The Lion Of Blues

Jack Hamilton remembers Bobby Bland, the blues legend who died last week at age 83:

Jimi Hendrix once described the blues as “easy to play, but hard to feel;” Bobby “Blue” Bland made the blues as complex as a modernist novel, and effortlessly easy to feel. Bland may not have been the greatest blues singer of them all (though he’s certainly in the conversation), but he was arguably the most complete, melding the urbane smoothness of the pop crooner to the ferocious ecstasy of the gospel tradition.

He was called “the Sinatra of the blues,” a nickname that rankles a bit in its equivocating imprecision: Bobby Bland was, first and foremost, the Bobby Bland of the blues. But as comparisons go, one could suffer worse. Like Sinatra, Bland boasted such an extraordinary combination of technique, charisma and musical intelligence that his vocal performances were themselves an act of songcraft. The sides that Bland cut for Duke Records in the 1950s and 1960s unfold like riveting dramas; Bland could cycle through entire complex economies of emotion in a three-minute recording, bending notes, phrases, and whole songs to his will. His best performances make a word like “soul” seem woefully insufficient.

Anne Powers appraises Bland’s lasting influence, especially on black artists:

For the mostly African-American audience that supported Bland for much of his career, songs like “I Pity the Fool,” “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” and the spiritual shout “Farther Up the Road” captured the joy and sorrow of life with both immediacy and complexity. Bland’s multidimensional music became a blueprint for generations of R&B singers, and more recently, a grounding element for hip-hop artists like and Drake. It’s easy to imagine these young stars as kids, watching their mothers dress up for a night out while the grave, reassuring sound of Bland’s singing drifted through the house. Bland’s music is the kind that can school anyone about the incomprehensible depths of love, the importance of dignity and the promise of the kind of good life that really might be within reach.