Two Steps From the Blues (1961)
Bobby “Blue” Bland
(This is the third in my Track-By-Track sub-series on my twenty favorite vocal albums of the 20th century. We’re up to 1961!)
There’s no one quite like Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the late fifties he invented a new blues voice, one that balanced shouting and crooning so effortlessly that he can be heard all over the voices who came behind him. Not much else connects the rawest Otis Redding to the smoothest Aaron Neville. Moreover Bland didn’t stay on the surface. He went as deep as any of his acolytes and, for the most part, he went there first. This, collecting sides he cut at sessions in 1960 and some modest hits he had recorded in the late fifties was his definitive statement. You won’t be able to tell which is which without a scorecard, nor do such distinctions matter to any but statisticians. It’s a concept album because Bland’s was a conceptual career. They called him The Sinatra of the Blues. I’d say, not lightly, the comparison flattered Sinatra.
“Two Steps From the Blues”–One month from the day I first met you, your promises proved to be untrue. Thus begins the journey. Isolated, desperate, yearning. All of that blues aficionados had heard before. What might have been new, even on a Bobby “Blue ” Bland record was the delicacy, the precision, the desire to make each rain drop land softly, softly, like a prelude to Chinese water torture….or the sweet relief of turning it off.
“Cry, Cry, Cry”–Why? So it could be continued for another minute or two before being followed by a hurricane shout? Hey, why not. What else could follow it.
“I’m Not Ashamed”–Some people call me the biggest fool in town, but I’m not ashamed. He’s ashamed. He’s just helplessly, hopelessly caught in a trap which black women had been told for centuries they couldn’t possibly build strong enough to hold a man. They probably always knew better, but I bet it felt good hearing a man finally admit it.
“Don’t Cry No More”–Now the lyrics turn towards comfort, even as the voice gets rawer, deeper, faster. Towards the end, he starts to croon, probably to exclude all the men from the conversation.
“Lead Me On”–You know how it feels, you understand, what it is to be a stranger in this unfriendly land. Possibly the loneliest record ever made. The rest of the album provides most of the competition. The phrasing and timbre on the last line give a clear guide to what this gut-bucket blues man learned from Nat “King” Cole.
“I Pity the Fool”–I pity the fool that falls in love with you…and expects you to be true. The surging horns are a straight harbinger of 60’s soul. Bland turns the neat trick of shouting the verses and crooning the chorus. The playing under the final chorus presages jazz rock and contains everything useful it would ever be. He croons over that, too.
“I’ve Just Got to Forget You”–Now he tries to get over what we know by now you can’t get over. Certainly not while listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland.
“Little Boy Blue”–Told you so.
“St. James Infirmary”–Out of nine hundred versions, many of them classic, the only one you need. He closes by reminding the world she’ll never find a man like him, presumably not even in Heaven…and finding three ways to say She’s gone, none of which give away whether we should feel worse for her or him.
“I’ll Take Care of You”–I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. I can tell by the way your carry yourself. Loneliness presented as a disease comprised of music, sound, arrangement, melody. The cure is ten percent words, ninety percent the voice singing them.
“I Don’t Want No Woman”–The closest he comes to a conventional reading of a conventional blues. Also, not coincidentally, the closest he comes to straight out defiance. l don’t want no woman telling me how to live my life. If the rest of this album didn’t exist, you might even believe him.
“I’ve Been Wrong So Long”–A complete summation of all that has gone before, including the shout of defiance…now sublimated, but, no matter what the words say, not entirely dismissed.
See, I told you it was a concept album!
After Bobby “Blue” Bland, certainly after this album, black music could never be the same. And, in the twentieth century, when black music couldn’t be the same, neither could America. All this we’ve forgot. But the journey goes on.
[Next up: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat]