Living Blues Living Blues #226 : Page 74

script—even most of his spoken asides and apparent improvisations were planned in advance). In the studio, it was sometimes necessary to grind through multiple takes before both singer and producer were satisfied with the results (rather than learn lyrics by reading them, Bland would listen repeatedly to a song until he’d memorized every detail). But despite some historians’ portrayal of him as basically clay in the hands of his producers, and even despite his own assertion that Joe Scott was “everything” to his development, it was also clear that he knew what he was doing musically, and that his meticulousness had at least as much to do with the well-honed perfectionism of a gifted artist as it did with any reluctance to think for himself. Explaining how he cultivated his style and his microphone technique, he told David Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times : “There were a lot of things cut back in the early ’50s that had ‘pops’ to it. You’d have to sing across the mike to emphasize a letter. You’d have to learn how to hold the tongue in a certain way. So I would listen to those singers [Nat King Cole et al.] for form.” His sidemen also remembered his knowing exactly what he was looking for in accompanists and soloists. Biographer Charles Farley quoted Johnny Jones, Bland’s fretman from the mid to the late-’70s: “To play for Bobby Blue Bland,” Jones said, “you have to come off on a T-Bone mold. He don’t want you bendin’ no strings. He wants you to come straight off the boards. . . . Bendin’ of the strings came on later with B.B. When I first got with Blue I had just a little bit too much of Lucille. He called me in one night to the back of the bus. He said, ‘Dick’—we called each other ‘Dick’—‘you got too much Lucille. Here take this tape.’ It had Mel Brown and Wayne Bennett on it. Any guitar player who plays with Bobby and pleases him got to come off the T-Bone mold.” As the new millennium wore on, it became evident that Bobby Bland’s health was weakening. His voice thickened; the “squall” became more gargled; he sometimes looked frighteningly gaunt. Eventually, he was confined to a wheelchair, although he always managed to rise from it and walk out onto the stage to do his show, even if he needed the steadying hand of an assistant to make the journey. In March of 2013, he had to abandon the “Blues Is Alright” revue in mid-tour to be rushed back to Memphis and be admitted to the hospital. Although he returned home after a week or two, those who knew him realized that his condition was dire. But he never lost his spirit: Bobby Rush, another longtime friend, remembered that even “down to four or five weeks before his death, he was asking me to record him . . . he had the mind to do it, but he wasn’t physically strong enough to do it.” Bland’s funeral, at the First Baptist Church—Broad, on Broad Avenue in Memphis, was a predictably well-attended celebration of his life. Dignitaries ranging from Rev. Jesse Jackson to former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton spoke in tribute, as did musical friends and ad-mirers like B.B. King, former Stax president Al Bell, and Stax songwriter David Porter (the city’s current mayor, A.C. Wharton, was out of town but sent a recorded message). Memphis-based gospel vocalist Deborah Manning-Thomas sang How Great Thou Art with a gripping, reverent intensity; Otis Clay delivered a heart-stopping When the Gates Swing Open ; Shirley Brown, as she’s done at the funerals of several well-known blues and soul-blues artists, lifted the house into ecstasy with her transcendent reading of Amazing Grace . At various times before, during, and after the service, some of Bland’s more meditative ballads were played over the church sound sys-tem. Perhaps the most poignant was the all-too-apropos This Time I’m Gone for Good (a 1973-’74 hit). But on the other hand, as more than one speaker pointed out, that wasn’t—and isn’t—the real story. “Today, death has been robbed,” Rev. Jackson said. “It has taken his frail body but has not taken the crown prince of melodic music. You belong to us forever, Bobby.” —D aviD W hiteiS A Tribute To Bobby “Blue” Bland Interviews By Camilla Aikin Tommy Couch, Sr . Co-Founder of Malaco Records The first album I ever bought was Bobby Bland’s Two Steps from the Blues . We hired a guy in the early 1980s, his name was Dave Clark, and he was probably best known as the first black radio promotion man in the business. He was the main reason Bobby Bland came to Malaco. Because Bobby knew him, he was comfortable with him, they were both from Tennessee. So he brought him here. We were making Bobby Bland records for the main people that really liked him: African Americans. That was where his true fan base was. When his first records came out they were early enough that if he had a big record he would kind of go pop. So ours were more streamlined, straight for the black community, but we kept that big band tradition he had at Duke. We had been working on a new album for him the past 3 or 4 years. He could sing a bad song and make it sound good. And he could sing a great song and it would be even better than great. He was just that good. He was one of the few great blues singers that was a blues singer and didn’t play anything. Most blues people will play a guitar or harmonica but all Bobby did was sing. He didn’t really have to do anything else. He had one of the best voices in the business. You could probably list Elvis, Ray Charles, a few people like that, and he would be right there with them. A lot of other singers really appreciated the kind of voice he had. He was just one of the great singers of all time. He was probably the number two best known blues singer in the world. If you ask anybody, black, white, green, yellow, to name who they thought were the best blues singers, most of the time you get B.B. King first but you’d always get Bobby Bland second. He was great, a very nice guy. He would do anything for anybody. Jimmy Johnson Founder, Producer and Guitarist at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio I was a big fan of Bobby’s back in the 1960s, when he had those big songs like Turn On Your Lovelight on Duke Records. I learned to love Bobby back then and when I got a chance to work with him it really glorified everything. It was a real honor. He was just absolutely fantastic. Probably one of the greatest artists I’ve worked with. We did many projects with him and I always looked forward to the next time. I don’t think hardly any session musicians stay in touch with artists, we just work so much, we’re always busy. But at least in my heart, I was thinking about him. Denise LaSalle Singer and songwriter I’ve known Bobby for numerous years. I think I ran into him when I cut my first record in 1971. I knew of him before that but I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him until I cut that record and got on a lot of shows with him. A gentleman he was. I went to Europe with him on a Malaco tour. That’s when I really got to know the real Bobby. That was the first time he’d ever flown. I know he was scared to death. So we talked a lot about family and home things, and I found out how down to earth he really was. And I found out how much he loved good cooking! He talked about his wife 74 • LIVING BLUES • August 2013

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