He commenced his career during the 78 RPM era and was still at it long after digital downloads had become the dominant means of music consumption. Bobby "Blue' Bland was a longrunning workhorse famed for the stamina to make over 300 gigs per year, decade after decade, a dogged dedication that earned him lifelong fans and the unofficial crown of King of the Chittlin' Circuit. Beyond that kingdom he also crisscrossed the globe, performing at festivals and concerts worldwide, as the set at hand plainly witnesses. By the time of these Nineties vintage shows, Bland looked back at more than four decades of recordings and one of the most celebrated careers in post-War blues.
That must have seemed an impossible future for Robert Calvin Brooks at his birth in Rosemark, Tennessee on January 27, 1930. An agricultural crossroads community near Memphis, Rosemark was about cotton, and opportunities in its African-American community didn't extend much beyond picking it. Bland (that surname came from a stepfather) reportedly never went to school, but a future beyond cotton bolls became possible when his Mother moved her family to Memphis in 1947. He found work as a parking lot attendant, jockeying cars and singing with local gospel groups. Beale Street beckoned, and soon he was hanging out and singing with a loose aggregate of Beale Streeters, as they were known, including fellow future luminaries Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, and B.B. King.
It was the early 1950s, and the entrepreneurial Sam Phillips saw an opportunity in the burgeoning black music scene in Memphis. He recorded Bland in 1951, and his first waxing, "I Love You Till I the Day I Die," was promptly sold to Chess, where it became the B side of Rosco Gordon's "Booted." Another entrepreneur (and artist), Ike Turner, scouted Memphis talent for the LA.based Bihari Brothers and recorded Bland (among other top-flight Memphis blues talents) for their Modern label.
The explosion of indie labels recording R&B was joined in 1952 by Duke, started by Memphis DJ David James Mattis. Duke had scarcely released its first Bland single, "1.O.U. Blues," when Bland was drafted. Luckily, he spent much of his hitch stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, which enabled him to sing at blues clubs in Austin and Houston. The latter was home base to Don Robey, who ran a booking agency, owned several nightclubs, and a label, Peacock Records. Robey was so impressed by Bland that he bought both Bland's contract and the Duke label! It proved a wise investment: Bland became a consistent R&B hitmaker, especially during the late 1950s-early 1960s. His stature was such that, when Robey sold his labels to ABC Dunhill Records in 1973, the sole artist ABC retained to record anew was Bobby "Blue' Bland.
"Farther Up the Road" was his breakthrough hit, spending two weeks at the top of the R&B charts in August 1957. Bland only scored two more chart-toppers in his long career, but there were enough successes to rank Bland just below the top 10 R&B chart acts of his era.
His career spanned the many musical changes experienced by blues-based R&B in the last half of the 20th century, and that took him through a roster of labels on which those changes played out. In addition to those already mentioned, Bland signed with the Malaco label in 1985, where he proved there was still an audience for his brand of blues, be it funky ("Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time") or mellow ("Members Only"). Malaco targeted the taste of a mature Southern African-American clientele, and, as King of the Chittlin' Circuit, that was Bland's constituency.
White blues lovers were rarely as keen on Bland as they were on, say, his longtime friend and sometime recording partner, B.B. King. It may be pointless to speculate on the reason, but many have, citing Bland not playing an instrument or his very chart success as strikes against him. It may be, too, that the qualities that endeared Bland to his core audience made him more akin to mainstream entertainers than to the gritty Delta bluesmen who struck a romantic chord with many white blues fans. Bland was the first to admit he was not (nor had he ever aspired to be) Howlin' Wolf. Interviewed by Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall (Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America's Main Street, Louisiana State University Press, 1981), Bland explained it this way: "I like the soft touch. I don't like the harsh. I listened to a lot of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole for diction, for delivery ... I've always been concerned with singing, first spirituals and then white country blues-you know, what they call hillbilly ... I started listening to the Grand Ole Opry and singing hillbilly songs at the store there in Rosemark. That was kind of unusual, a black kid singing white songs ... l still know more hillbilly songs than I do blues. Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold-so much feeling, so much sadness. The only thing I can relate to is songs that tell a story. True lyrics, true story."
Bland's penchant for story telling shines through his choice of songs on these Nineties performances. He seamlessly weaves a then-relatively recent success (1986's "Sunday Morning Love") with the kindred T-Bone Walker standard Bland had long made very much his own. McKee and Chisenhall remarked on it in describing a Bland performance in their Beale Black & Blue book: "As he has done for more than two decades, Bland closes his show with the same song, 'Stormy Monday,' in the same manner, getting down on his knees to sing beseechingly: 'Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.' Call it stylistic or call it gimmickry-but call it effective. The applause goes on for a full ten minutes after he has left the stage."
Bobby 'Blue' Bland, AKA the Lion of the Blues, left the stage for good on June 23, 2013. He did not go unaware of his prowess: inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, that ceremony hailed him as "second in stature only to B.B. King as a product of Memphis's Beale Street blues scene."