Obituary: Bobby 'Blue' Bland / Debonair soul and blues balladeer

Jan. 27, 1930 - June 23, 2013


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Bobby "Blue" Bland, the debonair balladeer whose sophisticated, emotionally fraught performances helped modernize the blues, died Sunday at his home in Germantown, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by his son, Rodd, who played drums in his band.

Although he possessed gifts on a par with his most consummate peers, Bobby Bland never achieved the popular acclaim enjoyed by contemporaries like Ray Charles and B.B. King. His restrained vocals, punctuated by the occasional squalling shout, nevertheless made him a mainstay on the rhythm-and-blues charts and club circuit for decades.

Exhibiting a delicacy of phrasing and command of dynamics akin to those of the most urbane pop and jazz crooners, his intimate pleading left its mark on everyone from soul singers Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to rock groups like the Allman Brothers and the Band. Rapper Jay-Z sampled Mr. Bland's 1974 single "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" on his 2001 album, "The Blueprint."

Mr. Bland's signature mix of blues, jazz, pop, gospel and country music was a good decade in the making. His first recordings, made in the early 1950s, found him working in the lean, unvarnished style of Mr. King, even to the point of employing falsetto vocal leaps patterned after Mr. King's. Mr. Bland's mid-'50s singles were more accomplished; hits like "It's My Life, Baby" and "Farther Up the Road" are now regarded as hard-blues classics, but they still featured the driving rhythms and stinging electric guitar favored by Mr. King and others. It wasn't until 1958's "Little Boy Blue," a record inspired by the homiletic delivery of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, that Mr. Bland arrived at his trademark vocal technique.

"That's where I got my squall from," Mr. Bland said, referring to the sermons of Franklin -- "Aretha's daddy," as he called him -- in a 1979 interview with author Peter Guralnick. "After I had that I lost the high falsetto. I had to get some other kind of gimmick, you know, to be identified with."

The corresponding softness in Mr. Bland's voice, a refinement matched by the elegant formal wear in which he appeared onstage, came from listening to records by pop crooners like Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Perry Como.

Mr. Bland broke through to pop audiences in the mid-'70s with "His California Album" and its more middle-of-the-road follow-up, "Dreamer." But his greatest success always came in the rhythm-and-blues market, where he placed 63 singles on the charts from 1957 to 1985. He signed with the Mississippi-based Malaco label in 1985 and made a series of well-received albums that appealed largely to fans of traditional blues and soul music.

Mr. Bland was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Robert Calvin Brooks was born Jan. 27, 1930, in Millington, Tenn., just north of Memphis. His father, I.J. Brooks, abandoned the family when Bobby was very young. His mother, Mary Lee, married Leroy Bridgeforth, who also went by the name Leroy Bland, when Bobby was 6.

Bobby dropped out of school in the third grade to work in the cotton fields. Although he never learned to write music or play an instrument, he cited the music of pioneering blues guitarist T-Bone Walker as an early influence.

After moving to Memphis in 1947, Mr. Bland began working in a garage and singing spirituals in a group called the Miniatures. In 1949 he joined the Beale Streeters, a loose-knit collective whose members at various points included Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, Earl Forest and King, all of whom went on to become popular blues performers as solo artists.

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