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This Weekend, I’ll mostly be Listening to……….Bobby Bland. November 3, 2012

Posted by guestposter in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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Another very welcome guest post in this slot, this week from sonofstan!

There are two sorts of record collectors: the OCD and the ADD varieties. The former is the guy –always a guy – who needs every version of every Depeche Mode single, who files everything alphabetically and who upgrades his records obsessively, searching for mint + versions of records he already owns. Such collectors generally focus on a few artists and are happily oblivious to anything outside their ambit. These are the lads who come up to you at record fairs with a list, and if you don’t have anything on the list, won’t look through what you do have; no curiosity.

The other kind – the ADD version – is the one who hops from one thing to the other without a set purpose: he – still usually ‘he’ – has hundreds of records he bought because they ‘looked interesting’. French chansons, Hungarian Jazz, easy listening LPs with yet another version of ‘Up, Up and Away’ because he vaguely collects Jim Webb. The ADD collector haunts charity shops and boot sales, in search of the elusive ‘big score’ – he doesn’t actually know what he’s looking for, but knows he’ll know it when he finds it.

I’m very much the latter kind: my living room is littered with vinyl but you’d be hard pressed to describe my taste from, say, the first 10 (or100) LPs picked at random: you might wonder – legitimately – if there’s any principle at all to my scavenging . If anyone asks me ‘what kind of music do you like?, I’m a ball of confusion; I like particular records, not particular artists or genres. I do, however, have an answer to the question ‘who’s your favourite singer?’ and it’s been the same answer for 30 years: Bobby Bland.

Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland – as he always was on his early records – made his first recordings in Memphis in 1951, and, at the age of 82, still plays live occasionally. He’s one of the most consistently popular artists among the generation of African-Americans that have grown old with him, but he never really crossed over to white or European audiences beyond a small but passionate coterie of soul fanatics. There’s a few odd paradoxes here: Bland came from the kind of background that is almost a cliché of down- home deprivation – born in a tarpaper shack, his family too poor even for sharecropping. According to Peter Guralnick’s melancholy portrait of him, written at the turn of the seventies and collected in ‘Lost Highway’, he was – maybe still is? – functionally illiterate, since working the fields took precedence over schooling. You might expect, therefore, that his work would be dripping with the signifiers of rough hewn authenticity – all the characteristics that are supposed to distinguish black roots from white artifice. Actually, Bland is an incredibly delicate, controlled performer: his diction as precise, his vowels as careful as Sinatra’s. He grew up in near unimaginable rural squalor, but there was always the radio, and his favourite singer was …….Perry Como.

We are familiar with the story of how radio turned white kids like Elvis in a segregated South onto black music, but less familiar is the obverse: black southerners heard country music and crooners and the lure of sophistication and ‘smoothness’ was powerful – it spoke of a world where the daily humiliation and all round shitness of being on the wrong side of a racist society would be dissolved. You can hear less- than- distant echoes of a similar yearning in the otherwise entirely different music of a southerner of the same generation, Sun Ra, though Sonny dreamed of an escape to space rather than the upscale supper club.

Bobby’s first sides were cut in Memphis, after he got out of the army: in the style of Johnny Ace or Junior Parker, relatively routine blues run-throughs, though the voice is there already. His ‘big break’ came when the label he recorded for, Duke, was sold to Houston based ‘entrepreneur’ (read ‘crook’) Don Robey. This perhaps, is the essential paradox of Bland’s career: Robey saw what he had, and had the sense to pair Bobby with a peerless arranger, Joe Scott, great musicians, including the brilliant Wayne Bennett on guitar, and spend time and money on recording him properly. What followed was a series of recordings that, alongside the very different contemporary sides of James Brown and Ray Charles, set the template for what was not yet known as soul music. On the other hand, Robey cheated, lied and terrorised his path through the black music scene of the day: his only excuse being that he simply exemplified in the extreme work practices that weren’t exactly uncommon. Most of the singles Bland recorded at the time still carry the writer’s name as ‘Deadric Malone’ – an invention of Robey in order to garner the royalties of songs he bought outright from impecunious and credulous composers. The paradox is that BB was entirely trapped in Robey’s world, and, according to Guralnick’s portrait, his chronic lack of self- confidence, almost certainly related to the deprivation he grew up in, prevented him from ever asserting himself. Much as Elvis might never have been Elvis without the Colonel, but never managed to become more than Elvis because of the Colonel, Bobby became Bobby Bland thanks to Robey, but also got stuck there.

