Royal Blue

Forty years after his first hit, Bobby Bland is still the undisputed king of Texas R&B— and he’s not even a Texan.

August 1997By Comments

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 him to read and write. Johnson, who worked in banking and real estate after Robey sold his companies to ABC Records in 1973 and retired only recently, filled much the same role for Bland as Valerie Cannon had. “He had a lot of complexes,” she recalls. “When he hit the stage he was Bobby Bland, but offstage he was just Bobby. He was so shy, and he took no responsibility for anything. You had to lead him around. I was like a mother: ‘Did you take a bath today, Bobby?’ Even that thing about reading wasn’t so severe; I think he pretended he couldn’t read to avoid responsibility. He got a valet to do everything for him, so all he ever had to do was just perform onstage. Of course, people would go into a frenzy when he did.”

Predictably, Bland’s career built slowly. At the time “Farther Up the Road” hit number one, he was working as driver, valet, and opening act for harmonica man Junior Parker—and he kept at it a full four years longer, even though in 1958, with “Little Boy Blue,” he finally created a discernible vocal style of his own. By then he was trying to incorporate some of the style of smooth white balladeers like Perry Como and Tony Bennett into his sound. But he was also listening to “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” a sermon by his Detroit friend the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father and, with Martin Luther King, Jr., arguably the most influential black preacher of the sixties. Franklin had a rippling “tear” in his voice as he preached this metaphorical story, which was so popular that it was pressed as an album and reportedly sold millions of copies; Bland adapted the sound, which he calls a “squall,” to his vocals. After phrasing at the top of his range, he used the gargly “squall” to work back down to his normal singing voice. It quickly became his trademark, and he still uses it today, though age and wear on his voice have robbed him of his ability to work it every time.

Joe Scott, who produced much of the Duke-Peacock roster but paid Bobby by far the most attention, took care of the rest. “He was a genius as far as I’m concerned,” Bland says. “I had the voice, but I didn’t know what to do with it. He taught me everything: how to apply it and how to phrase, how you approach a note and how you say certain words. He developed that style with the horn arrangements, which was way ahead of its time.”

“Little Boy Blue” only reached number ten. But beginning with “I’ll Take Care of You” late in 1959, Bland turned out seven straight top ten records in 27 months, and eventually he went out on his own as a headliner. He wound up with 32 records on the black charts in the sixties, most of them crossing over to the lower reaches of the pop charts. Living almost entirely on the road, he also developed the snazziest show of the era, with the band doing a few numbers followed by a warm-up singer (Al “TNT” Braggs, who was also Bland’s valet, lasted six years) before the lady-killing star took over. In 1968 the band crumbled, largely because of Bland’s worsening alcoholism. Though his records continued to chart, he fell into a deep depression that hindered his live shows especially. Yet after a few unsteady years, he got his drinking under control, and when Duke was sold to ABC-Dunhill, then a major label, in 1973, he effectively updated his soul-blues sound with His California Album. Through the rest of the decade, as the young white audience was claiming blues guitar stars from B. B. King to Buddy Guy, Bland held on to his African American base strongly enough to remain on black charts even though his crossover days were over.

In 1985, after several tepid efforts for MCA, the major label that had absorbed ABC, Bland consolidated that black audience by signing to Malaco, where he has been ever since. His voice isn’t the wondrous instrument it used to be, but he made the most of his limitations on records like Members Only (1985), Years of Tears (1993), and Sad Street (1995), and the label’s synthesizer-and-strings approach has kept him contemporary without making him sound foolish.

In 1995 Bland felt twinges in his back and shoulders while onstage in Seattle. After the show, he described them over the phone to his fourth wife, Willie Mae, who is a nurse; she immediately flew out to get him and bring him back to Memphis, and a the next day he had a triple bypass. Two years later, Bland doesn’t drink at all and eats little besides vegetables and broiled fish and chicken. He has cut his schedule almost in half, working only about twenty weeks a year (and his twenty-year-old son, Rod, goes along as his drummer to make sure he takes it easy). But that’s okay, because for those twenty weeks he is still Bobby Bland, bigger than life and in command. “Sometimes,” he declares, with no small amount of satisfaction, “I feel like the last of the Mohicans.”

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