R.I.P. Bobby "Blue" Bland: R&B Singer With Deep Houston Ties Dies at 83
Bobby "Blue" Bland, the legendary R&B singer who made some of his finest records for Houston label Duke/Peacock -- including arguably his crowning achievement, 1961's Two Steps From the Blues -- has passed away at age 83, according to reports.
Citing a report from the Memphis Music Foundation, that city's CBS-TV affiliate WREG posted a notice of Bland's death at 7:49 Central Time. Despite rumors of his death being an Internet hoax, it was also reported and later updated by the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Bland's son Rodd told the Associated Press, via the San Jose Mercury-News, that his father, a 1992 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, had died at about 5:30 p.m. Memphis time.
A pure singer in a genre when not playing some sort of instrument could be a liability, Bland became one of the blues' most recognizable names and biggest stars in the '60s and '70s. He rarely crossed over to the pop charts, but sent dozens upon dozens of songs and albums into the R&B Top 10, a few all the way to No. 1. Bland often toured with friend B.B. King, with whom he made the classic 1975 album Together Again For the First Time... Live.
According to his Web site, Bland was born in Rosemark, Tennessee, in 1930 and moved to Memphis at age 18. He eventually joined the group the Beale Streeters, whose membership also included other Memphis greats King, Johnny Ace, and Junior Perker. After he got out of the Army in 1954, Bland signed with Duke Records, which had recently been acquired by Houston-based music impresario Don Robey, who merged it with his own Peacock Records, the label Robey named after his legendary Fifth Ward nightclub the Bronze Peacock.
Bland cut several songs for Duke/Peacock, including 1957's "Further On Up the Road," which quickly became a standard that was later performed by Eric Clapton on his 1975 album E.C. Was Here and in The Band's farewell 1976 concert documented in Martin Scorsese's 1978 film The Last Waltz. The Grateful Dead was fond of another song of Bland's, "Turn On Your Love Light," which peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 as one of his few songs to crack the Top 40. It appears on Two Steps From the Blues, Bland's masterpiece that spawned songs like "Cry, Cry, Cry," the yelping "Little Boy Blue," "St. James Infirmary," "I Pity the Fool" and "Lead Me On."
Recorded after Bland had recently left his hitch of several years as singer for Parker's band, Two Steps is still considered one of the finest blues albums of all time, thanks to Bland's velvety croon -- which once earned him the somewhat un-PC nickname the "sepia Sinatra" -- and the lush, jazz-steeped arrangements created by Houston-born trumpeter Joe Scott. As house bandleader at Duke/Peacock, Scott assembled such an abundance of personnel the style aptly became known as big-band blues. (Whether or not he actually wrote the songs -- probably not -- Robey is credited for most of the songs on Two Steps, either under his own name or his famous pseudonym Deadric Malone.)
By Two Steps, MCA/Universal had acquired an interest in Duke/Peacock, and Bland remained on MCA through the early '80s, when he jumped to Mississippi-based Malaco Records. He released albums on a regular basis through the late '90s, and 2001's Blues at Midnight reached No. 4 on the Billboard Blues chart.
Bland headlined multi-artist R&B bills that passed through venues like Houston's Reliant Arena up until the early years of this decade, but the fulcrum of his career would remain the album some have called the greatest ever recorded (or partially recorded) in the city of Houston, Two Steps From the Blues. The title song was written by longtime local blues stalwart Texas Johnny Brown.
On the occasion of Two Steps' reissue in February 2002, then-Houston Press Music Editor John Nova Lomax wrote, "There's not a track here that's anything less than perfect."