On June 23, 2013 we lost one of the greatest blues balladeers of all time. Bobby Blue Bland passed away at the age of 83. A talented vocalist with a keen sensitivity, he matched delicacy with dynamism, refinement with raw emotion. His combination of sophisticated lyricism and down-home vernacular helped modernize the blues.
But it’s his passion and tenderness that remains unmatched—Bobby Bland had the power to bring even the most stoic listener to his knees with a soft moan or a bristling growl. It’s no wonder he was honored in 1997 with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He was born Robert Brooks in Rosemark, Tennessee on January 27, 1930. His career began as a teenager, when he moved to Memphis and sang spirituals with a group called the Miniatures. Soon he joined a musician’s collective known as the Beale Streeters, accompanying Johnny Ace and B.B. King as an opening act. He recorded at Sun Studios, before he was drafted into the Army in 1952.
When he returned from the service, he worked as a chauffeur and opening act for Junior Parker, before making his own name as a headliner. He put out revords for labels as diverse as Malaco, Chess, Modern and Duke. At the peak of his career Bland was known for playing more than 300 shows a year. He continued performing on a demanding schedule until shortly before his death.
Bobby Blue Bland is survived by six decades of outstanding Rhythm and Blues recordings. I Pity the Fool, Stormy Monday, Farther Down the Road, Turn On Your Love Light. They’re all his. He influenced everyone from Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding to the Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton. His 1974 ballad Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City was sampled and reworked by Jay-Z in a 2007 track of the same name.
It could be said that he wrote the soundtrack to heartbreak.
But for all his accomplishments, Bobby Bland remained a humble man. In his obituary, the New York Times quoted an interview Bobby gave Elwood in 2009— “I’d like to be remembered as just a good old country boy that did his best to give us something to listen to and help them through a lot of sad moments, happy moments, whatever. Whatever moments you get of happiness, use it up, you know, if you can, because it don’t come that often.”
So long Bobby—we hate to see you go. We know you’re up there in our dream juke joint, howling with the stars.