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Black History

Bobby (Blue) Bland, Soul and Blues Balladeer, Dies at 83

NEW YORK TIMES 6 Hours Ago

by Bill Friskics-Warren

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
Bobby (Blue) Bland, left, with B.B. King, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

Bobby (Blue) Bland, the debonair balladeer whose sophisticated, emotionally fraught performances helped modernize the blues, died on Sunday in Memphis. He was 83.

The cause was complications from an ongoing illness, The Associated Press reported, quoting his son Rodd.

Though he possessed gifts on a par with his most consummate peers, Mr. Bland never achieved the popular acclaim enjoyed by contemporaries like Ray Charles and B. B. King. His restrained vocals, punctuated by the occasional squalling shout, nevertheless made him a mainstay on the rhythm-and-blues charts and club circuit for decades.

Exhibiting a delicacy of phrasing and command of dynamics akin to those of the most urbane pop and jazz crooners, his intimate pleading left its mark on everyone from the soul singers Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to rock groups like the Allman Brothers and the Band. The rapper Jay-Z sampled Mr. Bland’s 1974 single “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his 2001 album, “The Blueprint.”

Mr. Bland’s signature mix of blues, jazz, pop, gospel and country music was a good decade in the making. His first recordings, made in the early 1950s, found him working in the lean, unvarnished style of Mr. King, even to the point of employing falsetto vocal leaps patterned after Mr. King’s. Mr. Bland’s mid-50s singles were more accomplished; hits like “It’s My Life, Baby” and “Farther Up the Road” are now regarded as hard-blues classics, but they still featured the driving rhythms and stinging electric guitar favored by Mr. King and others. It wasn’t until 1958’s “Little Boy Blue,” a record inspired by the homiletic delivery of the Rev. C. L. Franklin, that Mr. Bland arrived at his trademark vocal technique.

“That’s where I got my squall from,” Mr. Bland said, referring to the sermons of Mr. Franklin — “Aretha’s daddy,” as he called him — in a 1979 interview with the author Peter Guralnick. “After I had that I lost the high falsetto. I had to get some other kind of gimmick, you know, to be identified with.”

The corresponding softness in Mr. Bland’s voice, a refinement matched by the elegant formal wear in which he appeared onstage, came from listening to records by pop crooners like Nat King Cole, g Tony Bennett and Perry Como.

Just as crucial to the evolution of Mr. Bland’s sound was his affiliation with the trumpet player and arranger Joe Scott, for years the director of artists and repertory for Duke Records in Houston. Given to writing brass-rich arrangements that built dramatically to a climax, Mr. Scott, who died in 1979, supplied Mr. Bland with intricate musical backdrops that set his supple baritone in vivid emotional relief. The two men accounted for more than 30 Top 20 rhythm-and-blues singles for Duke from 1958 to 1968, including the No. 1 hits “I Pity the Fool” and “That’s the Way Love Is.” Steeped in feelings of vulnerability and regret, many of these performances were particularly enthralling to the female portion of Mr. Bland’s audience.

Though only four of his singles from these years — “Turn On Your Love Light,” “Call on Me,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” — crossed over to the pop Top 40, Mr. Bland’s recordings resonated with the era’s blues-leaning rock acts. The Grateful Dead made “Love Light” a staple of their live shows. The Band recorded his 1964 single “Share Your Love With Me” for their 1973 album, “Moondog Matinee.” Van Morrison included a version of “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” on his 1974 live set, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.”

Mr. Bland himself broke through to pop audiences in the mid-70s with “His California Album” and its more middle-of-the-road follow-up, “Dreamer.” But his greatest success always came in the rhythm-and-blues market, where he placed a total of 63 singles on the charts from 1957 to 1985. He signed with the Mississippi-based Malaco label in 1985 and made a series of well-received albums that appealed largely to fans of traditional blues and soul music.

Mr. Bland was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1997.

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