Bobby "Blue" Bland is one of the eminent patriarchs of modern soul singing, his distinctively grainy vocal style drawing on gospel and blues. Raised in Memphis, he joined a gospel ensemble, the Miniatures, in the late 1940s. He later met guitarist B.B. King and joined the Beale Streeters, an informal group of Memphis blues musicians that included King, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, and Willie Nix. But not until 1954 (after working as King's chauffer) did he land his first recording contract, when an executive at Duke Records heard him sing at a Houston talent show.
His first successful single, "It's My Life, Baby," was released in 1955. He played one-nighters around the country accompanied by his band, led by tenor saxophonist Bill Harvey and trumpeter/arranger Joe Scott. Members of the band, under the pseudonym Deadric Malone, wrote or co-wrote most of Bland's material. His band was bigger and brassier than most current blues bands, and anticipated the rich sound of 1960s soul music while harking back to big-band jazz.
Since 1957, when "Farther Up the Road" was a Number Five R&B hit, Bland has had over 30 R&B Top 20 singles, including "I'll Take Care of You" (Number Two, 1959), "I Pity the Fool" (Number One, 1961), "Don't Cry No More" (Number One, 1961), "Turn on Your Love Light" (Number Two, 1961), and "That's the Way Love Is" (Number Three, 1963).
Most of Bland's records enjoyed only modest success in the pop market; only three singles ever made the pop Top 30. In the mid-1960s Bland adopted a slicker, more upbeat style, but his career stalled until Duke Records was taken over by ABC-Dunhill in 1972. Dunhill paired him with producer Steve Barri (the Four Tops), who guided Bland back to a bluesier vocal style while giving him contemporary material by Leon Russell and Gerry Goffin, as well as new material by Deadric Malone. His California Album and Dreamer introduced him to white audiences and proved to be the most popular LPs of his career. After a fallow early-1980s he resurfaced mid-decade on the independent soul-blues label Malaco, revitalizing his career.
While he never achieved the wide recognition of B.B. King (with whom he toured and collaborated on two LPs, Together and Together Again), he had a considerable influence on modern soul music. In 1997 he was the recipient of the Recording Academy's coveted Lifetime Achievement Grammy. In 1998 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation. In 2002 Bland had a late-career resurgence with the excellent Two Steps From the Blues featuring an amalgam of blues, gospel and southern soul produced, co-written and arranged by Joe Scott with help from Duke head Don Robey. He continues to record and tour internationally well into his late seventies.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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