Bobby Bland was, in his prime, the most powerful blues shouter of all time, though capable as well of a caressing tenderness. “Turn On Your Lovelight” is what the rock world knows, I guess, but the man’s legacy is also in “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” “Farther Up the Road,” “I’ll Take Care of You,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Cry Cry Cry,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” to my ear the finest “St. James Infirmary” of them all, the entire Two Steps from the Blues album (which is, without any doubt in my mind, the best Southern soul album, even including Otis’s; it has the impeccable and beautiful and scary “Lead Me On,” for many (including me) the greatest performance of his career. The list goes all the way up to his Malaco sides, particularly “Ain’t No Love In the Heart of the City.” It is not true that Bobby Bland never made a bad record; it is true that his ratio of great to mediocre is as high as any other singer you can name, in any genre you care to cull.
To call him Bobby “Blue” Bland always seems so redundant to me–like, as if he could be heard for so much as eight bars and you wouldn’t know that this was his core, his essence and, one way or another, a heap of your own. But you can make too much of this essentialism–finally, you know Bobby Bland’s name and music less well because he was like his audience: He was a key voice of the black Southern working class from the ’50s onward. His role was to play the shouter from the anonymous ranks, the totally heart broken man among an all-but-totally heart broken folk. (And of course, once in a while, shouting with exuberance all the greater because of that every day heartbreak.)
He was completely non-intellectual about the whole enterprise, as far as I can tell. Told Peter Guralnick that his ambition was to be able to sing each song the exact same way, every time he sang it. A strange kind of perfectionism, I guess. But his command of tone and phrasing was so great that for me, he held the place that Frank Sinatra held for a lot of other people. “Lead Me On” in particular has never not brought me to tears, not once, though I sometimes listened to it many, many, many times in a row–when I was by myself, the way that particular act of allegiance is best performed. And you know what? He sings it the same way every time.
Perfection is what he knew a lot about. And I, especially the I who found him on the radio and held him very close to the center of my being for the better part of half a century, will never be able to thank him enough. Or often enough. Or even express what I’m thanking him for altogether adequately.
I will tell you the real truth: He was, for me, probably the greatest blues singer of any kind, and the reason I can say this know instead of at the beginning is quite simple: I started listening to Two Steps from the Blues.