Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the man! I mean, the man! The sensational…the incomparable…the dynamic Bobby…Bobby Bland!
Though it was over thirty years ago, I can still recall it as if it were yesterday: the first time my dad dropped a needle on a Bobby “Blue” Bland LP. Today Bland, who died in 2013, would have been 85, and in thinking about his birthday, I was transported back to a late summer evening in Nashville, where I heard that record. My father and I were two Houstonians in exile, he, at almost forty, loving his new hometown and jobs in the music business; me, at thirteen, not so thrilled with my underachieving at a conservative Christian school where I was always a bit of a misfit.
I had a cold can of Coke, Dad a sweaty quart of Bud. We’d set up a tabletop baseball game: Sports Illustrated’s All-Time All-Star Baseball. We’d filled out our line-up cards: My nine was anchored by Willie Mays and Honus Wagner; dad’s by Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, and it was Walter Johnson vs. Sandy Koufax on the mound.
And before we rolled the dice for the first at-bat, Dad slipped Bland’s Here’s the Man! LP on the turntable.
At first there was a crackle. This was an original pressing on the Duke label (2809 Erastus St. in the Bayou City’s Fifth Ward) that Dad had owned since his teenage years in Houston. Then a horn fanfare heralding the first of the hype-man’s words above, all of which were punctuated by short, crisp blasts of horns and thumping bass guitar. And then the slinky cymbal wash of the drummer and the sultry piano of Third Ward’s Teddy “Cry Cry” Reynolds and the chant of the whole band: “36! 22! 36!”
And then that full-throated, honey-caramel voice: My baby she looks so fine!
I was hooked from the get-go, and only more so as the album spun through the achingly gorgeous “You’re the One (That I Adore)”—“Nobody knows, allll the trouble I’ve seen, nobody, nobody but a-youuuu” encircled by a majestic guitar figure by Wayne Bennett.
And right after that, the proto-funk sanctified freight-train that is “Turn on Your Love Light,” with its vocal and drum breakdown, Reynolds’ repetitive piano figure, Bennett’s guitar weaving in and out of the din like Muhammad Ali circling a foe, all culminating in Bland and the band’s majestic gospel crescendo. Take it a little bit higher, indeed—the song was later a live staple for the Grateful Dead in its early days with Pigpen McKernan. (Bland’s drummer, John “Jabo” Starks, would go on to back James Brown on tracks like “The Payback” and “Sex Machine.”)
As the album spun on, Dad told me all about Bland’s bandleader, Houston’s Joe Scott, one of the unsung heroes of twentieth-century music. Even at thirteen, I could hear that Scott’s band was an absolute machine. Scott’s arrangements perfectly melded a huge horn-section with piano and guitar and the rippling rhythms of Starks and bassist Hamp Simmons, all of which receded and expanded along with Bland’s alternately gruff and tender bass-baritone.
Dad also told me of the sinister Duke label head Don Robey, a Fifth Ward gambler who paid his songwriters pittances for their tunes and then put his own name (or one of his aliases, such as Deadric Malone) on the finished products. That lead Dad into the sad tale of Johnny Ace, one of Robey’s early hitmakers, who shot himself backstage at Houston’s City Auditorium on Christmas Eve 1954, while he was at the height of his creative power. Was it suicide? Russian roulette? Or had Robey had a hand in it? Dad said that nobody knew. (Many years later, I would learn the truth: it was damned drunken foolishness on Ace’s part. Or at least that was the way Big Mama Thornton remembered it, and she’d been there.)
By then Bland had taken us through a flip-side of love, with his cover of Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Be?” and the joyous, rumba-like “You’re Worth It All.” I was in the throes of a years-long unspoken crush to classmate Amy Simmons, a chestnut-haired beauty with huge brown eyes and a dimple in her chin. “One of these old daaa-aa-ays, you’re gonna realize that you’re gonna…”
Bland left the last word unsung. Gonna what? Gonna come to your senses and realize that you are the one for me, Amy Simmons? (God I was such a love-lorn buck-toothed little dork back then.)
Next up, the Arlen / Mercer standard “Blues in the Night.”
“My mama done told me, when I was in knee-pants, my mama done told me, son. A woman’ll sweet-talk, and she’ll give you the big eye, but! when that sweet talk is throouugh, a woman’s a two-face, a worr’some thing who’ll leave you to sing…the bluuuueeees, in the night.”
I could only sigh. I can dig it, Bobby. Or at least I thought I could. Again, I was a dork.
Side two. Dad let it slide casually that Bland and band had played his prom back at Lamar High School in ‘62. That’s rankled me ever since. When I graduated from Strake Jesuit 26 years later, we got some cover band.