The string of singles that came out of this association and, much less common for black artists at the time, a series of coherent and carefully sequenced LPs, were extraordinary.’ I Pity the Fool’, ‘Turn on your Lovelight’, St. James’ Infirmary’, ‘Wishing Well’, the whole of the ‘Two Steps from the Blues’ LP……….this latter record is the dead sea scroll of what was to follow in the music coming out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals through the early sixties: and in a yet another piece of cross- racial pollination, it was white southerners, such as Dan Penn and Chips Moman, who took the sound that Scott and Bland built, and, using a mixture of black and white musicians and black singers, produced the records that took the extraordinary rich culture of the newly urban south to the pop charts.
Bland was a Herculean touring artist through the sixties, taking his revue, a more upscale, ‘sophisticated’ version of the Famous Flames to every corner of black America. The quality of recordings barely faltered, but also barely developed, and by the end of the sixties, heard against the early stirrings of P-funk or the psychedelic soul of Norman Whitfield’s productions for the Temptations, Bobby was distinctly out of time: with a loyal, but older, generally working-class audience of largely transplanted southerners in Northern cities. It was a living, but an invisible one.

Robey eventually ran out of road, and Duke was subsumed into ABC-Dunhill, then big enough to count as a ‘major’. Bobby found a sympathetic ear there, and made a few well- produced and contemporary sounding records that introduced him to a white audience. He had a modest crossover hits with ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ (better known this side of the Atlantic through Frankie Miller’s cover) and It’s Not the Spotlight’ (again better known here through a cover – this time Elkie Brooks). My favourite record of his from this period is his country(-ish) record ‘Get on Down With…..’ where the country boy comes full circle: great version of Charlie Rich’s ‘I Take it on Home’ and a devastating reading of Billy Sherrill’s ‘Too Far Gone’.

By the early eighties, this brief flirtation with crossover was finished, and Bobby found a new home on Malaco records, out of Jackson, Mississippi, a label that thrives on selling records by the likes of Bland, ZZ Hill and Denise LaSalle to an audience entirely forgotten by the rest of the industry – older African-Americans. He continued to make essentially the same kind of record up to the early years of this century – the voice rougher now, and the growl, once a subtle accent to his otherwise restrained technique, now an annoying and affected mannerism. I saw him in the Point supporting Van – a long time fan – in the mid- 90s and, glorious as it was to see and hear him, in all honesty it sounded like the shadow of the voice it once was.

So why is he my favourite singer? He doesn’t have the erotic majesty of Al Green, for instance; the Bland-as- lover persona is one of honest seduction, dinner, maybe a drink or two, a cab home, rather than a voyage to the outer limits of sensual ecstasy. He doesn’t have the plasticity of tone of Marvin Gaye, and, great as the mannerisms are, they are clearly mannerisms. Nor is his the full- blown emotional maelstrom of James Carr, the sound of a soul on the edge of a cataclysmic breakdown. What I get is a certain enigma: a man who is in some respects rough, uncertain, a bundle of nerves, but able to turn that to his modest advantage, through supreme artistic intelligence. I suggested Sinatra as a comparison above, and it’s not outlandish: both, instead of inhabiting and expressing the persona their upbringing would consign them to, use the song as vehicle of what might be called realistic transcendence – poor boys who could become heir to the best the American song has to offer. It is worth comparing Bland’s version of ‘Blues in the Night’ to Frankie’s. Sinatra sketches the great emptiness beyond the streetlights, but Bobby does something else: I can’t put into words what it is that his final reading of the lines

‘From Natchez to Mobile/ From Memphis to St. Joe/ I’ve been in some big towns/ and heard me some big talk……

‘says’ but there’s something of what James Lincoln Collier found in Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’

‘There is no self-pity, just the sadness of a mature man, who, however he laughs and runs boisterously with the boys in the street, knows there is no reckoning with sorrow, pain and death…….that some things never get better’

Whatever *that* is, it’s there even more in ‘St. James Infirmary’ or ‘Rockin’ in the Same Ol’ Boat’. Just listen.

