BOBBY BLUE BLAND / “Bobby Blue Bland Mixtape”

The first time I remember slow dragging, holding a warm, nubile, young lady in my arms as I tried to get the side-to-side of an awkward albeit deliberate two-step together, well, that was when I was at a party on the patio of our junior high school. One of those beautiful New Orleans evenings, star warmed by clear skies and lingering humidity. Colored lights were strung from the trees, an electric cord stretching into a second floor window. I’d be lying if I said I remember the girl’s name. I don’t. I don’t even remember if it was 7th or 8th grade, although knowing me, I’d lean that it was 7th grade because that was my time of adolescent self-awakening. Rivers Frederick Junior High School was the first school I attended where my mother wasn’t a teacher. No one knew me. Everything, including catching the public transit bus for a three mile trip each morning and afternoon, all on my own; stopping sometimes at a corner store that was in the middle of the block where I got off the bus in the morning and spending my lunch money on a liver-cheese sandwich, with a couple of pennies left over; walking young ladies home who lived in the neighborhood surrounding our school before jumping on the Galvez bus to head down into the Lower Ninth Ward; or, even going to the main library and then walking over to meet my father at 4:30pm when he got off from work at the Veterans Hospital where he was a laboratory technician and we would take the long ride home together, me with my school books and he invariably reading Reader’s Digest (which I have recently read is going out of business)—it would be years and years later before I realized that my father read Reader’s Digest to keep up on his self-education even though he probably couldn’t read at a college level. All of that and more of that is wrapped up in the simple memory of dancing my chest close pressed to her budding breasts. While I don’t remember many specifics about that moment, I am certain of one thing: one of the songs to which my dear friend and I danced was Bobby Blue Bland from his new album Two Steps From The Blues. bobby bland 04.jpg I’m not sure what people who didn’t grow up on this music hear when they listen to songs like “Lead Me On,” but for me it is an emotional pause button that instantly segues into rewind. I’m back there. The lower back, the sweetest spot (or so it seemed at that time) on a young woman’s body. And the smell of pomade and Vaseline, perfume came later. We were just out of childhood crossing over into adolescence, moving in exploratory ways to learn who we were and wanted to become, fumbling with bodies that were transforming and trying to figure out what to do with the chemistry those carousing harmonies had released into our bodies. “Lead Me On.” Just take my hand, and lead me on. What more was there to say, her ear pressed against your cheek, you breathing gently on her neck, hoping your palms were not too sweaty. Oh the emotional terribleness of that tender budding. Unlike an old keepsake which has withered, a preserved flower, say, pressed between the pages of a school book that was kept for sentimental reasons; or even the slightly out of focus image of an old, faded Polaroid, it’s faint, sharp chemical smell long ago faded to scentlessness; unlike near ancient memorabilia mothballed in some secret space, “Lead Me On” remains fresh, turning your eyes into a gently flowing fountain of sparkling tear droplets that are the morning dew on your memory flowers blossoming in your mind as your past grips afresh, holds you securely just like you did what’s-her-name at that dance. What all of the above is trying to get to is a suggestion of how this music is more than music for some of us, more than something to listen to. These songs—and I’m speaking specifically about the ones from Two Steps From The Blues—these are songs that opened us in our youth, accompanying our steps into adulthood, and open us now in our elder years as certain synapses in our brains give rebirth to the beginnings of our maturing. In music we live again. And then five years later, I’m in Northfield, Minnesota, profoundly perplexed, profoundly dissatisfied and paradoxically profoundly exposed to worlds of information, ideas and experiences I previously never knew existed. There I was, snow coming down in March, listening to Bobby Bland sing “As Soon As The Weather Breaks.” I can remember half-convincing myself that Bobby wrote the song just for me… and here, I must make a strange note: I may have the situation all backwards. By that I mean, maybe I didn’t hear the song while I was in Minnesota, maybe I heard it later and when hearing it at that time, Bobby’s baritone so perfectly capsulized my recall of misery in Minnesota that I conflate the two even though they may have happened years apart. Music is such a strong time machine that it can bridge eras, melding desperate moments into a seamless whole. bobby bland 09.jpg For me, these beautiful songs succinctly reflect life experiences in ways no other art form does. The feeling is both instantaneous and profound, immediate and thoroughgoing. I am back on that stone patio. The soft rustle of our clothing encountering each other’s bodies. The feel of the fabric. The young flesh. The young night. And this new music, or as the Dells would say, “oh, what a night!”

