If you went to see The Beale Streeters in Memphis in the late 40s, you might find BB King, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland on stage. The gigs and broadcasts made by this loose collection of players launched many careers, some very long and one tragically short, and gave the teenage Bobby a showcase for those soulful pipes that, along with Ray Charles, defined the Soul/Blues sound of the 50s.
Robert Calvin Bland was born near Memphis and when he moved to the city with his mother, he sang with various Gospel groups including The Miniatures. However, the potential of that amazing voice, with it’s deep growls and falsetto shrieks, was destined to draw him to the Blues scene around Beale Street. Those gigs with The Beale Streeters got him several recording opportunities for the Modern and Chess labels, but his career was interrupted by a spell in the Army. After his discharge he joined Don Robey‘s Duke label, where he stayed for decades.
‘Farther on Up the Road’ was Bobby’s first national hit when it went to Number 1 in 1957;
‘Farther On Up the Road’ topped the US R&B chart in 1957, with a great riff by the much-underated Pat Hare, and a long string of hits were to follow. In 1961, ‘I Pity the Fool’ went to No.1, as did ‘That’s the Way Love Is’ in 1963. The early part of this period saw Bobby touring and recording with Junior Parker and his band The Blue Flames, but after 1961 he turned to a more Soul influenced sound with big horns and the spiky guitar of Wayne Bennett. Producer, arranger and trumpeter Joe Scott made a huge contribution at this time, with the ‘Two Steps from the Blues’ album defining Bobby’s influential vocal style. Later in the year, the single ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ stayed in the R&B chart for 16 weeks and crossed over into the pop chart, opening a new audience for Bobby’s smooth sensual vocals. The sixties saw Bobby emerge as a soulful blues man, with ‘Touch of the Blues’ and ‘Here’s the Man’ selling in huge numbers, but as the decade closed, he was suffering from alcohol problems and his career faltered.
Bobby’s soulful take on the classic Blues, ‘St.James’s Infirmary’;
Duke records was sold to RCA in 1972 and Bobby was part of the package, so his career was revived by the new outfit. ‘The California Album’ and ‘Dreamer’ gave Bobby a hard-hitting Blues sound, and a single from ‘Dreamer’, ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ was a hit single, which was revived in 1978 by Whitesnake and was also sampled by Kanye West in 2001. Bobby spent the 70s, 80s and early 90s recording and touring, often sharing the stage with his old friend BB King. In 1985, Bobby switched to the Jackson, Mississippi based Malaco label, and his first effort for them, ‘Members Only’ reminded us that those smooth vocals were still very much in tune. The title track was issued as a single and made a respectable showing in the R&B charts.