(Rockin’ in the Same Boat)

(Turn on your Lovelight)

(St. James’ Infirmary)

(Two Steps from the Blues)

(Poverty)

(I Take it on Home)

Comments»

1. eamonncork - November 3, 2012

Great post SOS. I came to Bobby Bland through that brilliant Guralnick essay in Lost Highway, in fact there are quite a few records I own because of Guralnick’s writing. (I suspect the ADD collector is highly susceptible to buying records for that reason.)
Like Sam Cooke the great thing about him is how easy and fluent he makes it all sound, going against, as you point out, the cliched idea of what a soul singer should be. Actually when you think of Al Green as well and James Carr, many of the great soul singers were distinguished by that ease and smoothness, something which the faux soul white imitators who’ve been clogging up the charts in recent years seem to have forgotten as they launch into their Stage School moans and shouts. The music these guys made was extremely sophisticated.
I think Robert Christgau once said about George Jones, who also makes it sound very easy, that where other people sang from the heart or the soul GJ sang from the throat. And you could say that about Bobby Bland too, it’s moving precisely because of the lack of histrionics. Which may sound counter-intiuitive given the way we’re supposed to respond to soul or R and B. But then the great black singers were always far easier with the showbiz element of their music than white rock musicians who were far more caught up with ideas of authenticity and psychodrama.
Anyway Bobby Bland was magnificent. Fair play Sos.

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2. Cymro Alltud - November 3, 2012

Just what the doctor ordered on a grey November day in Oslo. Great post SofS

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3. CL - November 3, 2012

‘I still shiver at the memory of hearing that hunched, thin, unhappy blind man milk the audience with ‘once I was blind, but now I see.’ ‘-Hobsbawm on Ray Charles
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n10/eric-hobsbawm/diary

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4. WorldbyStorm - November 3, 2012

+1 to all the above. I’d never to my shame consciously heard Bland before. Rockin’ in the same old boat sent a shiver down my spine listening to it. Fantastic.

Just on the OCD/ADD, there are probably others, but your first type reminds me of the guy I knew who got everything, and I mean everything, on 4AD. And to echo eamonncork’s thoughts re ADD types getting stuff through books/recommendations, that’s very true indeed.

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5. Mark P - November 3, 2012

Really enjoyed both the post and the videos.

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6. sonofstan - November 3, 2012

Thanks guys.

Unfortunately, two songs I really wanted to include aren’t up on youtoob, and I lack the skillz to put them there – BB’s version of ‘Too Far Gone’ is on a really good best of on MCA that came out in the 80s when they briefly had ownership of his entire catalogue up to then, and his version of ‘Blues in the Night’ is on ‘Here’s the Man’ a fine, fine LP.

As an aside, a great companion volume to the Guralnick book is Barney Hoskyns ‘Say it One Time for the Brokenhearted’ a thoroughly trainspotterish exploration of country-soul. Worth it for the information that Bobby Womack wanted to call his record of country cover versions ‘Black in the Saddle’

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7. Dr.Nightdub - November 3, 2012

Great stuff SoS.

One thing is wrecking my head – the brass intro to “Turn On Your Love Light” sounds like it was subsequently nicked by some northern soul stomper that, despite three listens now, I can’t quite put my finger on. Or maybe I just heard Bobby Bland’s track somewhere before. Aargh!

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sonofstan - November 3, 2012

Think it was used as a vamp somewhere in the Blues Brothers movie as well? Can’t place it anywhere else though.

There is a Northern soul link though, in that, weirdly, there is a version by (white) garage band, the Human Beinz, whose version of the Isley’s ‘Nobody but Me’ was a big northern tune (OK, that’s tenuous but i just wanted to post this)

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Dr.Nightdub - November 3, 2012

Don’t worry, tenuous is good

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