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While it would be easy to classify Memphis-based singer Bobby "Blue" Bland's catalog as traditional rhythm & blues, his smooth, emotive voice leapfrogs classification in a way that sets him apart from other crooners.
By today's standards, his work would most likely be found in the soul section at your local record store. But because his five-decades-long career predates that term, most consider Bland a pure blues singer, which is only half-correct. Sure, the 77-year-old Bland knows the 1-4-5 turnaround as well as any self-respecting blues artist should, but it is the lush arrangements by trumpeter Joe Scott (who passed away in 1979) and Bland's welcoming tone—as soft as a new pillow—that propel the singer into the upper echelon of great Southern music.
Scott did more for Bland than arrange music—he helped nurture the singer's true voice. Prior to their meeting, Bland cut a few singles for Chess Records in 1951 and Modern Records in 1952, imitating the sounds of Big Joe Turner, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. But he hadn't yet hit the signature groove that helped land him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 (an honor, Bland says, that "should have come much sooner, but better late than never"). Scott, who moonlit as chief A&R man for Duke Records, met Bland during the mid-1950s, after the singer's stint in the U.S. Army, and led him away from falsetto singing and grittier Memphis sounds to his more natural low end. This shift in vocal styling brought Bland's music to the baby-making world of ballads. Together, the duo struck the R&B charts 45 times with three No. 1 singles and 22 Top 10 hits.
"I had to develop a voice that people would know me by," Bland says. "I used to sing like everybody because that was the only way I knew. I took a little from everyone, and finally, in 1957, I got a style of my own."
Bland's longevity stems from his ability to interpret other people's material. While not a songwriter himself, the singer looks for familiarity in potential songs as a way to bring his experiences into words he didn't write. "It has to be a story I can connect with," Bland says. "It's just like in life: You been in love before, that's a story you can handle. But I don't like no long, drawn-out lyric. It has to be short and to the point."
These days, Bland's music is still prominent on blues and soul radio across the country. Spend enough time listening to the weekend blues programming on Long Beach's KKJZ-FM 88.1 or specialty stations on XM and Sirius Satellite Radio, and you're bound to hear his take on the shuffling "Farther Up the Road," "I Pity the Fool" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," as well as his version of the Walker classic "Stormy Monday Blues." But unlike his longtime friend, occasional recording partner and fellow living blues legend King, Bland never crossed over into the hearts of mainstream white America. Along with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and a slew of other blues greats, King found a home with rock audiences in the 1960s, which prolonged their careers and made them household names. Although Bland has had more than three dozen songs cross over to the pop charts, none are considered bona fide hits.
There are as many living blues giants as there are former U.S. presidents, but Bland says topics such as heartache, love and loss ensure his passion and his music will last much longer than any one individual. "It won't get the proper attention other music gets," Bland says, "because a lot of times people don't want to identify themselves with the blues because it's kind of a downer, but everybody has the blues at one time or another. When you're sad, you need some form of music you can identify with. That's what blues, spiritual and country is about."
BOBBY "BLUE" BLAND PERFORMS WITH SHEMEKIA COPELAND AT VAULT 350, 350 PINE AVE., LONG BEACH, (562) 590-5566; WWW.VAULT350.COM. FRI., 7 P.M. $40-$41.50.