Anyway, next up was “Your Friends,” featuring Joe Scott’s sassy and chattering muted trumpet over the roiling piano rolls of Reynolds as Bland sang of his woman’s duplicitous so-called friends…And then the consummately stately horns and guitar intro to “Ain’t That Lovin’ You,” Bland’s voice alternating between silk and sandpaper over and over (he once said he could sing both “Methodist-style” and “Baptist-style,” meaning both smooth and raw), before breaking into a sort of rap:
“You know, I told you darlin’, that I’d never let you down, and no matter what you do, I’d always be around. You treat me like a schoolboy. and that you know is true. It makes no difference darling: I’ll take care of you.”
Cue another immaculate Joe Scott full-band crescendo.
Next, the salacious exhalation that is the standard “Jelly, Jelly, Jelly.” Even at my tender age, I kind of new what Bland was talking about when he sang “Jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly stays on my mind … jelly roll killed my pappy, and it wrung my mama stone blind.” Closing out the album was the only dud, a twist craze remake of the classic “Further Up the Road,” and then another show-stopper: “Stormy Monday,” that famously impeccable remake of the T-Bone Walker classic, with Wayne Bennett’s guitar solo so majestic and unearthly it always seems like night-time when you hear it and dang if those notes of his don’t feel like that they slow down the very march of time itself. (Bennett’s performance here and elsewhere utterly transfixed a blond-haired Georgia kid by the name of Duane Allman.)
By then dad’s Bud and my Coke were empty and the baseball game was back in its box. My musical education had just taken a huge leap forward. Dad had already shepherded me gently from whatever was on Nashville’s KDF rock radio station into the sources they had drawn from.
When I got heavily into Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Dad turned me onto Albert King, from whom Eric Clapton lifted most of his licks. And when I heard George Thorogood, Dad gave me a copy of Hound Dog Taylor’s Genuine Houserocking Music, and Taylor’s raw, primeval, distorted Chicago-style slide-guitar boogie became for me the epitome of what blues was supposed to be about, the music I would blast in my eardrums via my first Walkman en route to junior high football games, the better to work myself into a psycho, head-hunting frenzy.
Here’s the Man! taught me different. Blues could be orchestral, blues could be lush, blues could sound as urbane as it wanted to sound.
A generation prior, the young Bob Merlis—now a veteran music publicist living in Los Angeles, and the author to the liner notes to the Bland hits package Turn On Your Love Light: The Duke Recordings Vol. 2—had the same experience.
“I’d always loved Chicago blues like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and then I ran into this, and it was almost too smooth. There wasn’t a lead guitar per se. I mean there’s a guitar and it’s great, but it’s not formatted like a rock band. It was formatted like the Count Basie Orchestra, and that took some getting used to for rock and roll people. But for some reason I really did get into it, and for me it was a very broadening experience. It’s bizarre, I think part of it is because we are both Bobs. I had a vested interest and then I realized, there’s nothing better than this.”
It also showed both Merlis and me that a great blues singer could fess up to a love of, and be influenced by, Lawrence Welk-friendly Squaresville sounds, and yet, thanks to Scott’s arrangements, retain all the soul of the raw masters like Muddy and the Wolf.
“I try to do songs in a ballad-type way where it won’t be strictly blues,” Bland once said. “Now what I basically have to rely on is the blues but I educate myself through a wide spectrum of records and people I think have something to offer me. For instance, I’ve always admired Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Andy Williams. This is the thing that I based my blues on and I have quite a few of their records that I listen to and learn from.”
WTF? A Perry Como-loving bluesman? It was as if Chuck D. cited Air Supply as a key influence, or D’Angelo started talking up Kenny G or Celine Dion.
“That was a real crisis for me,” Merlis remembers. “How could I like somebody as much as I do who admires Perry Como?”
Over the years my love of Bland’s music would only grow. His album Two Steps from the Blues became another all-time favorite of mine, and though Bland’s voice was pretty much shot by the seventies, some of his late period songs on the Malaco label —most notably “Members Only”—stand the test of time.
It’s always irked me that Bland and Joe Scott and Don Robey weren’t as beloved as Motown or Stax. As a pioneering black record executive, Robey blazed the trail that Berry Gordy would follow, and nothing that come out of his Detroit hit factory bested Scott’s finest arrangements. Gordy was feted from coast to coast, while I’d never so much as seen a picture of Joe Scott until I bought a replica of a vintage Bobby Bland poster off the Internet in 1999 or so.
And with his flawless phrasing and objectively superior pipes, why wasn’t Bland regarded by society at large as the equal or better of Frank Sinatra? (Instead, he was known as “the Sepia Sinatra.” I’ve always thought Sinatra should have been known as the “bronze Bobby Bland” instead.)
Listen to the two men go head to head on “Blues in the Night” and see for yourself. Can you honestly that Nelson Riddle’s arrangement is better than Scott’s?
Nope. There’s proof of Northeastern cultural bias for you, in one seven-minute lesson. If they had been boxers, Bland would have knocked out Sinatra in the first round. But music is not sports, and superiority can’t be proven the same way it can in the ring or between the lines.
(Photos: Deeprootsmag.org; John Nova Lomax)