The Underrated Giant of Soul Blues
Bobby “Blue” Bland has been called many thing. B.B. King has referred to him as the man with “the voice of satin.” Others have described him as “the lion of the blues,” “the crown prince of the blues”, “The Sinatra of the blues.” But these labels are misnomers. For Bobby Blue Bland is none other than the Bobby Blue Bland of the blues, and that’s pretty special in itself.
After all, not too many wind up being B.B. King’s favorite blues singer like Bland is. Bland has influenced a range of disparate musicians besides the great King of the Blues. Blues guitarist Freddie King is a fan. As is singer-songwriter Boz Scaggs, legendary rocker Van Morrison, and blues rock vocal veteran Rod Stewart. And there are many more.
The thing about Bobby Blue Bland, and this is a veritable crime, is that unlike many of his peers he’s not as well known outside the core of the older African American rhythm & blues community. This is not for a want of success. Bland’s musical successes are legion.
He first scored himself a hit in 1957 with the tune “Farther up the Road”. The tune shot right up to #1 on the R&B charts, cementing him as a true celebrity in that scene. After this, Bland went on to have hit after hit, 63 rhythm & blues hits in fact. Over 40 of those tunes crossed over onto the mainstream pop charts. Little Milton himself said of the once shy country boy originally from rural Tennessee, “[Bobby] could do no wrong. Whatever he did was a smash… he was invincible.”
Bobby Blue Bland’s Awards and Achievements
Bobby “Blue” Bland was played on the radio as much as superstars of the soul, R&B, and funk scenes like James Brown, Ray Charles, and The Temptations. He was selling more units than Sam Cooke, The Impressions, and even B.B. King himself. And although these artists all became more famous in the mainstream than Bobby “Blue” Bland, his endless string of his and relentless touring – over 300 shows per year – helped to cement him as a revered artist amongst his peers in the music industry.
The honors and awards, over time, piled up. It began with a Blues Hall of Fame induction in 1981. Later on in 1992 he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the GRAMMY’s in 1997 and in the following year from the Blues Foundation. The R&B Foundation awarded him the Pioneer Award in 1992 and he was the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s Soul / Blues Male Artist of the Year Award 7 times.
Two Steps from the Blues – The Greatest Soul Blues Album?
Undoubtedly, the definitive Bobby Blue Bland album is Two Steps from the Blues. So revered is this record that it has often been called one of the great records ever in both electric blues and soul blues. It was a turning point for the soul blues style of music. Prior to this album from 1961, the jump blues of the juke joints were essentially separate from the southern soul and Gospel styles of rhythm & blues. But Bobby “Blue” Bland merged these distinct elements into a southern blues blend of secularized gospel-soul-blues. And all of this was influenced by his youthful rural Tennessee and Memphis background.
Of course, like most amazing records, Bland didn’t accomplish all of this himself but surrounded him with great artists and technicians. His major collaborator at the Record Label, Duke Records, was producer and arranger Joe Scott. Scott helped to craft the poignant horn arrangements that are so imbued in the music’s spirit. Bland did not write a majority of his music, and instead turned to composers like Deadric Malone and Don Robey, as well as Scott himself.
The Legacy of Bobby Blue Bland
In the end, Two Steps from the Blues became a landmark record that blurred the division between traditional Chess Records blues and Ray Charles’ style soul music. In other words, it was the true cornerstone foundation of soul blues. And it helped pave the way for studios and labels like Muscle Shoals and Stax to produce the wonderful music that would come later on.
Many soul and blues fans to this day continue to count Two Steps from the Blues as one of the very best soul blues records ever released. Much of this owes to its deconstruction of the genre-line between blues and soul, but it also owes as much to Bland’s heart wrenching vocalizing. If this music doesn’t move you, check your pulse and make sure you haven’t been turned to stone.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Two Steps from the Blues as the 217th greatest album of all time, and I’m not convinced too many mainstream music fans would have thought that Bobby Blue Bland would have made that list at all, let alone in the top 250 albums. But without a doubt it belongs.
Bobby Blue Bland perfected blues vocal technique while calling from within the most earnest, authentic soul. The man is one of the great voices of the 20th century, and Two Steps from the Blues is a perfect crystallization of his brilliance.
The album may be called Two Steps from the Blues, but it should be right in the middle of any definitive collection of great blues music.
– Brian M. Reiser,