Pardon the fuzzy scan, this one sure sounds good on 78 rpm.
Singing live on Memphis’ WDIA, the first all black station in America.
Singing live on Memphis’ WDIA, the first all black station in America.
Bobby “Blue” Bland (born Robert Calvin Brooks, in Rosemark, Tennessee, 1930) has been for over half a century “The King Of The Chitlin’ Circuit”, and remains so. His voice is all shot to hell, and he can no longer stand up onstage, but he’s still out there on the road, and although he gets plenty of good bookings at places like House Of Blues, casinos and festivals, a good portion of his gigs are still southern “Chitlin’ Circuit” clubs where his loyal audience is full of large boned ladies of color, and every table has a bottle of Crown Royal (served in a blue velour bag) on it. He is of the most influential rhythm and blues singers of all time, the source of such standards as Turn On Your Lovelight, Further On Up The Road and I Pity The Fool and had a string of R&B hits that stretched over forty years, he was still making the R&B charts regularly with his Malaco releases into the early 1990’s. His career is too long and he has made too many good records to cover in one posting (although I’d recommend to anyone single out there, if you don’t own a copy of his Two Steps From The Blues LP, get one, I used to keep it along with Sam Cooke’s Night Beat next to my stereo as my “guaranteed to get you laid” records. If you’re making out and Two Steps From The Blues doesn’t close the deal, you’re hopeless).
No, today I shall discuss the discs which emanated from handful of sessions cut between 1955 and 1957 with wild man Roy Gaines or the immensely talented Clarence Hollimon on guitar, for these are his rawest, and to my mind, best, most explosive sides.
In a coconut shell, Bland’s family moved to Memphis when he was seventeen. He began hanging around on Beale Street and fell in with a loose group of musicians who wore shiny suits and are often referred to as the Beale Streeters, although they never used that name themselves,– Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Earl Forrest and Little Junior Parker. He cut his first disc in 1951 fronting a band with Ike Turner on piano and Matt “Guitar” Murphy on, guess, right, the guitar. “I’ll Love You Til The Day Die” was released on the b-side of the Chess version of Rosco Gordon’s Booted (Booted, in an alternate take was also released by Modern’s RPM subsidiary, although Bland wasn’t on the flip of that version). He recorded tunes, including a duet with Little Junior Parker for Chess and RPM under the tutelage of Ike Turner before signing with Memphis DJ James Mattis’ Duke label who released I.O.U. Blues b/w Lovin’ Blues (on which B.B. King played guitar) in ’52 and then he was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army. Bland was stationed in Texas and while in the Army did some gigs around Houston and also recorded some sides for Duke including Army Blues b/w No Blow, No Show (Duke 115). When he was discharged in 1955, Duke Records, along with Bland’s contract, had been sold to Don Robey, the Houston based, black-Jewish gangster who ran the powerhouse R&B and gospel Peacock label and a snazzy sepia nightclub called the Bronze Peacock. Robey wasted no time in getting Bland in the studio and in February 1955 in Houston, Bland was coupled with producer/arranger Joe Scott and band leader Bill Harvey whose killer group included Connie Mack Booker on piano and Roy Gaines on guitar, for a session that produced his most incendiary disc– It’s My Life Baby b/w Time Out (Duke 141), along with two outtakes– Honey Bee and Lost Lover Blues that were as good as anything he’d ever record. All four songs feature the voluminous guitar of Roy Gaines (who later cut such classics as Skippy Is A Sissy for RCA and Loud Mouth Lucy for Chart). Having already blogged about Guitar Slim, Mickey Baker, Wild Jimmy Spruill, Pete “Guitar” Lewis and Lafayette “The Thing” Thomas, et al, I think I am running out of verbs to describe wild, distorted, blues based guitar work outs. Brutal. Have I over used that one yet? Gaines’ solos on the above sides are truly brutal. If the solo on It’s My Life Baby doesn’t pin your ears back, there may be something wrong with your ears.
Bland was becoming a popular club draw and soon teamed up with Little Junior Parker and together they went out on the road as the Blues Consolidated tour. Roy Gaines was soon hired away by Chuck Willis who made him his band leader and he was replaced by the equally unique and talented Clarence Hollimon, then still a teenager. Holliman would be featured on Bland’s next set of recordings– I Woke Up Screaming (Duke 146, and from the same session but left in the vault A Million Miles From Nowhere), You’ve Got Bad Intentions Baby b/w I Can’t Put You Down Baby (Duke 153), I Smell Trouble b/w I Don’t Want No Woman (Duke 167) and Farther Up The Road b/w Sometime Tomorrow (Duke 170). The latter, released in 1957, would go to #1 R&B and kick off the string of R&B hits that would stretch over the coming decades. His next two records– Bobby’s Blues b/w Teach Me (How To Love You) (Duke 182) and Loan Me A Helping Hand b/w You Got Me (Where You Want Me) (Duke 185) were not hits, but are excellent none the less. We end our discussion with a four song session from 1958 that produced his next hit– the wailing, ultra-dramatic Little Boy Blue b/w Last Night (Duke 196) and You Did Me Wrong b/w I Lost Sight Of The World (Duke 300). The version of I Lost Sight Of The World posted here is missing the flute overdub heard on the original disc, I hope you don’t mind. As Buddy Rich once said (and not to Ian Anderson)– “there’s no sound in flutes”. Little Boy Blue, a masterful vocal performance by Bland, would go top ten R&B in October of 1958. These sides all prominently feature the ferocious, nearly out of control guitar playing of young Clarence Hollimon. How he managed to remain such an obscure figure in the ensuing years is a mystery to me. But soon, as Bland’s music changed there would be little room for Hollimon’s extreme tendencies, and the sound of a distorted guitar would pretty much disappear from Bland’s records, replaced by more sophisticated horn charts and often saxophone solos. From 1959 on, Bland’s sides would become smoother and more urbane, a formula that proved a winning one for in addition to dozens of hit singles Bland produced a string of classic albums cut with producer Joe Scott (or sometimes our old pal Zephyr Andre Williams)– the aforementioned Two Steps From The Blues (1961), Here’s The Man (1962), Call On Me (1963), Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do (1964), and The Soul Of The Man (1965) that presented Bland as a polished, mature, worldly, uptown blues singer. While I’m talking albums, Bland’s first– Blues Consolidated (1959) which features one side of early Bland hits and another side of Little Junior Parker’s Duke classics is one of the greatest albums ever made. It was also one of the first blues LP’s ever released and became highly influential with younger musicians, nearly every song on it would become a blues band standard.
Bobby “Blue” Bland would tour the world, working 300 days a year or more for the rest of his life (although these days it’s down to around half that), as well as all of the achievements mentioned in the first paragraph. While Bland carried on, Clarence Hollimon left Bland’s group in ’59 and Bland would, for a time, share a band with Little Junior Parker as part of the Blues Consolidated road show, so Hollimon’s replacement was Pat “I”m Gonna Murder My Baby” Hare for a couple of years. Clarence Hollimon would resurface in the late 1980’s and form an act with his wife– Carol Fran, the singer/pianist who had cut a string of fine sides for Excello in the early sixties. Too bad they recorded for Black Top. I’ve made my thoughts on Black Top’s production values in my Robert Ward posting last year, I won’t go into it again, suffice to say Hollimon was still playing well, but he was recorded badly. He passed away in 2000. The best examples of his guitar prowess remain Bobby Blue Bland’s early Duke sides. No home should be without them.