Over a number of years – in conjunction with books I’ve written with B.B. King and Aretha Franklin – I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing Bobby “Blue” Bland, who died last Sunday at age 83.
As a great blues balladeer, noted for his trademark squall, Bland recorded songs that have been covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Jay-Z to Van Morrison.
Here are excerpts from those interviews, in which Bland describes the evolution of his style that began as a young boy attending the New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis whose preacher, C.L. Franklin, was Aretha’s dad:
“Couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12 when Mama and them took me to hear this new preacher man everyone was talking about. This was the early Forties. We hadn’t moved to Memphis yet, but we’d go there on the weekend, one of the principal reasons being church. I liked church ’cause of the exciting spirit of the music, but when the preachers got to preaching, I’d get bored and fidgety. But here comes this man with a voice like a singer. In fact, he did sing he before started into preaching – and that got my attention right off. Can’t tell you what hymn he sang, but his voice was strong. I sat right up and my mind didn’t wander anywhere. He grabbed my attention and kept it.
“When he started into the preaching part, I stayed with him. Wasn’t his words that got me – I couldn’t tell you what he talked on that day, couldn’t tell you what any of it meant, but it was the way he talked. He talked like he was singing. He talked music. The thing that really got me, though, was this squall-like sound he made to emphasize a certain word. He’d catch the word in his mouth, let it roll around and squeeze it with his tongue. When it popped on out, it exploded and the ladies started waving and shouting. I liked all that. I started popping and shouting, too. That next week, I asked Mama when we were going back to Memphis to church.
“‘Since when you so keen on church?’ Mama asked.
“‘I like that preacher,’ I said.
“‘Reverend Franklin?’ she asked.
“‘Well, if he’s the one who sings when he preaches, that’s the one I like.’
“‘He’s sure-enough the one,’ said Mama.
“Sometimes we’d go to East Trigg Missionary, where, according to Mama, the pastor W. Herbert Brewster was Reverend Franklin’s teacher. There were two powerful voices in that church – Queen Anderson and J. Robert Bradley – who were about the baddest gospel singers you’d ever wanna hear. I know Reverend Franklin loved them because sometimes he’d show up at East Trigg for the late service after he was done preaching at New Salem. He’d sit there on the first row taking notes during Brewser’s sermons. Then he’d be up on his feet shouting and waving when Queen Anderson and Bradley started into singing.
“Wasn’t long after that when I started fooling with singing myself. I liked whatever was on the radio, especially those first things Nat Cole did with his trio. Naturally I liked the blues singers like Roy Brown, the jump singers like Louis Jordan and the ballad singers like Billy Eckstine, but, brother, the man who really shaped me was Reverend Franklin.
“Years later, when I started driving for B.B. King, it turned out B felt the same way about Reverend Franklin. By then, Reverend had gone from Memphis to Buffalo to Detroit where me and B would go to the New Bethel Church to see him.
“This was the Fifties, when Nat Cole had gone from playing the piano with his trio to singing those pop ballads with lush strings behind him. I’m talkin’ ’bout ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Answer Me, Oh My Love’ and ‘Love Is the Thing.’ Well, Nat was the thing. Nat had class. He was smooth but smooth with feeling. Also had his own TV show. You’d see Mahalia Jackson and Sammy Davis performing with Nat, but you might also see white singers like Peggy Lee or Bing Crosby singing right up there with him. Nat had crossed over until white people were buying his music, even though, at least to my ears, his music hadn’t been compromised one single bit. Well, that was my dream – not to compromise my music but to create something new. Something modern. 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.
“I got nothing against the country blues. Came up in the country and came up on country blues. Those boys could shout. You listen to Charlie Patton or Robert Johnson and you’ll never forget their voices. They were powerful personalities. They came right through those phonograph records into your living room. Same is true of the country boys who moved to the city, like Muddy Waters up in Chicago. He kept the country feeling, but added that electrical jolt. All that’s beautiful. But I kept wondering what would happen if I took the growl out of the blues and replaced it with some kind of mellow moan. Would people still like it or would they call me a traitor to the blues? It didn’t take long to learn that the women sure-enough liked it and, brother, that was all I needed to know.
“So that’s how I got my style – reworking them old blues by sneaking in a preacher’s squall and covering it over with that pretty ballad style I borrowed from Nat King Cole.”