I Smell Trouble : Bobby "Blue" Bland©2002JCMarion


Robert Calvin Brooks was born in Roseland, Tennessee on January 27, 1930. While a boy working in the cotton fields, the musical influences that would shape his career were all around him. The church of course was number one with its gospel feel and direction. Another was the broadcasts of the Grand "Ol Opry on clear channel station WLAC which was heard all over the South. Attending school while he was able to was often secondary to the cotton crop and the picking season. As a teenager he moved to Memphis and it was then that he adopted the surname of his father and was known as Robert Bland. He joined a gospel vocal group called The Miniatures that performed for various Black churches in the Memphis area. His first musical gig outside the field of gospel was with the band of Adolph Duncan in 1949. Bland would soon gravitate to the city's "home of the blues", the famous area known as Beale Street and fall in with a group of struggling blues musicians known informally as the Beale Streeters. The group's members were at various times B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, Phineas Newborn, Junior Parker, Earl Forrest, and Willie Nix. Bland earned a few bucks parking cars at Billy's Garage for the customers at Beale Street's night clubs and theaters. He gave his singing a test by taking part in the talent shows hosted by Rufus Thomas at the Palace Theater. As B.B. King gained fame as a blues musician, Bland secured employment from King as his chauffeur and valet .

The young blues singer was soon befriended by well known promoter and owner of the Club Handy on Beale Street, Sunbeam Mitchell who soon secured a spot on the radio show of Rufus Thomas on WDIA for Bland. He also appeared with the Johnny Ace revue in the region. During the summer of 1951, Bland records at the Memphis Recording Service studio for Sam Phillips. The results are two tunes that are leased by Phillips to Chess Records in Chicago. The songs are the topical "Letter From A Trench In Korea" and "Crying". Rosco Gordon plays piano on the session and the tunes are soon released on Chess #1489. Nothing much happens with this record, and so in November of 1951, Joe Bihari signs Bland to record for his L.A. based Modern Records label. In early 1952 Ike Turner sets up a session with Bland to record with his Kings Of Rhythm combo, and four tunes are cut for Modern but they get lost in the shuffle of various new releases. In May of that year Houston, Texas R & B nightclub owner and Peacock Records president Don Robey purchases the Duke Records label owned by David Mattis of Memphis and moves operations to Texas. He soon announces the signing of Bobby Bland to the label. By September his first release for the new company is out. The songs are "I.O.U. Blues" and "Lovin' Blues" on Duke #108. It was about this time that Uncle Sam stepped into the picture and Bobby Bland entered the services of the U. S. Army. As he is service bound, his recording for Duke results in the first flush of success for the singer. By the end of the year "Lovin' Blues" is a best seller in Memphis, Houston, Dallas, and New Orleans.

In 1953 he was away from the music business, but the following year he kept in touch with those in charge at Duke Records and was able to record while on leave. In September of that year Duke released "Army Blues" and "No Blow No Show" on #115, and this record had limited success. By April of 1955 he was discharged from the army, and Don Robey and Joe Scott of Duke Records welcomed him back and planned an immediate return to the recording studio. Now known as Bobby "Blue" Bland his first post army single was released in May on Duke #141 - "It's My Life" and "Time Out". By August "Life" is the side that is selling especially in Chicago and Detroit. In November of the year "Woke Up Screamin" and "You Or None" is released on Duke #146 and takes off immediately while "It's My Life" is still selling nationally, the first record by Bland to break out of regional popularity.

In 1956 Bobby "Blue" Bland begins touring the country with fellow Duke label blues man Little Junior Parker. This tandem will remain a top draw on the R & B circuit for years. That spring they hit the West Coast for the first time and are backed up by the Bill Harvey Band which featured Roy Gaines on guitar and the ever present Joe Scott on trumpet. In early June Bland records "You've Got Bad Intentions" and I Can't Put You Down Baby" on Duke #153. By the summer the record is a top seller in Atlanta and doing well in other southern cities. The constant sales of his records have made Bland a top draw on the R & B circuit, and in October Buddy Ace joins Bland and Junior Parker on the road putting three Duke Records blues artists to share the stage across the country. At years end Duke #160 is released by Bland - "I Don't Believe" and "I Learned My Lesson" are the songs.

In 1957 Bobby "Blue" Bland would record two songs that defined his style and set the stage for a most prolific period of recordings at the start of the next decade. The first of these was "Farther On Up The Road" which featured a mid tempo loping boogie beat behind some explosive guitar work by Duke veteran session man Pat Hare. It became the first big national hit and has remained a classic R & B tune covered by many artists most notably Eric Clapton. The second tune was a killer slow blues given the magical Bland vocal style, a song titled "I Smell Trouble". He gives it the "feel" with a crooning title line, then up to a shriek on the words "way up yonder, ahead of me" and all this over smoking guitar licks by Clarence Holliman. You can hear the influence of the vocal style of B.B. King, but still has the originality to be Bland's own trademark.

