There ain’t but a few left. The Post-War generation of great blues musicians, the men and women who brought a rural music into the American city and then to the world is slipping away, Now we’ve lost singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, a contemporary of such masters as Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon and the last surviving member of the Memphis blues cadre, the magisterial B.B. King. Bland’s artistry may be difficult for a contemporary generation to fully grasp. There was plenty of grit in his voice — plenty. But he could also be smooth, adapting a pop sophistication that made sense to an earlier generation that had grown up on Sinatra and Nat King Cole and the rash of hit-making vocalists that crowded the airwaves after 1945. Bland’s was a brilliant example of artistic assimilation, taking the best from the blues, R&B, gospel and the pop mainstream to form a vocal style that was unmistakably his own.
If younger listeners aren’t as familiar with Bland himself, they undoubtedly know his music from the cover versions that rock artists made familiar. Eric Clapton can’t seem to hit a stage without playing “Farther Up the Road,” and the Grateful Dead made “Turn On Your Love Light” into a jam epic favorite. The Band took on the beautiful ballad, “Share Your Love With Me” (as did Aretha Franklin), and a host of other artists — including Van Morrison and Traffic —brought Bland classics to a new audience.
“Farther Up the Road” — That’s Bland to the right of Elvis
Still, there’s nothing like hearing the man himself bring magic to such signature late 1950s and early 60’s performances as “Little Boy Blue,” “I’ll Take Care Of You,” “I Pity the Fool,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, but anyone who treasures American music can honor him in a very personal way. Find the Bland classic of your choice, crank up the volume and let that imperishable sound send chills down your spine. Blues singing of that caliber may never be heard again.
“The Thrill is Gone” — Bland and B.B. King, 1977