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]


Photo of Nat King Cole nataliecole3 natraliecole4

Being the Show Biz offspring of a Show Biz legend is a hard row to hoe. Nobody stood up to a truly legendary legacy better than Natalie Cole, whose father, in addition to being one of the great boogie piano players and jump band leaders in post-war R&B was the first black man to truly cross over into super-stardom singing romantic ballads that sold in sufficient numbers to guarantee white women were listening.

It’s a sad commentary on our present state that his daughter, having done more than her share to maintain the bridge between cultures he helped build, died in an America where that bridge stands on shaky ground at best. When she burst on the scene in the mid-seventies, after slogging through the night-club circuit on the way to developing a fusion of pop and modern R&B that would mark a distinct path from her father, she became a fundamental part of an era that seemed to promise permanent crossover, one where the tribes would one day actually get along.

Instead, of course, the tribes soon began running back to themselves and continued doing so through Natalie’s decade and a half of hits which, from “This Will Be”  to her incendiary cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” continually demonstrated that it need not be so.

Her career climaxed, in what amounted to a combination of sweet irony and desperate times calling for desperate measures, with an album of duets electronically arranged with her long deceased dad. In the seventies, she had been the first female performer to have two platinum albums in the same year (a list I’m guessing never grew very long). In the nineties, she went platinum seven times over singing with a beloved parent she had initially tried to distance herself from musically.

Not too surprisingly, there were demons, including long bouts with heroin and crack addiction.

Though she eventually shook free, the damage done was doubtless at least part of why she collapsed from congestive heart failure on New Year’s Eve.

Every step along the way, she gave this world a lot….

….I hope we don’t live to see the day the world takes every bit of it back.



I’ve been thinking a lot about ballads lately. By “a lot” I guess I mean, even more than usual.

The more than usual bit kicked in around a week or so ago, when I listened to a couple of “Ballads” comps from Hip-O Select’s series of such. Hearing their James Brown collection for the first time–and being blown away by it, by the fact that this was about the tenth best thing we think of when we think of James Brown and that it’s both mind-blowing and past any easy exegesis–led me to the other disc I have from the series, which is a similarly staggering set from Brenda Lee.

And all of that got me to thinking–or remembering–that the real reason rock and roll took over the world for thirty-plus years wasn’t just because the fast and loud singers got better (as opposed to just faster and louder, which is what the common narrative would have us believe) but because the ballad singers got better, too.

I know, I know. Me on my high horse again, contending that Tony Williams and Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison went places even Doris Day and Nat “King” Cole (my picks for the greatest pre-rock balladeers) simply couldn’t go. Once more admitting I’d rather listen to Clyde McPhatter than Billie Holiday (great as she is) or Elvis in full-on strings-and-horns mode over Sinatra being eminently tasteful (or enervated, depending on your perspective).

What can I say? Guilty as charged.

But this recent bout of contemplatin’ got me wondering just how deep the divide really runs. I mean, how many rock and roll balladeers would I have to list before I got to a pop singer (we’ll leave country and gospel out of this for now–though I’ll say they are a lot closer to the spirit of rock and roll than Tin Pan Alley and some heavy Don Gibson time these past few weeks has certainly brought home just how much closer)?

I decided it would run pretty deep. I didn’t make a list or anything, but–given the modern definition of “ballad,” which is pretty much anything that tries to pack an emotional wallop into a slow tempo–I’m guessing I might get to thirty or forty before I even started considering any Pop singers besides Doris and Nat, and maybe fifty or more before I actually put another one in place.

Even after all that, it turned out I wasn’t quite through, because yesterday, on the daily run to the grocery store (hey, it gets me out of the house, which, believe me, I need)–I turned to an actual music station for the first time in about a month and ran into the Rolling Stones’ doing “Angie” (#1 in 1973–their last except for the disco-ish “Miss You” in 1978) backed up by Neil Young doing “Heart of Gold” (his sole #1, from 1972).

It happens I wasn’t really thinking of Mick Jagger or Mr. Young for my “top balladeer” list. And you have to use that stretcher of a definition I cited above to really call these ballads. But they do demonstrate the depth of field that was operating at rock’s high tide.

As it also happens, I have some emotional ties to both.

“Heart of Gold,” always brings back rides to baseball practice in the spring of ’72. I was eleven. My dad worked in the afternoons. My mom didn’t drive. The baseball fields weren’t anywhere near my school. Nobody on the team lived near me. That meant I was riding with my brother-in-law, who would pick me up on his way from Titusville to Merritt  Island every afternoon and deposit me at the practice fields about twenty minutes late, where I would get dirty looks from all the coaches and most of my fellow players even though everybody knew I didn’t have a choice. Male bonding!

That was the year I almost quit baseball–five years before it quit me. Mixed memories to say the least and I can understand why my brother-in-law doesn’t remember it. Sometimes I’d like to forget itmyself. But “Heart of Gold” played on the local Top 40 station every day that spring at the same time on the late rides into practice and I seldom encounter it without thinking of those times and smiling a little over how long it took me to become a Neil Young fan!

