Bobby Bland's Influential Voice

By  Les Back |  June 26, 2013
In his recent autobiography, B. B. King wrote that Bobby "Blue" Bland is his favorite blues singer. King is not alone in his praise. Bland's vocal power combines the glottal intensity of a gospel shouter with the smoothness of a crooner. He brings a vocal range to blues performance that is straight out of Sunday morning worship. His first recordings were for Modern and Chess in the early '50sbut it was with Don Robey's Houston-based Duke label that he established himself as a premier force in rhythm and blues. He scored chart-topping r&b hits with the #5 "Farther Up the Road"­­—perhaps the definitive Texas shuffle—in 1957 and with the #1 "I Pity the Fool" in 1961; "Turn On Your Love Light" reached #2 in the same year.

Bland was born on January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee. As a boy he learned to sing white country blues via Gene Steele's radio show and the Grand Ole Opry. On the street corners of his hometown, he earned nickels and dimes singing hillbilly music. He moved to Memphis with his mother in 1947. It was the wrong time and place for a black country artist to emerge, and the young singer ventured down Beale Street into the world of rhythm and blues. Bland established popularity with black audiences by touring the "chitlin circuit" in the Blues Consolidated Revue with Junior Parker. After moving to Houston and teaming up with arranger and bandleader Joe Scott, he found the ultimate vehicle for his voice. Scott's arrangements combined jazz sophistication with rhythmic horn charts and featured the seminal blues guitarist Wayne Bennett.

About the music that has influenced him, he has said, "I like the soft touch. I don't like the harsh. I listened to a lot of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole for diction, for delivery. And I still know more about hillbilly tunes than I do blues. Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold—so much feeling, so much sadness." In the mid-'80s he started recording for the Malaco blues label based in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1997 his Sad Street album was nominated for a Grammy in the best contemporary blues category, and his recent album "Live" on Beale Street proves his voice is as robust as ever.

In the early '60s a young blue-eyed soul singer named Dan Penn modeled his sound on Bland's unique voice. Penn went on to become a leading r&b songwriter through the success of such hits as "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" for Aretha Franklin, "Dark End of the Street" for James Carr, "Out of Left Field" for Percy Sledge, and "I'm Your Puppet" for James and Bobby Purify. Before establishing his reputation as a songwriter, Penn fronted bands like the Pallbearers and the Mark V who played frat parties, sock hops, and local dances all over the South, covering the gamut of Bland's repertoire. From his home in Nashville he offered his appreciation of Bobby "Blue" Bland's music.

LES BACK: How would you sum up Bobby Bland as a vocalist?

DAN PENN: Bobby Bland was just the Man. You wanted to be like him, at least I did—just a great, great singer. He had exceptional delivery and understanding. He made you understand what the song means to him. He didn't just shuffle through, you know—it's also blood and guts. The r&b records that I loved are not prominent or in your face. Listen to "Share Your Love with Me," the one with the strings—that's my favorite. That one, and "Two Steps from the Blues" are the two that stick out for me. I have to say that I've never heard records any better than those. No gimmicks, just pure blues pop. Nobody's ever beat 'em.

LB: I guess you could say those records are blues with a heavy gospel influence and feel, too.

DP: Once you've been to the church as a child, there's a streak of something that goes right through you. Put it this way: you've got to go a long way to beat spiritual music. They've got something to talk about, and it's so emotional. I got the r&b and the gospel feel from Ray Charles and Bland; I also got that from Aretha and all the black gospel acts. John Richbourg on WLAC played nothing but black music right here in Nashville. It was all over the South. It was one of the biggest things of the '50sI mean, if you didn't know where WLAC was on your radio, then you weren't hip. My world was lily-white as far as my church music, but even lily-white people got soul, you know? Once I heard black people on the radio—Ray Charles and Bobby "Blue" Bland—it was all over for me. I said to myself, This is the best stuff around, and I still hold that opinion. I still think that black church music is as good as it's gonna get. I've never heard anything better.

LB: Early in your career, didn't you cover "Turn On Your Love Light"?

DP: Yeah, we did. Every Southern band did that one. He just had that really great voice. Going on down the line there was a lot of great singers, but Bobby Bland just had that growl. It was the creamiest of growls. He had this real Grrraathing in his voice, but it was all creamy. Back then it would just totally take you away, even more than James Brown and Ray Charles.

LB: Would you rate him as a better singer than both of them?

DP: In his prime I would put his voice above them, but maybe not his talent. It was the blues, but country was kind of the other side of the coin.

LB: Did you know that Bobby Bland grew up listening to hillbilly music and country blues?

DP: We're beginning to find out that a lot of the black singers, and some of the better ones, had that influence. I don't know what that means, except that maybe he, and a lot of other black singers of that period, had a pretty good insight into white people. They got a chance to check 'em out on Saturday night, and it was interesting, I think, for them to hear that music, it was more interesting to them than it was to me—of course I was cross-listening the other way. A lot of Southern whites, including myself, were listening to the black stuff and were interested in that. [Blacks were] interested in hearing the Grand Ole Opry. Arthur Alexander was that way, and I think so was Percy [Sledge]. I found out that Bland did like country, because in the '70swhen he cut one of my songs, I got to meet him. I got to go down to the studio here in Nashville, where he was cutting a country album.

LB: That must have been the Get On Down with Bobby Bland album.

DP: Yeah. He cut my song "I Hate You." He just cut the fool out of it. He had a really great feel on it. I felt just great that I had a Bobby Bland cut, although it was late in the game, and it was sort of country—it was still Bobby Bland. He didn't really cut it country; he put a swing to it.

LB: You must be proud of that one.

DP: I am, yes, 'cause it's Bobby "Blue" Bland. Some records you can count your money, and some records you can just count your blessings. He was just one of them people that you always admired so much. They used to call me Bobby "Blue" Penn back in the early '60s when I was with the Mark V and the Pallbearers. They did that in the South in a lot of the places because I sang so much like Bland. And like all white guys doin' that, I thought I sounded just like him. And my wife Linda said that I did, and I am sure I didn't [laughing].

LB: He's someone who is mentioned whenever I talk to Southern soul and r&b musicians.

DP: He was a big influence on the white singers, I'll tell you that, and not only me. I think he had as much influence as Ray Charles, but Bobby Bland just took it one step further. Oh man, he just kept going with that growl. He just put that growl on it, and it just floored all of us. I can't say enough good things about Bobby Bland. I guess that's what it comes down to, don't it? It's like, well, who had the best voice?

Bobby Bland did.