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Robert Calvin Bland was born January 27, 1930 in Rosemark, Tennessee. His family later relocated to Memphis where he came of age. Like many of his contemporaries, he started out singing in church before moving on to become a mainstay of the blues. Although he had been building a reputation in the late forties and early fifties, his ascent was interrupted by a brief stint in the army. But it was all the way on once he got back to Memphis in 1954. In 1961 Houston-based Duke Records under the direction of Don Robey released what I believe is one of the classics of blues recordings: Bobby Blue Bland’s Two Steps From The Blues. Although he would go on to become an icon of the blues whose distinctive baritone and signature growl are instantly recognized, Bobby Bland has never made another record as important or as successful as Two Steps From The Blues. And that’s no knock against Mr. Bland. Nobody else after Bobby has made a blues record that is the perfect balance of uptempo jump blues numbers and achingly exciting slow drag anthems. (Oh, by the way, since Two Steps From The Blues came out in 1961, that seminal slow drag with a now nameless young lady probably took place at the end of my eighth grade year.) What I believe Two Steps From The Blues captures is the transition of the blues from traditional forms into newer urban forms: moving from small pick-up groups to jazz bands; from guitar based music to horn filled music; from repetitious two or three chord improvisations to meticulously arranged, multi-chord compositions; from juke joints to school stages, gymnasiums and small, segregated concert halls. This music mirrored the development of urbanized African American society in the south. (I should also point out that even though Two Steps is Bobby Blue Bland’s signature album, the musical director Joe Scott deserves co-billing for his top-notch arrangements which combined old blues and jazz in an intricate and innovative amalgamation that was both immediately familiar and beguiling new.) Two Steps From The Blues epitomized what was happening in Memphis and Jackson, in Birmingham and Houston, and to a lesser but no less important extent, what was happening in New Orleans and Atlanta, and a double handful of other major Southern cities. Find a black person over sixty who was born and reared in the deep south, play Two Steps From The Blues for them and watch how sentimental they get. This recording may never have made number one on the Billboard charts, but in the hearts of some of us, Two Stepswas top shelf. You’d be hard pressed to find another recording that so completely encapsulates a seminal moment in our social development.
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bobby bland 08.jpg I should say a few, quick words about the balance of Bobby Blue Bland’s recordings. While Mr. Bland is generally characterized as a blues singer, most of his records are beyond hardcore blues. He certainly employs rhythm&blues elements in the majority of his work but there are also ballads and occasionally even mainstream standards. More significant than the repertoire, Bobby Bland has a laid-back approach to singing the blues that might best be described as cool blues. Even when he’s excited or exciting, he’s never rushing. I remember working up in Greenwood at the annual blues festival. Even though Mr. Bland did his set sitting on a stool, he had us as excited as if he were doing splits and flips. There is a paradoxical intensity at the core of his coolness that countless, more frantic performers seldom achieve. Listen to Bland’s urban tale of social woe, no screaming, no hollering but it’s nevertheless a devastating portrait that even employs police/dispatcher voices to underscore the prevalence of crime as the social wallpaper of the ghetto. Or there is “Yolanda,” an upbeat song of being fleeced by the tricks of a fast woman who drives a “bright red Cadillac.” Rather than depressing, somehow, Bobby Bland transforms these tales into songs of uplift—well, maybe not uplift, but certainly songs of survival. The mixtape ends on a triumphant, looking back note with “After All.” It’s the still standing optimism of those who have survived hard times. It bespeaks the wisdom of love that has weathered the tensions and tears that patina all long lasting relationships. Sung, ultimately with deeply felt respect, in terms of the lyrics that is a blues anomaly, but in terms of the survival essence of the blues, “After All” is all the way down in the corner pocket of the blues. After all one must be alive to sing the blues, and in its own sotto-voiced manner, this song is resplendent in asserting the beauty of blues people who use what some might misconstrue as mournful songs to celebrate our survival. —Kalamu ya Salaam Bobby Blue Bland Mixtape Playlist 01 “Two Steps From the Blues” - Two Steps From the Blues 02 “I'm Not Ashamed” - Two Steps From the Blues 03 “Don't Cry No More” - Two Steps From the Blues 04 “Lead Me On” - Two Steps From the Blues 05 “I Pity the Fool” - Two Steps From the Blues 06 “I've Just Got to Forget You” - Two Steps From the Blues 07 “Little Boy Blue” - Two Steps From the Blues 08 “Turn On Your Love Light” - The Best of Bobby Bland Bobby 09 “Call On Me” - The Best of Bobby Bland Bobby 10 “Farther Up The Road” - The Best of Bobby Bland Bobby 11 “There Ain't Nothing You Can Do” - The Best of Bobby Bland Bobby 12 “Stormy Monday” - The Best of Bobby Bland 13 “Ghetto Nights” - Blues At Midnight 14 “Yolanda” - Dreamer 15 “Cry Cry Cry” - The Best of Bobby Bland 16 “This Time I'm Gone For Good” - His California Album 17 “Road Of Broken Hearted Men” - Touch Of The Blues And Spotlight On Bobby Blue Bland 18 “A Cold Day In Hell” - Dreamer 19 “Soon As The Weather Breaks” - Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 20 “Goin' Down Slow” - His California Album 21 “Dreamer” - Dreamer 22 “Recess In Heaven” - Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 23 “After All” - First Class
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           Mtume Sez:           Slow jamming, huh? By the early 80s - when I was coming of age - the art of the slow dance was all but dead. At least, in my circles it was. We still used to listen to the slow jams but we'd just be hanging out - talking, wishing, pretending, dreaming. A bunch of boys and girls kicking it in smoky living rooms and darkened hallways, the stereo cranked up loud, pounding out the slow jams. The bass turned way up, just pounding. Those were the days. The neighbors must've loved us. On the subject of Mr. Bland, I don't know the vast majority of these records, but somehow, even though Kalamu posted 23 (!!) Bobby Bland jams, he missed my favorite two - "I'll Take Care Of You" from Two Steps From The Blues and "Ain't No Love In The Heart Of The City" from Dreamer (1974). I guess Bobby's just that deep. You can throw down with 20-plus records and still not hit all the high points. —Mtume ya Salaam
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          Kalamu Sez:          I hear you on your favorites. I considered both but decided to stop at six as far as selections from Two Steps From The Blues. Like I said, that album is a classic. And actually had chosen “Ain’t No Love” but wanted to include some of the other tracks and started backing up because I had over 25 selections—yaknow, you got to stop somewhere, plus we had featured “Ain’t No Love” on BoL before. Nevertheless you are correct those two are high points. —Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 5:44 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “BOBBY BLUE BLAND / “Bobby Blue Bland Mixtape””

