Bobby Bland Was 'Two Steps From the Blues'—and Ahead of Everyone Else

The extraordinary songs of the singer who died Sunday at age 83 offer reminders of how complex the blues can be, and how shockingly new it once was.
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Bobby Bland and B.B. King in November, 1982. (AP Photo)

Jimi Hendrix once described the blues as "easy to play, but hard to feel;" Bobby "Blue" Bland made the blues as complex as a modernist novel, and effortlessly easy to feel. Bland may not have been the greatest blues singer of them all (though he's certainly in the conversation), but he was arguably the most complete, melding the urbane smoothness of the pop crooner to the ferocious ecstasy of the gospel tradition.

He was called "the Sinatra of the blues," a nickname that rankles a bit in its equivocating imprecision: Bobby Bland was, first and foremost, the Bobby Bland of the blues. But as comparisons go, one could suffer worse. Like Sinatra, Bland boasted such an extraordinary combination of technique, charisma and musical intelligence that his vocal performances were themselves an act of songcraft. The sides that Bland cut for Duke Records in the 1950s and 1960s unfold like riveting dramas; Bland could cycle through entire complex economies of emotion in a three-minute recording, bending notes, phrases, and whole songs to his will. His best performances make a word like "soul" seem woefully insufficient.

When he passed away in his hometown on Memphis this past Sunday at the age of 83, Bland took with him one of the great voices of the 20th century and left a legacy that surpasses even his considerable name recognition. He was a prolific performer whose career began in 1947 and begat a formidable body of work, but anyone seeking a point of entry might start with his towering 1961 LP, Two Steps From the Blues. Like most full-lengths of its era Two Steps From the Blues was actually a collection of Bland's previously released singles for Houston's Duke Records from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the LP boasts such perfect sequencing and thematic cohesion that, taken in its entirety, it plays like a multi-tiered musical essay on love, lust and loss. The first side alone boasts three consecutive tracks--"Cry Cry Cry," "I'm Not Ashamed," and "Don't Cry No More"--that wring the act of weeping for every potential meaning you can think of, and more that you can't. "Lead Me On" and "I'll Take Care of You" are ballads whose stark minor-key settings subvert their themes of devotion, Bland's voice dwelling in the anguish of ambivalence. As another great blues singer might remind us, love is a serious business.

Two Steps From the Blues also features "Little Boy Blue," the 1958 recording that's frequently cited as Bland's breakthrough from the belter of "Farther Up the Road" and "I Smell Trouble" into a vocal style uniquely his own. "Little Boy Blue" is a deeply weird piece of music that Bland, with a considerable assist from guitarist Clarence Hollimon, fashions into a masterpiece. The song's narrator might generously be described as a sociopath, prone to such confessions as "it used to make me happy / to see you cry," delivered in a voice so enormous that the record itself strains to contain it. By the time the song reaches its stop-time climax, with Bland relentlessly spelling his own name--"you used to call me B - O - B - B - Y"--it's become clear that this isn't a song about regret but rather about the narcissistic desperation of sexual desire, and for a long while after the record's end we can't help but wonder if that's maybe just what everything is about.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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