The sad news of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s passing on Jun. 23 deprives us of a true sovereign, whose distinctive voice mixed honey and gravel, and who could spin a web of romantic passion and pain inside three minutes.
In September 2010, I made a working trip that was a pilgrimage for anyone looking to dig down to the roots of soulful rhythm and blues vocalizing. I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to watch a true R&B original, still working the blues festivals across the deep south, even as a fragile 81-year-old.
The man I met was slow on his feet, had to be driven to the lip of the outdoor stage in a golf buggy, but when he got there, in his trademark sailor’s cap, his fragile voice still carried the aura of his finest work on Duke, ABC, Malaco and others, for 40 years and more. The famous vocal “squall” was still on duty, too.
Bobby’s death affords the opportunity to review an hour spent on the tour bus after that show, in the company of a courteous and gentle man, an “old soul” in every sense. These were among the highlights of one of his last interviews.
Billboard: The fans really appreciated that performance, Bobby.
Bobby “Blue” Bland: They show their appreciation, and then I appreciate them myself, because you never get too big for your audience, and they’ve been good to me. I enjoy doing what I’m doing and they show the love, each place that I go, especially in the South.
But of course your success was in winning over large parts of the United States to your type of rhythm and blues music.
It was hard, on the east coast or whatever, because they didn’t want to identify with the blues, especially in New York. But I think I went there in ’63 at the Apollo Theater, and I had a little shaky time there for a minute, then I finally won the big city over. That was a big plus for me.
Do you feel at ease on stage?
If you’re comfortable on stage, then your time is almost up. You have to have some kind of nervousness, some kind of fear, because you don’t know how the public’s going to accept you. That’s my thinking. You try to keep a straight face like you’re a pro, but getting up in front of people is a big job.
Did you have to work hard to get your music over to people?
Blues took a long time to get identified, and it’s not a good subject to a lot of people. They call it old folks’ music, and it’s a downer to the teenagers, because they haven’t had any problems. But a young boy told me one day — I think it was in St. Louis — he said ‘You know what, I’m 21 years old, and I’ve got every record [of yours]. He said ‘I’m young but I understand what you’re saying.’
Did you like blues music yourself, growing up in Tennessee?
Yeah, I did. When I got a chance, I used to listen to it, but my mother and my grandmother didn’t like any of that blues, not in the house. I used to try to be a mechanic, my old man was a mechanic, but it was a little too greasy. I used to be with my grandmother in the kitchen while she was cooking, she’d be singing some hymns, and they sounded so good. She could paint a picture with a hymn that you wouldn’t believe, man. That’s really where I got my gift, from listening to her and my mother.
Is it true that after you got to Memphis, you combined singing with being a valet and chauffeur?
I used to drive for BB King. He won’t own up to it, but he’d let me ride with him, I used to catch his shows by being there with him. I told him ‘I can sing just like you,’ and he said ‘Well, Bob, that’s good, but it won’t help you any.’ And I thought he was scared of me or whatever, but he was trying to tell me something for my own good.
How did you feel when you got your first hit, with ‘Further On Up The Road’ on Duke in 1957?
It gave me a big head, a little bit, people recognizing me. You don’t know how to control it because you’ve never had anything. People can really fill your head with a lot of nonsense, and you’re weak enough to fall for it.
How did you approach making records and choosing what to sing?
I sing about life, and what has happened to me. I grew up in 1985, when I came to Malaco Records. What’s best is if you can find something you can ad lib with, but it has to fit. You got to relax if you’re going to tell a story.
What might your legacy be, do you think?
I hope I come out on top, with somebody having an understanding about what I tried to do. I think we’ve left something here for them to go by.