“Angie” was sort of wrapped up in male bonding, too. Or maybe I should call it male anti-bonding. It was the first Rolling Stones’ single I bought (from one of those oldies’ bins I had started to haunt, some time in the late seventies) and one of the first songs I ever had to “defend” in one of those snark-fests young males get into when they are calling each other’s tastes into serious question.

The extent of my defense was not exactly the stuff high school legends are made of. Following a rather lengthy rant from the other guys about how there was this really great, slow, acoustic guitar playing and then Mick had to start whining and make everybody want to puke, I think my response basically amounted to “Hey, I like it. Sounds good to me.” That and a little smirk that was designed to suggest I just might be onto something. End of discussion!

I learned early. The more mysterious the better.

So, whenever I heard “Angie” through the years–and I’m pretty sure, given the proximity of their release dates, that it and “Heart of Gold” have been chasing each other around quite a bit over these four decades–I mostly thought about the weirdness of me sticking up for a record by the Stones (about whom I have always maintained a certain ambivalence) against rabid Stones lovers who happened to hate the first Stones’ record I loved.

Then, on September 11, 2002–the first anniversary of you know what, when it was already evident that “you know what” was not going to be taken seriously and that, except for the soldiers we asked to get shot and blown up for the privilege of accepting our “thanks,” we really were all going to go shopping and let it go at that–I was riding around, listening to the radio, and heard those acoustic guitar chords my long-ago debate club buddies had praised, not because they liked beautiful acoustic guitar lines (trust me, they didn’t) but because whatever Keith did was cool (even if it was just duet-ing with Mick Taylor) crawling through my speakers.

The song changed for me in that instant.

Listening to Mick sing it that day didn’t change it back.

It just cemented the change in place. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, just what/who the song was about. I’ve read that “Angie” was supposed to be Marianne Faithful, Angie Harmon, Keith’s daughter and none of the above.

Take your pick.

As for me: From September 11, 2002, to now it’s always been about the sound of goodbye and, whatever it was supposed to “mean,” I’ve also developed a sneaking suspicion that the what/who Mick Jagger was really saying goodbye to was himself.

There has certainly never been any recorded evidence on this side of the divide that the man who was responsible for so much transcendent  music that had been recorded in the previous decade still exists.

So here’s to our nation of shoppers.

Goodbye us.



(NOTE: I want to preface this by saying that the commentary on the “Nashville Establishment” below does not in any way reflect my general feelings about country music, which I love as deeply as rock and roll, or its many great artists, who are in no way responsible for what Adam Smith liked to call “the vile maxims of the masters.”)

In the first four Parts, I laid out some numbers that demonstrated the extraordinary cross-racial appeal of early rock and roll generally, and Elvis Presley in particular. based on chart data before, during and after Elvis’ mid- to late-fifties peak.

This time around, I’ll take a look at what all this meant on the country charts.

First, some quotes:

“When rock and roll cracked open the pop market for Southern white singers, for a couple of years (1956–58) it looked as if the margins between ‘pop’ and ‘country’ were being wiped out. Producers in Nashville organized their sessions with an ear to what had worked for Elvis Presley, and brought in electric guitars, boogie piano, harmonica, saxophone and vocal groups to embellish their arrangements and give their records ‘teen appeal.’ And for a while, country stations played the records as enthusiastically as the pop stations: Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and Gene Vincent, had country hits with their rock ’n’ roll records alongside the dual-market hits made by the Sun rockabillies in Memphis.

“But in 1958, the country music establishment reasserted the segregation between pop and country which had prevailed before rock ’n’ roll and country radio virtually boycotted records which sounded as if they had been made with the pop market in mind. From then on, artists had to decide which way to go, country or pop, knowing that to choose one route would mean sacrificing the other.

“For a Southern white singer, the pop market was always an elusive target, being more accessible to the artists and producers based near the main media centres, and most of the singers who had broken through eventually retreated to the more predictable and reliable country market. But they were not always allowed to make the switch overnight, and many had to endure a two- or three-year period of ‘paying their dues’. criss-crossing the South with tours that took them into every country music club on the circuit, before radio programmers accepted them into the country fold.

“Elvis Presley’s career reflected the change in attitudes. His first 11 hits for RCA were all equally big country hits, to “Hard Headed Woman” in June 1958: suddenly, country radio play dropped right off, and Elvis had no more records in the country top ten until 1971, when his straight country renditions of ‘I Really Don’t Want to Know’ and ‘There Goes My Everything’ were finally, if grudgingly, accepted. The story was similar for the Everly Brothers, who had only one minor country hit after they joined Warner Brothers. Brenda Lee had no country hits at all during the period when she had 19 hits in the top twenty. Conway Twitty had no country hits until 1966, and Roy Orbison never did make the country charts. All of them recorded in Nashville, but that was not enough to qualify as ‘country’.

“From 1958, the world of country music virtually isolated itself from the world of pop, and most of the time it seemed that this was the way the major labels chose to keep it. Each of them appointed a Nashville-based A&R man to oversee their country music roster of artists, and little effort was made to push even the biggest country stars on pop radio.”

