AT SIX FEET TWO AND 265 POUNDS, with high cheekbones and a bulldog nose, 67-year-old Bobby Blue Bland wouldn’t seem to be easily overlooked. Yet there he is—a mountainous, curly-haired brown hulk in a sailor’s cap and a navy blue warm-up suit, fingers lined with diamonds—almost invisible in the corner of a small hotel lobby in South Austin where he has agreed to sit for an interview.
Bland’s presence, or lack of it, is in sharp contrast to the night before at Antone’s Night Club, where a standing-room-only crowd couldn’t take its eyes off the dapper singer as he whispered, caressed, and cried his way through blues classics spanning five decades. On the stage, in front of an audience, Bland works his powerful charisma: that of the man who is lost without a woman, who can protect her because he understands what it feels like to be wounded. “I know you’ve been hurt / by someone else / I can tell by the way / you carry yourself,” Bland sings at the start of “I’ll Take Care of You,” one of the hits that made him the premier balladeer of post-war blues.
Despite more than a few ups and downs, Bland (long called Bobby Blue because of his bluesy voice) has dominated Texas stages since first scoring in late 1957 with the shuffling “Farther Up the Road,” which topped the black charts while reaching number 43 on the pop charts. It’s easy, in fact, to forget that Bland is technically not a Texan. He was born outside Memphis and has lived there for all but a few years of his life; yet from 1957 to 1972, while working for Houston’s Duke Records, the nation’s largest black-owned label before the rise of Motown, he personified the definitive post—T-Bone Walker Texas blues style. The sound, featuring Wayne Bennett’s Walker-derived guitar and classy, brassy horn charts in addition to Bland’s vocal acrobatics, was created by Joe Scott, Bland’s Texarkana-born trumpeter, bandleader, and arranger; hits like “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Turn on Your Love Light,” and “I Pity the Fool” erased all distinctions between blues, R&B, and soul. Even today, Texas still feels like home: “They treat me a lot better here, and they respect what I do a lot more,” Bland points out. “I’m more comfortable in Texas.”
Two years after a heart bypass operation that nearly ended his career, Bland continues to cut records; his latest, Live on Beale Street, which contains live versions of his songs recorded over the course of his career, will be released in September by Malaco Records (a Jackson, Mississippi, label with a roster made up of chitlin-circuit artists leftover from the blues and soul eras who didn’t cross over to the white market but still survive, thanks to their original black audience). Bland never had the temperament for greater stardom, but his triumphs were unique—his eclectic style kept him on the charts much longer than most bluesmen—and have not gone unnoted. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and this year he received a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Grammys (though never one to him).
Robert Calvin Bland was born an only child in 1930 in Rosemark, Tennessee, a country crossroads, and lived there until his mother moved them into Memphis in 1947 (he only met his father long after he became famous). Bland sang spirituals and then blues, joining an ad hoc group known as the Beale Streeters, which at various times included such other future stars as Johnny Ace and B. B. King. He could ape the vocals of the bluesmen dominating the jukebox at his mother’s cafe—Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, and Roy Milton on up-tempo jump tunes, Jimmy Witherspoon for jazz, Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown on the ballads—but he had no style of his own. In 1952 Bland was recording for Duke, then based in Memphis, when he joined the Army. By the time he was discharged three years later, Duke had been bought out by Houston entrepreneur Don Robey, but Bland had already gotten his first taste of Texas: After basic training in South Carolina and two years in Japan, he went to Fort Hood in Killeen; on weekends, he sang in amateur-night contests at the Victory Grill in Austin, winning so regularly he was eventually disqualified. He considered Victory Grill manager Valerie Cannon his “play mother,” he says. “She put her arms around me and kept me out of trouble.”
Shortly after leaving the Army, Bland moved to Houston to begin recording for Robey. Before launching Peacock Records in 1949, Robey had been a taxi cab magnate, music promoter, and nightclub operator; he was also a gambling and numbers racketeer said to enjoy police protection—and he allegedly kept a gun in his desk that he wasn’t shy about using to menace his recording artists. Eventually his empire grew to include five labels: Back Beat, Sure Shot, and Song Bird in addition to Duke and Peacock. Robey specialized in buying the songs of down-and-out writers for a token fee, putting his pen name, “Deadric Malone,” on them, and reaping handsome royalties when they became hits. Bland is one of the few artists connected to Robey who doesn’t perceive him as a villain. “The only thing I can say about him is that he did what he had to do,” he tells me. “Anybody can say whatever they want to say about Robey, but he wasn’t supposed to be your father; he gave you an opportunity. Robey was the biggest man in Texas, so you give thanks to the hand that feeds you.”
In truth, Bland’s career was fed and nurtured by Robey’s assistant, Evelyn Johnson, who also ran her boss’s Buffalo Booking Agency out of Houston. Bland remembers her as the person he went to when he had a problem, who buffered him from Robey, warned him against getting a swelled head, and even taught