Bobby “Blue” Bland, one of the last great, iconic soul and blues singers of the 20th century, died Sunday at his Memphis home. He was 83. In the late 1940s, Bland was part of the group of young Memphis musicians who banded together to form the Beale Streeters, a collection that also included such up-and-comers as B. B. King, Johnny Ace, and Junior Parker. But where most of his colleagues, and fellow titans such as Ray Charles, were singers who also had also mastered some instrument they could fall back on, Bland did it all with his voice. He earned the sobriquet “the Sinatra of the blues” for his emotionally rich performances and his taste for lush arrangements, and he actively courted the comparison by striking a Sinatra-esque pose—sunglasses, his coat thrown over one shoulder—on the cover of his best-known album, Two Steps From The Blues. Released in 1961, it brought together his earliest major hits, recorded for Duke between 1956 and 1960, with newer work, including “Cry Cry Cry,” “I Pity The Fool,” and the definitive blues horror story, “St. James Infirmary.”
Bland served a long apprenticeship, struggling to find his voice and perfect a style he could call his own on early sides produced by Sam Phillips for Chess Records in 1951, and taking an enforced break from building his career to serve a stint in the U. S. Army. In the mid-50s, he endured the indignity of serving as valet and chauffeur to Junior Parker, while doubling as Parker’s opening act. (He hadpreviously served the same function for B. B. King, whose vocal style he imitated in his early years.) He began to have hits of his own with “Farther Up The Road,” which went to number one on the R & B charts and crossed over to the middle reaches of the pop charts. But his real artistic breakthrough came a year later with “Little Boy Blue,” a smooth but emotional number with gospel underpinnings, which showed the acknowledged influence of Rev. C. L. Franklin, or, as Bland referred to him, “Aretha’s daddy.”
From the late ‘50s throughout the 1960s, Bland ruled the R & B charts, issuing one chart-topper after another from his home at Houston-based Duke Records. Not many of them crossed over to the white pop charts, but his status as a living legend was confirmed by the eagerness of major rock stars to pay homage to him with cover versions of his songs, including Van Morrison, whose version of Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” can be found on his classic live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now, and Eric Clapton, who made “Farther Up The Road” a staple of his live sets for years. (Clapton can be seen performing the song in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s concert movie about the 1976 farewell performance by The Band, who themselves included a version of Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me” on their 1975 covers album Moondog Matinee.)
In 1973, Duke Records owner Don Robey sold all his labels, and the artist contracts that went with them, to ABC Dunhill Records. Although Bland continued to chart, with such hits as “This Time I’m Gone For Good” and “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me),” the change did nothing for quality control of Bland’s recordings, which for years had benefited from the Duke family of regional musicians and the brass arrangements of the label’s artistic director, Joe Scott, who died in 1979. (Bland recorded a tribute album to Scott, Sweet Vibrations, the next year.) The high point of Bland’s work in the ‘70s was his 1974 team-up album with B. B. King, Together For The First Time, which yielded a live-in-concert sequel in 1976.
Bland’s commercial profile declined during the disco age, and his last major-label contract, with MCA, lapsed in the early 1980s. From 1985 to 2003, he recorded for Malaco, an independent blues label based in Jackson, Mississippi, and often performed live with B. B. King. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992.