His name? Robert Calvin Bland, better known as Bobby “Blue” Bland, who is in no uncertain terms an American treasure. His “softer” style of the blues has enabled him to consistently stay on the blues circuit year after year, and remain in the hearts of blues fans for more than fifty years. This ongoing blues legacy will bring him to the Birchmere on February 4th for an eightieth birthday celebration not to be missed if you have any bit of blues soul in your bones.
Bobby Bland began diggin’ the blues when he was singing gospel music and hanging with the now-famous Beale Streeters in Memphis, and he was able to take pieces of the other music he was listening to at the time and craft a blues sound the likes of which hadn’t really been heard before.
“Spiritual and blues and country & western, they all go together”, Bland told me on the phone from his home in Tennessee. “You’ll hear some country and western songs by Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff, they have the same type of feeling. Just different lyrics. So I started listening to country & western when I was quite young. Back then they had an amateur show every Wednesday night, and if you were pretty good you’d earn five dollars. So I got pretty good…five dollars was a nice piece of money back then you know.”
“But blues was hard thing to get across. Basically people would look at blues as a downer. It’s always had a kind of a sad type of approach. It was kind of not respected at all. I started listening to Blind Lemon (Jefferson), Big Boy Crudup, Big Joe Turner, people of that nature, and also BB King, and I kinda developed a spiritual blues type feeling. The things I learned at the church, the way I phrase, and it all comes from bein’ in the church.”
But like many God-fearing folks of the day, blues music was not something his mama and grandmama approved of. They were church women after all, and the blues…well, it was the devil’s music.
“You were always taught that in prayer meetings and in church on Sundays, so it was kind of a hard thing for me to get past my grandmother and my mother, because blues in the house was a no no. You couldn’t even think about that. So I started playing with a friend of mine and listening to Blind Lemon and Walter Davis, and I started listening to BB when he first came out with “Three O’Clock In The Morning”, that was a twist from what I had been hearing. The way that he approached the blues, him and Lucille. That was an upgrade there when B came out. That was the hard core blues that he was doin’ at that time.”
So Bland took this blues he was diggin’, and along with peers like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, applied it to not only the gospel feel and country & western he knew, but also to the sounds of other musicians of the day that he enjoyed. Then a new kind of blues – a softer sound yet still blues through and through – was born.
“I started listening to Billy Eckstein, and I started listening to Nat Cole, I wanted a flavor that would kinda soften up things ya know. I was really carried away with Nat Cole’s diction, the way that he would sing, and the way he pronounced things, so I listened to a lot of his stuff, especially “Route 66”, and then I started listening to the softer stuff… (Bland sings a snippet of Cole’s “Too Young”)…so I gotta feel of that, and I took that from Mr Nat Cole and put it into the blues. Crazy, you know.”
Bland’s career would ebb and flow but his dedication to the blues would never waver.
He had some stiff competition in the 60’s – his highest-charting song on the pop charts “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” peaked at #20 during the same week The Beatles held the top 5 positions – but his real success came from the R & B charts where he is rated as the 13th best selling artist of that genre. But it was always the the blues that Bland is most known and beloved for. He remains pleased that the blues got a chance to make it as a musical genre despite it’s depressing reputation.
“I’m very happy that the blues had a chance to be heard. Because it was really a no no, nobody really wanted to hear the blues because they always classified it as a downer, something always sad. But you can’t be happy every day, so the blues came in, that’s how I characterized it; if you have a problem, if your girlfriend quits you, if something happens to you that’s sad, you cannot sing a happy song. The blues is the one that you would turn to whenever you have a bad feeling.”
So what was it like for a gospel-singin’ boy from Tennessee to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, illustrating a clear respect for his blues contributions from the rock and roll genre? His pride came through the phone like a freight train.
“A lifelong dream, man, I never thought that I would make it. I was very proud to prove those who never thought I could sing the blues, with that type of voice I had, that thought I would never make it, I was glad to prove them wrong. I listened to everybody that had a voice that I could learn something from, and just put a mixture together, the main thing I said before is the spiritual, the blues and the country is all together on the same page.”
But even a legend who’s collaborated with the likes of Van Morrison (“Van was a nice person to work with, man, he took a real liking to me”), BB King and other musical luminaries can still have a little bit of stagefright, and Bland is no exception.
“Even now, I’m nervous for the first five minutes or so when I go on stage. I’ve never gotten over that ‘cause you don’t know how the [audience] is gonna accept you, and you worry about your first note, at least I do. I always wanted to come out with a lot of flavor, and connect with the people that are standin’ out there lookin’ right up in your face. And I managed to do that over the years after I learned how. But it’s about five or six minutes before you settle down and be comfortable, because if I don’t, I have a problem. If I’m a little nervous, you can hear it in my voice. But I kinda got that under control. Gotta just have a little spirit when you go on stage. But I’m still nervous before I do my first tune. You never get over that if you’re concerned about the craft that God gave you.”
What does the great Bobby “Blue” Bland want people to remember when they think of him over time?
“I hope they speak about what they feel about the music I was able to put out there. And the stories, I had some good stories to tell. And I hope they see me as a person who was concerned about how I would sound, and how people would accept me. I appreciate my fans and the people that have been a part of my life. I’m very happy with where I’m at now.”
And as we ended this unforgettable call, Bland had a message for those who would be lucky enough to be in his presence at the Birchmere.
“Tell everyone in Virginia: don’t meet me there….beat me there.”
Oh, we will Bobby, we will.