If ever the word "debonair" applied to the trade of traveling blues vocalist, it was Mr. Bland; the template for the handsome, somewhat world-weary blues star as matinee idol was pretty much the invention of Bland and his handlers, from the time he began touring in the 1950s to his hey-day through the early and middle parts of the next decade, and onward unto this year, for what seemed to be a nearly never-ending tour of theaters, clubs, concert packages, halls and joints, both high-class and low, urban as well as rural. Later (much later) there would be festivals and some pretty prestigious appearances, but for the most part Bobby Bland traveled the world of venues which stretch from Detroit to New Orleans, Washington DC to Oakland, Calif. in the service of an adult (and female-centric) audience of adult black listeners.
It was and is the same audience which made his old rival and friend B.B. King known initially, but unlike that other B -- who also made his name first in Memphis -- Bland never had the breakthrough to the larger white audience; hence for the most part the non-attention his passing had on national media and the evening television newscasts. Bobby Bland (despite being able to claim having made the definitive version of the T-Bone Walker classic "Stormy Monday") simply never had the breakout pop hit a la "The Thrill Is Gone" that would have resulted in the kind of appearances over the decades on late night shows, eg. Johnny Carson, that led to being a household name and brand as the latter song did for Mr. King. But there were other reasons that Bland (who arguably was a bigger draw and record seller between 1957-1964 over King to their core audience) would never enter into the Promised Land of Cross-Over.
Not an instrumentalist (a crucial point for rock-centric whites who in time would better appreciate King's influence on the Brit school of guitarists including the likes of Eric Clapton), Bland was instead the ultimate example of the Voice; indeed, by the 1960s Bobby was given that sobriquet by an adoring publicist at the Houston-based Duke label, and it was well, well deserved.
Capable of the subtlest murmur or the rawest of gospel-intensity shouts and moans, he was what might be called the Great Pillar between the creamy big band-backed vocals of Billy Eckstine in the 1940s and the soul-inflected pleadings and cries of Tyrone Davis in the '60s, and for all who followed in the field of soul/blues, who wished to refine their own efforts in blues balladry against the example set by him in the many songs he recorded for Duke, then ABC/MCA, and finally two-plus decades with the Jackson Miss.-based Malaco imprint (which always seemed a proper label homecoming of sorts for Bland).
Those first records for Duke set the frame for the right sound behind the Voice: a bright, brassy, soulful and deftly blues-inflected blueprint, sometimes given a slightly Latin-tinged rhythmic effect, contoured to a vocal power equal in its heavy-cream intensity to men such as Eckstine or even Perry Como, but unerringly drenched in gospel tonality, always capable of erupting into emotional waves. It was an approach that drove his audiences wild, especially female listeners. For me, more than any other blues vocalist I've seen, Bobby Bland taught this simple truth: if there are not a great number of women in attendance when I walk into an affair billed as a "blues show," it's very likely I'm about to see a technical, even well-done performance of what would be more accurately called a guitar clinic -- not a blues show, but a fret-work-out, without the call-and-response theatre and examination of the relationships between men and women that Bland was such a perfect master at, year in and out.
A typical Bland set would see him casually amble out to center stage, as the band perhaps played a fast medley of melodies and phrases associated with his many hits, until the immaculately dressed singer with perfect hair shyly smiled and, while holding a lit cigarette, perhaps beginning with an age-old-couplet that was minted anew when he said:
It's a downright rotten, low down and dirty shame...
What followed would be his songbook, one that read as the must-plays for any serious blues band, black, white or mixed: "Turn On Your Love Light," "I Pity The Foo," "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," "Members Only," "I Smell Trouble," "Stormy Monday," "Farther up the Road" and "Call on Me. He had more hits than could possibly be performed in one evening's work. Songs by other artists, such as the T-Bone Walker hit, or public domain titles such as "St. James Infirmary," were so associated with Bland that even the most knowledgeable fans assumed they were his alone.
As the years wore on, so did the Voice: once possessed with a stunning falsetto range, by the 1970s the highest notes were replaced by what has been called "the squall," a throaty sound that accented phrases dramatically, but also mystified non-blues listeners with its meaning. I once spoke to the owner of Malaco Records who -- in his own deep and syrupy Southern accent -- told me of an executive's reaction (with Rounder Records) to hearing Bland's latest single ("It's a wonderful record we have here on Bobby, but when I played it for -----, he wanted to know if something was CAUGHT in his throat!?!"). I opined that for people more familiar with Cape Cod, Mass. than Memphis, this might indeed be the case.
So it would be for Bobby Bland. We shall see no heart-felt testimonies by Barbara Walters or Jane Pauley's favorite song by the Man; no commentaries on Entertainment Tonight that an absolute giant of blues has passed this coil. My final viewing of the singer was a few months ago, when Bland rode to the stage at the big package show on a scooter for those incapacitated or given to a few, measured steps in their day; the venerated performer received a loving standing ovation as he slowly was led to his seat, center stage, where he gave about a 25-minute set. That Voice was reduced to a relative husk in its range and power, but the phrasing and timing were still pretty immaculate, and his listeners once again basked in the True Church of the Blues, where Bobby Bland was still the Preacher for this congregation, now and forever.