Joshua Lerner is pouring out some Johnny Walker Blue.
Upon the passing of some semi-forgotten musical legend, biographers and hagiographers alike will strive for a modern angle as they pen their too-short obituaries. How is the music relevant today? Which modern artists were influenced? If the deceased did not already belong to a well-known musical pantheon, then the case must be made for why we must remember the artist at all.
Such is the struggle with the passing of Bobby “Blue” Bland, who died last weekend at his home in Germantown, Tennessee. Despite his understated legacy, Bland played an instrumental role in the evolution of popular music. By 1961, he was recording songs that deftly merged blues with Southern soul, as heard on that year’s Two Steps From the Blues. It’s the best album of his career, and was an important link that bridged the mid-50s soul of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke with the Stax sound of the 1960s.
How did this happen? Peter Guralnick has argued that the creation of soul music in the 1950s was the product of a combination of gospel music and rhythm and blues, all within the context of the Civil Rights Music. Sam Cooke started as a gospel artist. His decision to cross over to pop made waves in 1956. But what was called soul by the end of the 1950s was still relatively harmless: short, pop-oriented songs that sound restrained in light of what soul would become in only a few years.
Artists like Bobby Bland were influential in developing soul into that emotive, forceful music we know of today. Listen to Two Steps From the Blues and check Bland’s gritty vocals, the electric guitar work of Wayne Bennett, and the punchy horn arrangements of Joe Scott. This is music that channels the associations that, for better or worse, are linked to what we now know as soul music. Bland is all raspy growling on “I Pity the Fool.” For a modern update, listen to the complex brass harmonies that introduce “I’ve Just Got to Forget You” and tell me you don’t think immediately of the Dap Kings.
Of course, most obits have gone for current cache by including the fact that it was Bland that originally recorded “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City.” No doubt, thanks to Ye and Jay, “Heart of the City” is the vessel by which most hip-hop fans have heard Bland’s music, even though they may not realize it. But the rap connect on Two Steps From the Blues runs much deeper. Bland was the first to record “I’ll Take Care of You” (yep, that one). The jaw-dropping drum break by John “Jabo” Sparks on “Don’t Cry No More” is still awaiting some crate-digger’s eager fingertips. And when Bland spells his name out—“Call me B – O – B B Y!”—on “Little Boy Blue.” Well, that speaks for itself.