Thursday, April 20, 2006


Bobby "Blue" Bland - Little Boy Blue

When I lived in Chicago I would spend many late Saturday nights tuned to WVON to hear "The All-Night Blues Man" himself, Pervis Spann, play blues and soul-blues as if it were still 1965, with Spann talking over records and taking phone calls. Almost all of the callers were older black people, some sounding either sleep-deprived or intoxicated, and all asking for some Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis or, as they would say invariably as one word, "Bobbybluebland."

It is this pool of older black people that have kept Bobby Bland going on steadily into his sixth decade as a performer. Although in his heyday Bland was second only to B.B. King as a blues star and R&B hitmaker, strangely he was never able to capture the white audience the way B.B. did. I think there are several reasons for this, but three immediately come to mind: (1) Bland was strictly a vocalist, so the blues-rock crowd, attuned almost totally to blues guitarists, ignored him; (2) his "blues" had more than a small dollop of R&B and soul in them - so much so that a British critic considered his landmark LP Two Steps From the Blues to be "a million steps" instead; and (3) Bland projected a "grown folk" approach in his vocal style and song choices that didn't translate well to "the kids," who were instead digging the Motown sound.

Despite the lack of crossover success, however, Bland was "The MAN" in the "chitlin' circuit," where he was known for both his sweet-and-rough vocal stylings (on one hand he could project vulnerability in tender moments but then he would cut loose with a gargling shout that was known as "the squall," which Bland borrowed from C.L. Franklin's sermons) and his top-notch stage presentation (his band, led by trumpeter and arranger Joe Scott, was one of the best on the "chitlin' circuit," and Bland himself was known for his sharp wardrobe and such lady-killer antics as spreading a white hankie on the stage floor before kneeling down on it to belt out a song - he couldn't get his suit dirty, you see). Even today, he remains a major draw among black audiences, although his audience has aged along with him. I saw Bobby at the Chicago Blues Festival in the late 1990s and more black people were present than usual at the Festival to see him. Bland had them in the palm of his hand and the ladies still hollered when he did "the squall" (although "the squall" has, in later years, is so phlegmy it sounds like he's clearing his throat).

"Little Boy Blue" was released on Duke in 1958 and, despite that early vintage, has a very strong soul sound. Bland adroitly sells the story of a remorseful lover and "takes it to church" in the very strong finale. It's an awesome song, and it's one of my favorite Bland tunes.

(By the way, the name of this blog and my podcast is actually inspired by the title of one of Bland's 1970s LPs for ABC, Get on Down With Bobby Bland. With that in mind, I plan to post more Bobby Bland stuff soon!)


MadPriest said...

Hi Jason. In the U.K. Bobby Bland's soulful dancers have remained popular since they were released. Of course, the big one remains, "Shoes," and with good reason. I must have heard it a thousand times but it still remains well up there in my all time top twenty favourites. Even though it's popular on the dancefloor it's also "grown-up" soul music, above all - it's different.
Thanks for this one. It's before my time and I hadn't heard it before. I am finding that as I grow older I am finding things in 50s R&B that I just didn't hear when I was younger. It's like when you're a teenager older women look old, but when you yourself get old, you find they do, in fact, look beautiful. (now that's a bit Bobby Bland, isn't it?)

The Stepfather of Soul said...

Indeed, "Shoes" has kept the fires burning within the world of Northern Soul, etc., but of course, generally soul fans in the UK have been a much more loyal lot than the "intended" audience of R&B here in the US!

'50s R&B is indeed full of interesting stuff. I think that "Little Boy Blue," though, was somewhat ahead of its time - I mean, if you play Earl Gaines' version of the song (on the great CD Lovin' Blues, a compilation of Gaines' DeLuxe/Hollywood '60s and '70s sides) it's not too much more "modern" than Bobby's, although recorded at least a decade later.

MadPriest said...

Yes. The scene here is healthy at the moment, but don't overestimate it. In a city, like mine, with half a million people there might be about 500 sixties soul fans and about the same number of modern soul / soul fans (with a lot of crossover, of course). That's enough to keep the venues open and support a small, specialist record industry. What is great is that we can still get the artists over, some very obscure, and the welcome we give them is something they never forget.
The real funk scene is very healthy at the moment as is the jazz dance scene. What I would like to see is a breaking down of the walls between each genre. Then we would have some real clout.
However, at the end of the day the U.K. black music scene is dominated by contemporary "R&B," house and hip hop, just like everywhere else, I guess.

The Stepfather of Soul said...

Thanks for your further comments. Indeed the rare soul crowd would be small, proportional to the overall population, but I am forever amazed at how there's a fire burning for this stuff all over the world, and especially among people who are closer to me in age!

Anonymous said...

I remember well a radio broadcast over here in the UK with Pete Guaralnick and Paul Jones - I may even have recorded it somewhere.It was obvious that Bobby Blue Band was a real favourite of P.G's but, I seem to remember, the discussion was mainly about Bobby and his personal demons. I'll have to listen to the tape again to refresh my memory but I got the impression that Bobby, at times, found found it difficult to face the world. Almost unimaginable, with that wonderful commanding voice, the show left me thinking that our heroes are just as fragile as the rest of us....