Photo courtesy of the Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. -- Bobby "Blue" Bland may have lacked the fame of many of his contemporaries, but his provocative blend of Southern blues and soul set fire to a generation of early rock 'n' rollers.
The distinguished singer of Turn On Your Love Light and That's the Way Love Is died Sunday evening in his Memphis-area home at age 83.
Born in Rosemark, Tenn., he moved to nearby Memphis as a teen and became a founding member of the Beale Streeters, a group that also included B.B. King and Johnny Ace.
After a stint in the Army, he recorded with producer Sam Phillips, who launched the career of Elvis Presley, and scored his first No. 1 on the R&B charts with Further On Up the Road in 1957. It was around this time he got his nickname, taken from his song Little Boy Blue because his repertoire focused so closely on lovelorn subject matter. Beginning with I'll Take Care of You in early 1960, Bland released a dozen R&B hits in a row. Many of his songs would be recorded by young rockers, including David Bowie and Eric Clapton.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who began his career as King's chauffeur and valet, signed with Jackson's Malaco Records in 1985.
Wolf Stevenson, vice president and chief engineer at Malaco, worked closely in the studio with Bland for more than 20 years. He says one thing people couldn't tell about Bland by listening to his music was that he had insecurities.
"Bobby couldn't read and write very well, and growing up when he did, that wasn't uncommon," Stevenson says.
Bland would memorize his songs by listening to someone else play it. "He would listen to (a demo recording) for weeks. I'd call him up and ask how it was going, and he would start singing one of them and say 'Oh, I like that one,'" Stevenson says.
Scott Barretta, a historian at Ole Miss, says it was Bland's delivery style, similar to that of preachers in the black churches, that allowed him to touch his audience's emotions and speak to their desires in ways even they didn't know were possible.
"He was just someone in the possession of this wonderful voice," Barretta says. "It's one thing to have a good voice, but Bobby's voice was a finely tuned instrument.
"He drove the women in his audience crazy! He's an unlikely sex symbol, but he was able to reach into the hearts and minds of his listeners and not just sweet talk them."
Even in his last days, Bland never stopped wanting to record.
"Down to four or five weeks before his death, he was asking me to record him," says Bobby Rush, a longtime friend and fellow musician. "He had the mind to do it but he wasn't physically strong enough to do it."