With the passing of blues legend Bobby “Blue” Bland over the weekend, another link to the Beale Street of long ago is lost.
Bland parked cars at the foot of Beale Street as he worked on making it in the clubs as a black man singing country or “hillbilly” music, he told Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall in their 1981 book “Beale Black & Blue.”
“When I moved to Memphis it was very, very tough,” he said of his move to the city after World War II from nearby Rosemark. “Not many places blacks could venture into. It was the wrong time and the wrong place for a black singer to make it singing white country blues.”
But he got some help from another earlier arrival on Beale Street, B.B. King, who had Bland on his WDIA radio program. Bland caught on with a song he wrote called “Army Blues.”
King was a fellow competitor at amateur night contests at the old Palace Theater on Beale Street. Decades later, King talked of being able to recognize Bland’s car in Beale Street traffic by the sound its glass packs made.
“Army Blues” was Bland’s first recording for Memphis-based Duke Records and it was followed shortly by a draft notice.
Bland’s rise to the top of rhythm and blues resumed after his hitch in the Army on the Duke-Peacock record label, the label controlled by Don Robey, a notorious figure in rhythm and blues whom some performers compared to a gangster. Robey bought Duke to go with his own record label and moved its operations to Houston. The roster was a mix of gospel and rhythm and blues.
“I like the soft touch,” Bland said in “Beale Black & Blue”. “I don’t like the harsh. I listened to a lot of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Nat ‘King’ Cole for diction, for delivery. … The only thing I can relate to is songs that tell a story. True lyrics, true story.”
When Bland got his brass note on Beale Street in the 1990s, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton tried to describe what Bland did vocally — a snort of sorts that was as much a part of his phrasing as his timing.
Peter Gurlanick, in the book “Sweet Soul Music” described it as a “gargle” that Bland borrowed from Rev. C. L. Franklin, the father of another soul legend, Aretha Franklin.
Bland’s records were among the basic influences on the Allman Brothers Band and they, as well as numerous rock bands with a foot or more in the blues, included covers on Bland tunes in their early sets.
Before the Allman Brothers were called the Allman Brothers, “Turn On Your Love Light” was among the songs they learned for a basic set to play any venue or event that would have them.
“We had heard Bobby Blue Bland do it,” Allman wrote in his autobiography “My Cross To Bear”. “And man, you talk about an original talent — there will be, and can be, only one Bobby Blue Bland.”