A REVIEW OF
Soul of the Man: Bobby “Blue” Bland
By Charles Farley
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback, 330 pages
Bobby “Blue” Bland’s legacy makes for soulful biography
By DeMatt Harkins
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
On the evening of January 21, 1992, B.B. King addressed a packed ballroom in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. “To me, there is no better singer, that sings any kind of song, than Bobby Bland.” King was on hand to introduce his longtime friend’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To contextualize this achievement, Bobby “Blue” Bland’s classmates that year included Johnny Cash, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Isley Brothers, The Yardbirds, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MG’s, Elmore James, Professor Longhair, Leo Fender, Bill Graham, and Doc Pomus.
In “Soul of the Man,” now available in paperback, Charles Farley details how Bland made the musical journey from rural Tennessee to midtown Manhattan that night. Over 5 decades he landed 63 songs on the R&B singles chart—topping it three times. With a smooth delivery capable of conveying every emotion, Bland has gone down in history as the single greatest blues crooner.
Strangely enough, Bland’s singing career began with a country repertoire. His daily childhood routine included a healthy dose of WLAC. Bland would spend Saturdays on the porch of Rosemark, Tennessee’s general store, busking with the latest and greatest tunes out of Nashville.
Eventually Bland’s family relocated to Memphis in 1945 when he was 15 years old. Farley explains the move allowed two legendary institutions to open the teenager’s eyes and ears. WDIA served as the country’s first all-black format radio station, and proved highly influential to all in its broadcast area. Additionally, Beale Street fostered a local music scene and welcomed many national touring acts.
Weekly amateur talent competitions played a part in Beale Street culture as well. Bland’s church-honed pipes claimed so many victories, he was eventually denied participation from most contests. One of the nights he claimed the prize, WDIA’s program director took notice. The next year when that executive started Duke Records, he immediately signed Bland based on the single performance he witnessed.
When a distribution partnership went awry, Peacock Records bought Duke Records outright and consolidated operations in Houston, TX. Settling in a new hometown, and equipped with house musicians and staff writers, Bland commenced a streak of several dozen hits.
This era included his 3 R&B chart #1s, “Farther Up the Road” (1957), “I Pity the Fool” (1961), and “That’s the Way Love Is” (1963), as well as other signature tunes as “Turn On Your Love Light” (#2 in 1961), “Stormy Monday Blues” (#5 in 1962), and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” (#3 in 1964).
Although his house was in Houston, Farley explains Bland had no choice but to live on the road. Bland did not play an instrument and could not read, leaving performance as his lone source of revenue in the music business. This necessitated a grueling tour schedule of roughly 300 nights a year, well into the 1990s.
Unsurprisingly, this workload led to staggering alcohol dependence. Fortunately, after a night of revelry in the 1970s with his seasoned hero T-Bone Walker, Bland chose to give up the bottle when he observed what his lifestyle’s future held.
In telling Bland’s story, Farley also frames the surrounding musical landscape. Informing the narrative, he offers useful profiles of label mates, touring companions, and forbearers. In addition to Bland’s numerous band members, Farley covers Rosco Gordon, Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Johnny Otis, Little Richard, Gatemouth Brown, Joe Hinton, and Little Milton, among others.
This bunch also includes Tommy Couch and Wolf Stephenson of Jackson’s own Malaco Records. In 1985, Bland found himself without a recording contract for the first time in over thirty years. Malaco jumped at the chance and signed him.
A string of mergers and acquisitions had placed Bland under the guidance of trend-chasing strangers. Malaco knew better. Their formula of assembling Stax, Muscle Shoals, and even Duke veterans to write, record, and promote his records, allowed Bland a return to form for twelve more LPs.
Bobby “Blue” Bland’s unique voice produced oft-covered enduring blues standards, and Farley’s “Soul of the Man” helps celebrate his magical talent and his lasting legacy.
DeMatt Harkins of Jackson enjoys flipping pancakes and records with his wife and daughter.