Overnight Express: Simply Red Does Bobby "Blue" Bland
To give Hucknall his propers, few British vocalists bothered to study the lessons imparted by chronically underappreciated (and underpaid) black American singers like Bland, especially in the days when Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham! and Duran Duran set the tenor for pop success. Fewer still applied those lessons skillfully enough to challenge those bands on the charts, but Simply Red did well enough, and still do - indeed, their most recent effort, last year's Stay, topped Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Albums tally. Cold comfort for a band that twice tasted the sweetest nectar pop music had to offer, but on the other hand, has anyone heard from Paul Young lately?
Whether Hucknall is up to the challenge of covering an entire album of Bland's signature tunes is, of course, another matter entirely. Born and raised around Memphis, now and forevermore America's preeminent "Soul City" (sorry, Detroit), Bland found his greatest success toiling - quite thanklessly, no less - for Fifth Ward R&B overlord Don Robey, who as a talent manager and label boss had a direct hand in influencing the careers of not only Bland, but Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker and T-Bone Walker. To name but a few. Among the Bland songs Hucknall has now chosen to resurrect from the vaults of Robey's Duke/Peacock Records are several that should be familiar to even the most casual blues enthusiast: "Stormy Monday Blues," "Chains Of Love," "I Pity the Fool," "Cry, Cry, Cry."
"It's a body of work that is among the most respected in blues history," swear the Rhino flacks. "Mick's passionate interpretations of these classics do them full justice."
That's quite a mouthful, even for a press release, and although the market for former pop stars getting back to their roots, real or imagined, has never been more fertile - see this year's Austin City Limits Festival headliners - Bland's body of work, starting with 1961's peerless Two Steps From the Blues (an album that took him almost four years to record, featuring both Houston legend Teddy Reynolds on piano and future James Brown drummer John "Jabo" Starks), is not something to approach lightly. Lest we forget, Bobby Blue himself, at the advanced age of 78 years old, is very much alive, well (as far as we know) and still on the road. Next month, East Coast residents can catch him on a string of dates starting May 15 at old Memphis friend and frequent collaborator/touring partner B.B. King's blues club and restaurant in Times Square. As someone who saw Bland not terribly long ago, I say if Mick Hucknall wants to take on that kind of legacy, more power to him. After all, how much "Farther Up the Road" can you go than this? - Chris Gray