Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Singer of Memphis Blues Ballads, Dies at 83

Bobby “Blue” Bland, a singer who brought together the blues and balladry in hit singles such as “Farther Up the Road” and “Turn on Your Love Light,” has died. He was 83.

He died yesterday at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, his son, Rod Bland, said, according to the Associated Press. The cause was complications from an ongoing illness.

Bland, a product of the Memphis music scene, catered to black audiences with a style that drew from blues and popular music, along with gospel, jazz and country. He made the top 20 in Billboard magazine’s black singles charts three dozen times without ever climbing that far on the pop charts.

“Bobby’s was practically a household name among black adults,” author Francis Davis wrote in “The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People,” published in 1995. “Bland was especially popular with women. No wonder. His songs were addressed directly to them, and their message usually boiled down to a plea not to two-time him.”

Unlike peers such as B.B. King, who befriended him in the 1940s and featured him on two live albums, Bland didn’t play an instrument or write songs. His success stemmed from singing that was inspired by Nat “King” Cole, Perry Como and Tony Bennett along with King and the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of singer Aretha Franklin.

Bland’s fans included Eric Clapton, who included versions of “Farther” -- retitled “Further On Up the Road” -- on two live albums. The Grateful Dead routinely played “Love Light” in concert, and the song appeared on the group’s first live record, “Live/Dead.”

Birth Name

Van Morrison brought Bland on tour and released a duet with him on a 2007 greatest-hits album. Mick Hucknall, best known for singing “Holding Back the Years” with his band Simply Red, put out a solo tribute record in 2008.

Bland was born Robert Calvin Brooks on Jan. 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Memphis. His parents, I.J. and Mary Lee Brooks, split during his childhood. His mother remarried and he took the surname of his stepfather, Leroy Bland, as a teenager.

Bland went to school only through the third grade. He was inspired to pursue music by a blues singer and guitarist, Mutt Piggee. (“Don’t ask me to spell it,” he told Peter Guralnick in the book “Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians,” from 1979. “I can’t do no better than that.”)

‘Beale Streeters’

In 1947, he moved to Memphis with his family and got a job at a garage. His mother and stepfather opened a downtown diner, the Sterling Grille, and he soaked up the blues playing on the jukebox. On weekends, he sang with a gospel group.

“Then I started hanging around Beale Street with a bunch of guys,” Guralnick quoted him as saying. “Naturally we came to call ourselves the Beale Streeters.”

King and Johnny Ace, a singer who accidentally killed himself playing Russian roulette in 1954, were Beale Streeters. Bland became King’s valet and driver and also worked for Roscoe Gordon, another member of the group.

Bland recorded two songs for Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Studios, in 1950. Phillips leased them to Chess Records for a single. Two more singles, produced by Ike Turner, followed the next year on Modern Records.

Duke Records, a newly formed label based in Memphis, signed him and released another single in 1952. Bland was drafted that year and spent 2 1/2 years in the Army. He recorded the single “Army Blues” while home on leave and sang with the Special Services unit toward the end of his tour.

First Hit

By the time Bland returned to Memphis, Duke’s founders had sold the label to Don Robey, a Houston nightclub owner who went into the music business with Peacock Records. Bland stayed with Duke and its successors, ABC and MCA Records, until the 1980s.

“Farther,” Bland’s first national hit, climbed to No. 1 on the black singles chart in 1957. The next year, his single “Little Boy Blue” introduced what he called the “squall,” described by Rolling Stone magazine as “the choked, gospel-inspired near-scream that became his trademark.”

At the time of his initial success, Bland was working for another singer, Junior Parker. He began as Parker’s valet and later became his driver, as well as his opening act in a show called Blues Consolidated.

Bland went on his own in 1961 and took Parker’s band with him. Joe Scott, the group’s leader, also produced and arranged Bland’s records and did uncredited work as a songwriter.

More Hits

“Love Light” rose to No. 2 on the black charts in 1961. Two other singles reached the top spot: “I Pity the Fool,” also from 1961, and “That’s the Way Love Is,” from 1963.

Scott left and the band broke up in 1968. The split sent Bland into depression and worsened his alcoholism, which dated back to his Army stint. He stopped drinking in 1971 and hired a former band member, Melvin Jackson, as his musical director.

Bland moved to ABC in 1973, when the label acquired Duke. He teamed up with King for the album “Together for the First Time: Live” and its follow-up, “Together Again: Live.”

Bland’s 1970s hits included “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” later covered by the band Whitesnake. After flirting with disco, he moved to MCA when the label bought ABC in 1979.

Late in the decade, Bland married for the last time. His wife, Willie Mae, remained with him for more than 30 years. He met his previous wife, Marty, when she was 18 and had a daughter with her, Tahanee.

Malaco Records, a label specializing in blues and soul music, signed him in 1985. Eighteen years later, his “Blues at Midnight” climbed to No. 4 on Billboard’s blues-album chart, a sign of his enduring popularity.

Bland was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Five years later, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammy Awards.

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