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Bland, Bobby “Blue” (27th January 1930-23rd June 2013)

He was a blues and gospel singer born Robert Calvin Brooks in Barretville, Tennessee to a family where his father left while he was still a baby and his mother married Leroy Bridgeforth, aka Leroy Bland. This is when his surname was changed to Bland.

His studies only went to the third grade at school, after which he dropped out to work in the cotton fields, resulting in him being illiterate.  When he was 17 he moved with his mother to Memphis, Tennessee and it is here he began his career in music.  After singing with gospels groups such as The Miniatures he became associated with the Beale Streeters who were a collection of singers and musicians, who would later became well known, that included Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, B.B. King and Junior Parker.

While in Memphis in 1951 he met up with Ike Turner, who was a talent scout at the time, which led to him recording the only song he knew from memory, due to his inability to read music and lyrics, “They Call It Stormy Monday” for Modern Records.  The song wasn’t released at the time but much later became a hit for him in 1961. He recorded further songs for Modern and Sun Records and was accompanied on the piano by Ike Turner for his first couple of songs.  None of these songs saw success but the record company Duke Records had been listening and decided to take him on.

Everything was put on hold for him when he entered his military service with the US Army, although he did perform in a band with Eddie Fisher during that time.  When he returned to civilian life in 1954 he met back up with Johnny Ace and he became one of Ace’s revue as well as going back to Duke Records, where the producer Don Robey gave him a new contract.  His illiteracy was an obstacle for him though as he signed his name to getting half a cent per record sold while it was supposed to be the 2 cents as was standard in the industry at the time.   He released his first single for the record company in 1955.

He toured with Junior Parker in the Blues Consolidated revue in 1956. He then recorded songs with the bandleader Bill Harvey and arranger Joe Scott for Duke Records.  They began to write big-band blues songs that suited his unique style of singing, which he had shaped after studying the recorded sermons of the preacher CL Franklin from Detroit, Michigan, who was Aretha Franklin’s father.  As he wasn’t a musician he was often accompanied by the blues guitarist Wayne Bennett.  The following year, in 1957, he gained his first success with “Farther Up the Road” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart and reached No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The next year, in 1958, he and Junior Parker recorded the album Blues Consolidated and he achieved several songs such as “Little Boy Blue” that became hits on the R&B chart.

When the 1960s came around he had a No. 1 R&B chart hit with “I Pity the Fool” as well as “Cry Cry Cry” and “Turn On Your Love Light”.  1963 saw his last No. 1 on the R&B chart which was “That’s the Way Love Is”,  He did, however, still have many other chart entries until the mid-1960s.  He was ranked No. 13 of the all-time top-charting artists in the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995 after having 23 hits on the Billboard R&B chart, even though not really breaking into the pop charts as a cross over-artist.  In 1968 he was depressed and drinking a lot after he’d had to cut the touring band, leading to their break-up due to financial pressures.

By 1971 he had stopped drinking and after Duke Records was sold to ABC Records, he released his successful His California Album in 1973, where “This Time I’m Gone for Good” from it became a Top 10 hit in the R&B charts and his first Top 50 song in the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time since 1964.   The following year his Dreamer album came out with the R&B hit song “Ain’t No Love In the Heart of the City”, which later versions recorded by Paul Carrack, Paul Weller and the band Whitesnake and was sampled by Kanye West.  Also released from the album was “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog” which reached No 3 on the R&B chart and No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Both of the above albums had been arranged by the musician and singer-songwriter Michael Omartian.

The 1980s saw him going back to his roots and releasing the less successful tribute album, Sweet Vibrations,  dedicated to Joe Scott, who was his mentor when he first joined Duke Records.  The Blues Hall of Fame inducted him in 1981.  In 1985 he signed a new recording contract with Malaco Records and made 10 albums over his time with them as well as appearing in concerts with B. B. King and touring at the same time, sometimes with the guitarist  Angelo Earl.  He released Members Only in 1985 and the title song became his signature song.

When the 1990s came in he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and he received the Rhythm and Blues Pioneer Award.  Five years later in 1997 he was honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, previously nominated for seven Grammy Awards during his career.  The next year he was honoured with a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1999 his song “Turn on Your Love Light” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In the new millennium he sang a duet of “Tupelo Honey” with the singer Van Morrison in 2000, who he had occasionally sang with as a guest at his concerts.  Van Morrison and Them had also performed recorded previous songs of his and this duet was released on The Best of Van Morrison Volume 3.  In 2003 he released his Blues at Midnight and five years later  in 2008 Mick Hucknall, who is the lead singer of Simply Red, released his album Tribute to Bobby which was a Top 20 hit in the UK Album Chart where it reached No. 18.

He continued performing into the 2010s for most of the rest of his career and in 2012 he was inducted into the Memphis Hall of Fame.  When he was 83 years old he died of what family members described as “complications from an ongoing illness” at home in Germantown, Tennessee in 2013.  He was survived by his wife Willie Martin Bland and his son Rodd, who is a musician that played drums in his band.  Sometimes referred to as the “Sinatra of the Blues” and “Lion of the Blues” he left a legacy of being an influence to numerous artists ranging from soul singers to rappers.

Honours were still to come when he was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2021.