Remembering Bobby Bland, the Most Famous R&B Singer You've Barely Heard

Bobby "Blue" Bland died on June 23, at the age of 83. He was a world-class blues singer, a magnificent performer with a string of no fewer than 63 hit R&B singles, from '50s-era heartbreakers like "Little Boy Blue" to later songs like 1974's "I Wouldn't Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)," posted below, in which he managed to be both panoramic and startlingly intimate. He's also all but unknown to modern audiences, aside from the blues subculture that supported him right up to the end; if you're under 30 and have heard his music, it's probably the sample of his song "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" in Jay-Z's "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)."

Bland started his career as part of a Memphis-based crew of blues musicians who called themselves the Beale Streeters, after their favorite hangout. They weren't quite a band, although there are a handful of Beale Streeters records; other people who identified themselves as Beale Streeters included B.B. King, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. Another was Rosco Gordon, whose 1951 B-side "Love You 'Til the Day I Die" appears to have been Bland's first recorded appearance.

In 1952, Bland started recording under his own name, more or less: "Good Lovin'," the straightforward jump-style blues number that was his first solo single, was credited to Robert Bland.

Bland's career didn't take off, though, until he got out of his two-year stint in the U.S. Army and Duke Records' owner Don Robey teamed him up with the Bill Harvey Orchestra, who operated out of Houston. His first hit was 1957's "Farther Up the Road," which spent two weeks at the top of the R&B chart. (Robey was co-credited with writing it; his writing credit was all over many of Duke's releaes, either under his own name or under his pseudonym "Deadric Malone," although by all accounts he didn't have much to do with writing the hits for which he collected royalties.)

Bland wasn't particularly a songwriter either, and he wasn't an instrumentalist--he got over on the strength of his singing. (Like his early idol Nat "King" Cole, he was a master of phrasing and restrained emotion, at a time when male blues singers were more often hard shouters.) A good deal of his repertoire actually came from Joe Scott -- Bland's producer and arranger for most of the '60s, and his bandleader onstage, where Scott's two-belled trumpet was just about the only visible sign that he was the cornerstone of the Bland ensemble. The 1961 single "Turn On Your Love Light" -- which might be Bland's most-covered song among rock artists--is a good example of a Scott special.

Bland could pull out the emotional stops when he needed to, though. Another of his 1961 hits, "I Pity the Fool" (yes, that's where Mr. T.'s catchphrase came from), simmers for its first 45 seconds, until it hits its refrain--"Look at the people!"--and Bland's howl matches the bite of Scott's horn section. (Another rock connection: one of David Bowie's earliest singles was a cover of "I Pity the Fool," which featured Jimmy Page on lead guitar, copping a few licks from Bland's guitarist Wayne Bennett.)

Throughout the '60s, Bland, Scott and Bennett toured the "chitlin' circuit" constantly, and they were a hit machine on black radio, with four or five hits a year -- though white audiences barely got to hear R&B hits like 1966's "Poverty," below. Bland made the pop Top 40 all of four times.

In 1968, Joe Scott quit and the touring group broke up, around the same time that Bland's longstanding drinking problem was getting particularly intense. After a few years of relative commercial fumbling -- he had only one hit single in 1971 -- Bland assembled a new band, led by his longtime trumpet player Mel Jackson, who'd stay with him for decades thereafter. Jackson managed to keep Bland's sound contemporary; in 1974, they recorded this killer version of St. Louis Jimmy's 1941 classic "Goin' Down Slow."

Still, the bulk of Bland's live act often came from his early '60s repertoire. Here's a fine mid-'70s stage performance of his 1962 hit "Ain't That Loving You."

In the mid '70s, Bland recorded and toured with his old Beale Streeter pal B.B. King, for whom he'd worked as a chauffeur in the early '50s; this 10-minute clip of them together in 1977 shows their easy camaraderie, but also suggests that there were too many stars on the stage for either of them to be entirely comfortable.

Even as blues fell away from radio almost entirely, Bland continued to knock out the occasional R&B hit. His final song to chart was "Members Only," in late 1985, four years after he'd already been inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. (The live performance below is from 1989.) Bland kept recording until 2003, and toured right up to the end of his life. He never particularly tried to cross over to audiences that didn't already love blues, but he deserved to be better remembered.