The Man

Bobby “Blue” Bland (1930-2013) made me one too

The Man

Bobby “Blue” Bland is The Man. There’s no other way to think about the singer. Though he passed away last Sunday at 83, for me Bland will live forever. He came into my life when I was young, and for the past 50 years has been a light I always looked to when I wanted to hear music that touched the heart. Bland taught me what soul was and never let me forget.

The singer came into my life when I was 12, playing at the Carlisle’s house down the street from my home in Houston. It was 1962, and their family had a recreation room complete with a tournament-level pool table. Their father, long since absent from the five Carlisle boys’ home, owned a lounge near the Ship Channel called the Crow Bar and probably got an extra table for his kids.

Robbie was the oldest Carlisle and had a Triumph motorcycle, black leather jacket, and juvenile delinquent’s outlook. He also had the Bobby Bland album Here’s The Man!!! The first time Robbie put it on, with that introduction – “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s The Man! I mean The Man! The sensational! The incomparable! The dynamic Bobby! Bobby Bland!” – I got chills.

From there, the Joe Scott Orchestra blasts right into “36-22-36,” and for a 12-year-old to hear that song while shooting pool with teenage hoodlums-in-training, drinking little bottles of ice-cold Coca-Cola and pretending to be a grown-up, well, life changed right then and there. Songs like “Turn On Your Lovelight,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Your Friends,” and others seemed to burn right off the turntable.

Bobby Bland’s voice came from another world. He sounded like a savage angel, someone who could wrap you in soothing splendor at one point, and then turn around and scare you to death at another, all in two verses and a chorus. He was larger than any life I’d discovered, and during the summer of 1962 I spent as much time as I could at the Carlisle’s, listening to Bland’s album and watching their mother Lola walk around in a short black negligee and high-heeled slippers during the day, drinking Bacardi and Coke and smoking Pall Malls.

The curtains had parted for what lay ahead, and Bobby Bland’s otherworldly singing took me there. I wanted to remain for the rest of time and never leave. I really didn’t know exactly where it was, but I did know that place held secrets I had to learn.

A year later, my older brother Bob told me Bobby Bland was playing at a black nightclub called the Pladium Ballroom, and he was going. Of course I set up a scenario where he had to take me too, and one cold winter night we found ourselves on Southmore in the Riverside neighborhood of Houston, acting like adults among the cream of Houston’s black music lovers. I knew I’d arrived, even if I looked totally ridiculous.

It didn’t matter, because on nights like that at the Pladium, every person there was riding a high, knowing Bobby Bland was going to sing and turn on the blue lights in our most private of places. Once the Joe Scott Orchestra started with a treacherous instrumental, featuring Bobby Forte on tenor sax and Wayne Bennett terrorizing his big Gibson guitar, total lift-off occurred. Singer Al “TNT” Bragg’s short set was a study in blurred movement as he put on moves beyond even James Brown and Jackie Wilson. After an hour of being primed for Bobby Bland, every single person there was panting for The Man.

Bobby Bland entered the spotlight slow, a lover who knows there’s no hurry to get to the other side. Everything in good time and fine grace is how he approached the first songs, with a sly smile and some bedroom eyes directed at the females up front. When he tore into “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” “Call on Me,” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” the whole audience went delirious.

His voice delivered a narcotic effect on listeners, curing every pain and pointing to a life of bliss. No one else before or since has ever captured that feeling every time he opened his mouth. Heaven descended when Bobby Bland sang, and what I learned that first night at the Pladium was something that’s taken me forward for the next half-century.

In Austin during the Seventies, Bland came to Antone’s many, many times, and each concert felt like a reunion. He had played at the Victory Grill on the Eastside during the Fifties when he was stationed at Fort Hood, and friends and family came out to celebrate with him on Sixth Street. Every blues-loving musician in town would be there too, and Clifford Antone stood at the side of the stage looking like the proud young man he was.

Whichever headliner was in town those nights and likely staying at the Driskill Hotel across the street would also end up at Antone’s, whether it was Bob Dylan, Boz Scaggs, or any other luminary. They all sat at Bland’s feet and heard the beauty of soul at its very deepest level.

One fine night during that time, Bobby Bland played a concert at the City Coliseum. Myself and some friends got hired to do “production,” whatever that was, but I vividly remember waiting for the band’s bus to pull in. Around 2pm, it showed up and all the musicians filed off, went straight to the dressing room, and resumed a card game that probably never ended.

Bland arrived in a Cadillac, and couldn’t have been more dignified. The Coliseum might have smelled like last month’s rodeo held there, but he moved like it was the Taj Mahal. Bland had endless class, something that enveloped his body like an invisible shield, and it never left him.

A year or so later, when I interviewed the singer in an RV parked outside Antone’s, he smiled sweetly as I gushed about his music and the Pladium Ballroom nights, knowing I had the best of intentions even though he’d probably heard such accolades a million times before. Bobby “Blue” Bland was a shy king holding court.

In 1992, after I’d been living in Los Angeles a dozen years and would see him whenever he performed at the Five Torches club on Crenshaw Boulevard at Imperial Highway, I learned he was going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Without question I had to go. Walking into the hotel that night I noticed his band bus was parked right in front, looking a little weary. Not Bobby Bland.

When he accepted the award and gave a few words of thanks, my heart was racing remembering how this man’s music had guided my life for so long. As he came offstage, I approached with my program book and asked for an autograph. He gave me that beautiful smile, and when I mentioned the Pladium, Bland offered a knowing chuckle as he signed.

Another person quickly came to him and told Bland how he’d helped his career over the years, taking credit for promoting hits and who knows what else. The singer gave the seeker a wisened look and apologized, saying, “Sorry son, I don’t have time tonight. I’ve got to get to a gig in Newark.” And off he went.

I’m laughing out loud now at the memory, understanding that Bobby Bland, born to a poor family outside Memphis, was never about stature or even huge financial success. He sang because God had given him a gift and Bland knew he had to share it. In those moments when people look for music to literally save their lives, Bobby “Blue” Bland was, is, and always will be The Man.

I will miss him forever, and listen to his soul-lifting songs even longer. The Man’s lovelight will always shine.

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Bobby Bland, Crow Bar, Pladium Ballroom, Joe Scott Orchestra, Bobby Forte, Wayne Bennett, Al Bragg, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Victory Grill, Antone’s, Clifford Antone, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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