TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (Track-By-Track)

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.

Bobby “Blue” Bland (far right) with Elvis Presley and Junior Parker

[Next up: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Rock and Roll Through the Ages….As Bottomless as I Always Suspected)

Item #1: The local “path” station, which tries to be free-form and fresh and, every once in a while, succeeds, ran the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels” (a hit in 1984 and a radio staple ever since) into the Clash’s “London Calling” (title track to their epochal 1980 album). It felt exhilarating and also–after the manner of good free-form listening across the board–like a bit of a competition. Go-Go’s won of course. Not so much because they could play rings around everybody (not just the Clash) or any one of their five members could take over any record they made at any second (a rock and roll ideal if ever there was one) as because “Been running so fast, I nearly lost all track of time” and “The whole world’s out of sync” and “I waited so long, so long to play this part” all feel a lot more appropo of the modern malaise than “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” or “the Ice Age is coming” or, especially “I have no fear.” Look, the Clash were great. Really great. I broke more rulers banging to “Death or Glory” than any other record in existence back when I still had my share of youthful angst. But music and politics are funny things and, sooner or later, in rock and roll, you have to be able to stomp and you have to tell a truth that won’ t wear out. Both bands did their share of that. But, great as Joe Strummer and the boys were, they couldn’t quite stomp or tell the truth like the band that had Belinda Carlisle for a lead singer. Probably because they strained just a little too much for those very effects. Passing strange that. And very rock and roll. (All apologies: There is no half-way decent audio on ANY of the versions of “Head Over Heels” on YouTube at present and I’m way too swamped to upload it myself…so, in this case, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that, when it’s cranked up loud, it’s even better than this:)

Item #2: Caught Cyndi Lauper’s Live At Last concert from 2004 (Thanks YouTube–Nice makeup!). Just FYI: It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 16 years to induct the epic white female vocalist of the sixties (Brenda Lee). It took them 22 years (and the announcement of a debilitating disease) for them to induct the epic white female vocalist of the seventies (Linda Ronstadt). How long for the epic white female vocalist of the eighties I wonder? 30 years? 40? Who knows. (I mean, I like the Hall. And, eventually, they get most things right. But it would be nice if they got on the stick for once.) In other words, how long before race and gender really don’t matter? You know, the way it was supposed to be. Now…where was I? Oh yeah, the Cyndi Lauper concert from 2004. Jaw-dropping. But then her concerts pretty much always are.

Item #3: Johnny Ace: Aces Wild. (Fantastic Voyage, 2012). Speaking of jaw-dropping. I’ve had the Johnny Ace Memorial Album for decades and I’ve gotten to know it pretty well but not exactly inside and out. This greatly expanded 2-CD look at his career came up cheap in a sealed copy on Amazon so I took a tumble. It’s got one of those seemingly grab-bag formats that almost never work but somehow comes together here: All Johnny’s solo stuff for most of Disc One (great..and revelatory…never knew, for instance, that he did a duet with Big Mama Thornton). Then five (count ‘em, five!) tribute records released in the immediate aftermath of his Christmas, 1955, murder/suicide/accident (depends on who’s doing the telling). Not the greatest records (nor is the additional one at the end of the second disc), but solid enough, and their very existence tells a lot about the mans’ impact.

The second disc consists of Ace’s fine piano session work for three other artists: A good solid R&B cat named Earl Forest, who would probably sound really, really good in pretty much any other context, but sounds pretty pedestrian here because he’s splitting time with a couple of guys named B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And not just any old B.B. and Bobby, but young, hungry haven’t-quite-made-it versions of same and man do they smoke.

One thing, though. B.B. King and Bobby Bland were greater–I’d even say much greater–singers than Johnny Ace. But they couldn’t match him for weirdness. And they didn’t end up on the wrong end of a gun on Christmas day. So Johnny Ace, morose, affected, stranded at the bottom of a well, at times nearly toneless, has one thing on those greater artists who can’t help breathing fire and presence into the room: He can’t really be explained. That’s probably why, even after an hour’s worth of truly scorching sides from his pals bringing their very best, it was still “The Clock” and “Pledging My Love” that hung in the air when I retired for the night and got ready for a very Happy Easter!

 

“YOU KNOW HOW IT FEELS, YOU UNDERSTAND, WHAT IT IS TO BE A STRANGER IN THIS UNFRIENDLY LAND….” (Bobby “Blue” Bland, RIP)

He was often called “the Sinatra of the blues.” Nice marketing phrase, I guess, but, personally, I always thought it sold him short. For all their famously shared love of meticulous phrasing, Bobby “Blue” Bland went over and over again to places neither Sinatra or any other saloon singer ever dreamed of going–places where, for that matter, few singers ever go, irrespective of marketing category.

If those places need further definition, then the best I can come up with is to suggest that they can only be found in the land that marks the difference between soothing and healing.

Between, you know, how far saloon singing can actually reach and the epic side of the blues, which, in the hands of its few titans, always carries the history of nations in the same bag as the darkest nights and (lest we forget) brightest suns of an individual soul.

Even among the titans, there are a chosen few–those who become the markers and standards for everyone else. American music has probably produced no more than a dozen such. Bobby Bland, who died today at the age of 83, was one of them. He was virtually alone in his ability to shift–often within a single couplet–from the most delicate crooning to the hoarsest shout and then back again without a hint of strain, all while rarely, if ever, losing himself in the standard excesses of false modesty and restraint (the bane of “pop” singers) or over-emoting (the bane of gospel and soul singers).

I’ll probably be listening to him a lot in the next few days (not an unusual occurrence at my house in any case, but the finality of death does focus the mind).

And “Lead Me On” and “Two Steps From the Blues” and “Farther Up the Road” and “I Pity the Fool” and all the others will surely come around:

But, for today, I figure I may as well start here, with the most appropriate title of all:

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Cry, Cry, Cry” (Studio Recording)