Bland begins 1958 with "Teach Me How To Love You" and "Bobby's Boogie" for Duke on #182. In February Bobby appears with KCOH radio dj Clifton "King Bee" Smith in Houston for a live broadcast. Bland's latest is a huge hit in the Chicago area and also a top seller in his home town of Memphis. In May of 1958 Bland is featured on a new Duke LP called "The Barefoot Rock" dividing time with his road partner Little Junior Parker. He was previously featured on a Duke compilation LP called "Like 'Er Red Hot". Bland also has a new single in release by Duke on #185 - "You Got Me Where You Want Me" and "Lend A Helping Hand". The last two single releases by Bobby "Blue" Bland feature the guitar work of Clarence Holliman. In July the Bland-Parker combo are huge draws on the West Coast due to exposure to the "Barefoot Rock" LP. In late summer "Little Boy Blue" is released on Duke #196 and it takes right off selling well in the Midwest. Over the Labor Day weekend, Bland and Parker are joined by their old Beale Street buddy B.B. King for a big R & B show at Houston's Civic Auditorium. "Little Boy Blue" is a big seller in the Midwest - St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago. In November Bobby Bland marries model Grace Towles and will reside in Houston, Texas. At the end of the year Bobby "Blue" Bland records "I Lost Sight Of The World" and "You Did Me Wrong" for Duke on #300.

In April of 1959 "I'm Not Ashamed" and "Wishing Well" are released on Duke #303. The record is a steady seller in New Orleans and Memphis. In August "Someday" and "Is It Real" are issued by Duke Records on #510. Over the Labor Day weekend, Bland and label mate Junior Parker play Houston's Municipal Auditorium. "Is It Real" starts to sell in the Northeast. In November "I'll Take Care Of You" and "That's Why" are released on Duke #314. As with his previous record, Bobby Bland sees some sales in the pop music area, especially on the West Coast.

In the late 50s and into the early 60s, Bland continued to tour with Junior Parker and the Blues Consolidated shows. Despite the changes in popular music sweeping the country and world, Bobby kept his R & B credentials cranking. Songs such as "I Pity The Fool", "I'll Take Care Of You" (written by pop singer Brook Benton), "Two Steps From The Blues", and two monster hits from the early 60s "Turn On Your Lovelight", which became a staple of the Grateful Dead and R & B fan "Pig Pen McKernan, and "Yield Not To Temptation" in 1962 kept Bland in the spotlight. His version of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues" followed in 1962, and the next year came "Call On Me". The next few years produced hit songs such as "That's The Way Love Is", "Share Your Love With Me", "Ain't Nothing You Can Do", "Poverty", and "I Ain't Doing Too Bad". By the late 60s Bobby "Blue" Bland was a blues institution in America appearing at events such as The Harlem Cultural Festival, Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and jazz festivals at Newport and Monterrey. He made many TV appearances also in those years, and became a favorite of European audiences.

In 1973 Don Robey sold his label catalogs to ABC Paramount, and so ended a twenty year affiliation with Duke and its top arranger and session man Joe Scott. Some of his work in the mid and late 70s seem to reflect Bland's admiration for the work of pop singer Perry Como, as the hard edge of his music seem to fade with age. But this was not the direction he would continue, and into the 90s, his sixth decade in music, Bland returned to his blues and gospel roots. He has received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammy committee, the Pioneer Award from the R & B Foundation, and has been inducted into both the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

One of the lucky things about the life and times of Bobby "Blue" Bland is the wealth of recorded material that has survived for more than fifty years. The original LPs are divided by decades - the 60s on Duke, the 70s on ABC labels, the first half of the 80s on MCA, and the second half of the 80s and the 90s on Malaco. The best of the CDs are as follows :

MCA 10665 - "I Pity The Fool" - Duke recordings Vol 1 (2CD)

MCA10957 - "Turn On Your Lovelight" - Duke recordings Vol 2 (2CD)

MCA114446 - "That Did It" - Duke recordings Vol 3 (2CD)

MCA11783 - Greatest Hits Vol 1 - The Duke recordings

MCA11809 - Greatest Hits Vol 2 - The ABC and MCA recordings

Ace 302 (from England) "The 3B Blues Boy" - Duke recordings Vol 1

Ace 323 (from England) "The Voice" - Duke recordings Vol 2

MCA 112158 - "20th Century Masters : The Millennium Collection - The Best of Bobby "Blue" Bland

Of course there are duplications on these compilation albums. The MCA 3 volume set contains all Bland's work from the early 50s through the late 60s and gives the most complete record of his work for Duke. Following are Malaco CDs from the past fifteen years.

Malaco 5000 - "First Class Blues"

Malaco 7429 - "Members Only"

Malaco 7439 - "After All"

Malaco 7444 - "Blues You Can Use"

Malaco 7450 - "Midnight Run"

Malaco 7458 - "Portrait Of The Blues"

Malaco 7469 - "Years Of Tears"

Malaco 7478 - "Sad Street"

Malaco 7489 - "Live On Beale Street"

Malaco 7495 - "Memphis Monday Morning"

That is certainly a satisfying amount of music from the career of Bobby "Blue" Bland, one of the foremost practitioners of America's "own" music. From the cottonfields of Tennessee to the recording studios of Houston, to the world's stage, the artistry of Bland has help tell the story of a music and its people. For more than a half century the eyes and ears of the world have listened to his story, and every one of us has been rewarded for the privilege of experiencing the music of the one and only, Bobby "Blue" Bland.

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