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Bobby Bland: Blues and soul singer whose work inspired Van Morrison and Eric Clapton


Described by his friend and contemporary BB King as possessing "a voice as soft as silk", the singer Bobby "Blue" Bland created a delicate blend of the blues, gospel and soul genres and influenced Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and many performers of the rock era. Eric Clapton made the blues shuffle of "Farther Up The Road" (Bland's first US R&B chart-topper in 1957) a mainstay of his repertoire, while David Bowie covered "I Pity The Fool", Bland's second US R&B chart-topper, from 1961, with the Manish Boys for his second single in 1965. Van Morrison's version of Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light", meanwhile, earned Them a record deal.

Most famously, in the mid-1970s, Bland originated "Ain't No Love", a song whose emphasis has shifted away from its original lovelorn message and taken on greater import as a comment on the plight of inner cities. It has been recorded by myriad acts, including Whitesnake, Paul Weller and Paul Carrack, reworked by Kanye West into "Heart Of A City (Ain't No Love)" for Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint and has featured in film soundtracks, most recently in the title sequence of The Lincoln Lawyer, the 2011 drama starring Matthew McConaughey.

In 2008 the Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall issued a Tribute To Bobby album which introduced Bland and many of the songs associated with him to a wider audience.

Born Robert Calvin Brooks in Millington, Tennessee in 1930, he barely knew his natural father, who abandoned the family when he was an infant. He became known as Bobby Bland after his stepfather Leroy Bland, whom his mother married when he was six. He dropped out of school to pick cotton before he hit his teens.

Drawn to the blues of T-Bone Walker – whose "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)", aka "Stormy Monday", he would later record – he also sang gospel in church. Following a move to Memphis in 1947, he worked in a garage and joined a gospel group, The Miniatures. He became a regular on Beale Street, the hotbed of the Memphis Blues scene, and began performing with the Beale Streeters, a loose conglomerate including Earl Forest as well as Rosco Gordon and BB King, two artists he would subsequently chauffeur and valet for.

He toured with the Johnny Ace Revue and issued several sides on Chess and Duke, some cut at Sun Studios with Sam Philips producing, before being drafted. In 1956, he resumed his career on Duke, now owned by the nefarious Houston entrepreneur Don Robey, notorious for claiming authorship of material and using intimidation.

Combining the roles of chauffeur, valet and opening act, Bland nevertheless blossomed on the road with Junior Parker. Their Blues Consolidated Revue became a popular draw on the chitlin' circuit of the South and helped establish Bland. He shook off King's influence and began developing a more versatile vocal style combining the smoothness and sophistication of a Nat "King" Cole with a raucous delivery that owed a debt to the sermons of the Reverend CL Franklin – "Aretha's dad," as he told the author Peter Guralnick in 1979. "That's where I got my squall from," he said referring to the roaring on 1958's "Little Boy Blue" that would become his trademark and earn him the "Lion of the Blues" sobriquet. "After I had that, I lost the high falsetto. I had to get some other kind of gimmick to be identified with."

Bland's warm and soulful phrasing mirrored the tension between religious and secular music that typified many of the African-American singers who followed in his foosteps. His baritone conveyed yearning and vulnerability and made the most of the superlative material tailor-made for him by the trumpet player, arranger, songwriter and Duke A&R director Joe Scott.

Between 1958 and 1968, the partnership produced over 30 singles that made the R&B charts, and, in the case of a dozen including "Farther Up The Road", "I'll Take Care Of You", "Cry, Cry, Cry", "I Pity The Fool" and "Sometimes You Gotta Cry A Little", crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100. However, Bland's punishing schedule –up to 300 concerts a year throughout most of the 1960s – and his struggles with alcoholism, took their toll.

Following the sale of Duke to ABC-Dunhill in 1972 he hit a purple patch with a series of critically-acclaimed recordings – His California Album, Dreamer, Reflections In Blue – made with the best Los Angeles session men. Two joint albums and appearances with King on the epochal TV show Soul Train helped broaden Bland's reach and appeal, while the Grateful Dead turned "Love Light" into the centrepiece of many of their epic concerts.

Van Morrison also enthused about Bland: "an individual stylist. I can't put into words the phrasing and the way he interprets a song." Morrison covered Bland's "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do" on It's Too Late To Stop Now, his 1974 live album, and recorded a duet of his own composition, "Tupelo Honey", with him in 2000. That year, Morrison enlisted Bland and Chris Farlowe, another Bland disciple since the 1960s, for two fondly remembered dates at the Albert Hall.

By then, Bland had enjoyed another renaissance under the auspices of Malaco Records, who brought him to Europe in 1989 on a package tour captured on an excellent Blues From The Montreux Jazz Festival set. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Bland began using a wheelchair in 2008 but would still stand during live performances.

"I flew over to Memphis to meet Bobby in 2007. I'd just recorded my Tribute To Bobby album and he was as keen to be part of the project as I was to meet him," Mick Hucknall recalled. "We'd already had contributions from BB King and Van Morrison so it was the icing on the cake to have Bobby involved as well.

"Bobby was a truly great singer. You felt he was telling you the truth. Bittersweet revenge and retribution peppered his lyrics. Here was a man who had been hurt in love, and he expressed that better than any singer I know of. His vocal delivery had touches of jazz which set him apart from many others. We spent a wonderful day together, culminating in a memorable dinner full of stories and memories of other R&B singers who would frequently cross paths on the chitlin circuit.

"I was lucky enough to see him perform here in the UK as the opening act for Van a few years earlier. I flew over from Milan just to see him. Only Marvin Gaye means more to me as a singer, such was the brilliance of The Lion of the Blues."

Robert Calvin Brooks (Bobby Bland), singer: born Millington, Tennessee 27 January 1930; married (one son); died Memphis, Tennessee 24 June 2013.