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It's possible that there's never been another singer who defined the genre of rhythm and blues the way Bobby "Blue" Bland does. With a homegrown singing style that's two parts feeling, one part soul, Bland has spent more than 50 years crooning songs that define the black experience as descriptively as an August Wilson play.
The 78-year-old blues legend knows the blues because he's lived it. He's toured with some of the greats, from B.B. King and Johnny "Guitar" Watson to Little Milton and Freddie King. He rarely had lots of marketing dollars on his side, and he gained his fame the hard way: without a guitar, harmonica, or any other instrument at his aid. You see Bland, unlike most of his contemporaries, focuses strictly on vocals. But his voice is so well-tuned that it shakes and rattles like a guitar, it's steady as a bass, and it wails like a harmonica — so he's got all the main instruments covered anyway.
Bland songs like "Members Only" and "Turn on Your Love Light" are perfect for old-school, blue-light-in-the-basement-style parties, and he's made a career out of singing about love, heartache, and pain in his own velvety way — a combination of Nat King Cole smoothness and down-home grit. It's not the typical woe-is-me blues that grows weary after awhile. Most of the music accompanying his songs, especially his earlier material, is upbeat and swingin'. To call him strictly a blues artist would be off-base, as there's enough rhythm attached to his songs to keep a dance floor alive for hours.
Like most old-school R&B guys, the word retirement doesn't mean much to him. Despite his age, he's on tour, playing a rare show in South Florida this weekend. I was surprised when I heard he was coming down here, and I was eager to get on the phone with him to pick his brain about the state of the blues and why he's still singing them after all these years.
According to Bland, it's barely work, though, and compared to the way things used to be, he thinks he's got it easy.
"I used to do 365 days of touring a year when I was young," he says via phone from his home in Memphis. "We do somewhere between 75 and 100 now. I don't push myself. But this is something that I've been doing all my life. It's not really a hard job. It's just a matter of getting to where you have to go."
It's a common assumption that the blues are dying or arguably dead, but guys like Bland dispute that with fervor.
"Folks say they don't need the blues anymore, but everyone has a sad day," Bland says. "If you're going through divorce or what have you, the blues is healthy. When folks go home, you can't play no Jackie Wilson and solve your problems."
It's a funny point but one that's rooted in seriousness as well. With the state of the current economy, there must be millions of Americans with the blues right now.
"That's where the blues comes in," Bland continues. "The blues is like spirituals. You have a good feeling after you sing a good spiritual. My grandmother taught me that, and it's worked for me ever since."
So maybe the blues won't put extra money in your pocket, but it can make you forget about finances for the moment and realize that other folks have it worse than you.
For a while, Bland struggled with alcoholism and his own demons. Within R&B circles, his name warrants lots of respect, but his "hits" didn't always do well on the charts. He bounced around various record labels (Chess, Duke, Modern, and Malaco among them) and drowned his lack of success in liquor for a number of years. But he cleaned up his act in 1971, and he says it's a big part of why he's still alive today.
"Some people didn't take care of themselves, and they're not with us anymore," he says. "The man upstairs does his work, but we have to take care of ourselves. I decided that all the stuff I used to do when I was 25 and 40, all that partying and drinking, it had to go."
Bland credits his wife with getting him to clean up.
"She cracks the whip — very heavy, but I can appreciate it," he says. "I was drifting for a good while in the dark ages. I was doing what I wanted to do. But now, she keeps me out of trouble."
Hip-hop fans might not be familiar with his music, but his 1973 song "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" got new life when Jay-Z sampled it, almost word for word, on his 2001 album The Blueprint. Bland himself isn't a big fan of rap music, but he likes Jay-Z.
"I appreciate him giving me that plug to the younger people," he says. "I thought he did a very good job with the song. [Rap music] isn't my cup of tea, feelingwise. But he's making music for the generation that's here now, and he's doing a good job."