “Blue” Bland
University Press Of Mississippi
320 Pages Paperback edition
For many informed listeners, Bobby “Blue” Bland may be the greatest blues singer ever. His place in history is secured by dynamic records like “Farther Up The Road,” “I Pity The Fool, “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Two Steps From The Blues, and “I’ll Take Care of You,” among many of the hits he recorded. His long-time friend and frequent musical partner B.B. King certainly felt that Bland was untouchable, commenting about their early days, “Rarely though were we on the same stage on the same night. When we were, Bobby’d always blow me and everybody else away. We knew it. We wouldn’t even bother.”
Born in a small town near Memphis, TN, Bland’s family moved to the city in 1945 when he was fifteen. The teenager had been singing gospel music in church, switching to singing along with the latest R&B hits from the jukebox in the restaurant his mother operated. The late 1940s was the golden era of the famed Beale Street, as Bland was schooled by King and other Memphis notables including singers Rufus Thomas and Roscoe Gordon.
Bland worked and saved his money, finally purchasing a car in 1949, making him instantly popular with various musicians who included him to gain transportation to shows. Author Charles Farley relates one story about a night when Bland drove Gordon to a show in Arkansas. On the way, Bland expressed concern about his inability to get the timing right on his vocals. Gordon gave him some quick advice. Later on, Gordon put Bland on stage with his band so that he could indulge in a craps game. He later realized that his protege sounded so good that the audience never missed Gordon’s presence. Bland learned a lot about singing from listening to some of his favorites including Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. He also got schooled on many aspects of the business touring for several years as part of the Blues Consolidated Revue with hit-maker Little Junior Parker.
From there, Farley traces Bland’s career through its various phases, starting with his memorable run with the Duke-Peacock Record label. Run by the no-nonsense owner Don Robey and his business partner, Evelyn Johnson, the label cranked out hit after to hit with Bland. Johnson made sure that Bland was constantly on the road, setting up schedules that kept Bland traveling for three hundred-plus nights a year for several decades. Because of his limited education, Bland relied on the duo to take care of the business part of his career. His focus was on singing, alcohol, and women. His warm voice and powerful style captivated listeners, especially when he used a technique referred to as a “squall” that he learned from Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father.
Without a manager to protect his interests, the singer had to maintain the mind-numbing schedule in order to make ends meet. One trademark of Bland’s tenure with the Duke label is the stellar accompaniment that he got both in the studio and on the road. Farley delves into the personal histories of many of the noted musicians that helped create Bland’s legacy, including legendary guitarists like Wayne Bennett, Mel Brown, Clarence Hollimon, Pat Hare, and Roy Gaines, plus horn players like Pluma Davis, Bill Harvey, and Bobby Forte. But a large band meant extra expenses that kept Bland hustling to keep his finances above water.
The other “secret” to Bland’s success was band leader and trumpeter Joe Scott, who handled the arrangements for the singer’s recordings. He honed the band to a razor-sharp sound that gave the singer plenty to work with, especially on stage, and Bland made the most of it, easily matching and exceeding the band’s intensity. Drummer John “Jabo” Starks, who later played with James Brown and B.B. King, relates what he learned from his time with the band. “They taught me – “I don’t care what you play, I don’t care how you play, I don’t care if you don’t ever play fancy……all I want you to do is remember this – play time. Play the time. Hold the time You are the heartbeat…..Whatever anybody else does, don’t you go there. Make them come back to you.”
Farley’s in-depth research, which is highlighted in eleven pages listing various sources, allows him to trace the arc of Bland’s career through the Duke years, on to the period where he moved to the ABC-Dunhill/MCA label after Robey sold the Duke label after losing a lengthy legal case to Chess Records. Another big turning point occurred in 1985, when MCA released Bland from his contract. Disco was wreaking havoc in the marketplace. But Bland quickly found a new home with Malaco Records, where he joined contemporaries like Latimore, Little Milton Campbell, Denise LaSalle, and Johnnie Taylor in a roster of that appealed to older listeners with a more refined, uptown sound.
One of Malaco’s first big hits came from the late Z.Z Hill, with the song “Down Home Blues” anchoring an album that almost single-handedly revived the market for blues music. The author shares this quote showing Hill’s respect for Bland, “…he’s doing the same show he did twenty years ago. He just stand there. He don’t move. Just kinda wave his hands. Rear back, ‘Whop!’……..I said ‘now here’s a cat just stand there, man, and they love him to death. Here I am bustin’ my butt off, and I’m just tryin’ to put on a good show.’”
Charles Farley delivers a detailed, engaging work that illustrates the trial and tribulations that Bland endured and overcame in order to do what he loved. Recipient of numerous awards, Hall of Fame spots, and with a recording legacy that stands the test of time, Bobby “Blue” Bland is truly one of the giants of the blues genre. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of his artistry, this highly recommended book is the place to start.