taro nombei Says:
August 24th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Bobby Blue Bland is an artist I just don’t know well enough — at least, not until now.
Thanks as always, Kalamu, not just for the turning us on to the music but for sharing through your great and evocative prose!

Betty Says:
August 25th, 2009 at 12:44 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Mike Mastin Says:
October 4th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

When I was 11 my parents relocated from England to Canada. Elvis was the rage and I dug him-but on my first Elvis long play I fell in love with a song I never heard on the radio “So Glad Your Mine”. Take a listen, you’ll see that this English boy was hard-wired to appreciate the blues. Fast forward to the sixties, football player Willie Fleming had a short lived one hour spot on the local rock radio station-first song he played was “I Pity the Fool” by Bobby Blue Bland-I was hooked, and as good fortune would have it the Bobby Bland Revue arrived in Vancouver soon after-I became a fan for life, was even lucky enough to join Mr. Bland between shows in Toronto for an informal chat. I consider my life was changed forever by the music of Bobby Bland.

cbabyz1 Says:
October 14th, 2009 at 5:53 pm

We in my hometown love Mr. Bland. He was a big influence on me and my friends when we were growing up. To this day whenever he comes to town . My friend know where we will be headed.4th and B or where ever he shows up at. Evelyn and I love him dearly and also Herman that is no longer playing with him.we miss Mr. B.B.B.

E. S. Says:
October 15th, 2009 at 4:57 am

Enjoy reading your blog. Glad I came across it. Love Bobby Blue Bland. The last time I saw him was June, 2003 in Los Angeles. Would love to see him again. Is he still performing? Does he tour?

cbaby Says:
April 14th, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Let me start out by saying we love you Mr. Blue Bland. I have been enjoying your music every since I was a young girl living at home. My mom use to listen on the old record albums the 33s. I still have the two steps from the blues on the old album. I also have all the ones that I bought when I became an adult. plus on dvd, i pod ect. I use to talk to Herman in the B.B.B band. I try to get to see the shows when they come to town. My friend Eveylyn is one of the biggest fans. My birthday and Bobbys is 3days apart. I missed the show this year but, I understand there was a big bash that was thrown for Bobby. I hope that everone had a nice time. Much love to Bobby and a belated happy happy birthday. From a long time fan in San Diego ca.

Charles Farley Says:
March 26th, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Amen, brother! You must have been with me in junior high, cause you nailed it to a T.
I think you might enjoy my bio of Bobby, Soul of the Man–available at the usual places.
Thanks–good stuff!

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