(Source: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillett, 1983, Revised Edition)

“‘That’ll Be the Day,’ Buddy Holly’s chart debut, came too late to make it on country radio. If this recording had come out even a few months earlier (Holly had already cut another version of the song for Decca that flopped), Holly likely would have climbed the country charts as swiftly as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. By the summer of 1957, though, the Nashville Sound had been building momentum for a year already–”Don’t Be Cruel,” “Gone,” “Young Love,” and “Four Walls” had all been major hits. Consequently, rockabilly acts were in the process of being banished from country play lists: even established stars like Elvis and Jerry Lee wouldn’t be on country radio much longer.”

(Source: Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, David Cantwell and Bill Friskes-Warren, 2003)

“The Grand Ole Opry didn’t take kindly to those Elvis fans booing Hank Snow off that stage in Jacksonville. Only a few days after the incident, the Opry let it be known throughout country music circles that its regular performers would no longer be allowed to appear on any show that included Hayride artists.”

(Source: Louisiana Hayride Years: Making Musical History in Country’s Golden Age, Horace Logan with Bill Sloan, 1998)

Then some history and numbers (the usual caveats about chart data as purely objective evidence discussed in previous parts still apply):

Billboard published its first “country” chart–based solely on juke box play–on January 8, 1944. For the first year, it was not all that different from a mainstream pop chart. The first #1 hit was a duet by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (which would be the rough equivalent of a duet by Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys somehow topping the country charts in the nineties–which is to say the world does not always move in a straight line.)

That first year, there was also a degree of racial integration which would not come close to being replicated for more than half a century. Louis Jordan had two number one hits and the King Cole Trio had another. No black artist would top the country charts again until Charley Pride in 1969 (see here for the numbers on Pride’s highly anomalous career).

Beginning in 1945, the country chart truly became an entity more or less unto itself.

Here’s the subsequent breakdown of Country/Pop crossover in the relevant periods:

Records that topped both the Country and Pop Charts:

1945–1955: (5)

1956–1959: (13, including 6 by Elvis, 3 by the Everly Brothers, 1 each by  4 others)

1960–1972: (3, one each by Jimmy Dean, Bobby Goldsboro and Jeannie C. Riley)

1973–1975: (8, including 2 by John Denver, one each by six others)

1976–1978: (1)

As with the R&B charts, the numbers tell a significant story of the challenge rock and roll presented to the existing order (and also indicate a resurgence of that challenge in the much-despised mid-seventies).

Beginning in early 1956, Elvis had six Country/Pop #1s in about eighteen months. That was one more than all acts combined had in the previous eleven years.

Again, as with R&B crossover, the second most impressive act throughout the late fifties was the Everly Brothers, like Elvis, southern whites who recorded principally in Nashville.

We saw, in the previous posts, what happened with R&B crossover through time: There was a wavering back and forth, but, after the Elvis earthquake, a constant pressure was maintained that led to occasional full integration of the R&B and Pop charts and, finally, increasing crossover (which led ultimately to a modern “hip-hop” era when black artists often dominate the Pop charts as thoroughly as whites did in the pre-rock years).

As we can see above, the Country/Pop relationship had a very different history.

In the fifties, Elvis represented the same sort of cataclysmic challenge to the existing Country/Pop dynamic that he represented to Pop/R&B.

But country music was different from both Pop and R&B in one particularly crucial respect: It was–and is–centrally controlled.

As far as I know, there’s never been a thorough dissection of the exact ways and means by which Nashville chokes off competition (though Logan’s memoir provides a good, rough outline by detailing the Grand Ole Opry’s systematic demolition of the Louisiana Hayride–already by far the most serious threat ever posed to Nashville’s hegemony even before it became the launching pad for Presley’s first national success).

But the language in the quotes above probably tells us most of what we need to know: “boycotted,” “virtually isolated,” “banished,” “no longer be allowed.” Those are phrases normally associated with a police state and, however it was accomplished, the Nashville “ban” certainly had a KGB-like effectiveness.

The degree to which the country establishment’s jihad against Elvis was personal can only be guessed–but the best guess is that it was extensive.

The story of Elvis being given the cold shoulder at the Opry in the months before he broke out on the Hayride was well known from the beginning. The bitter taste it left in his mouth–not so much that the audience didn’t respond (his relationship to Vegas proves he could get past that) as that he was treated with contempt by the powers-that-be in the auditorium itself (and, of course, famously told to go back to driving a truck, a sneer that has never entirely lost its currency)–has become clearer in recent years as more and more biographical information has been assembled.

At any rate, within a year or two, he had his revenge on country radio–and had it with records principally recorded in Nashville using the same studios and session-men every other country star used.

Then–coincidentally?–he was drafted.

Whether Nashville’s tactics (which almost certainly included refusing to deliver traditional country records to country stations that played Elvis or any other rock ’n’ roll star) would have worked as well if Elvis had been around to represent an ongoing challenge remains an intriguing “what-if.” What is obvious is that it wasn’t a fight he had any chance of winning from an army base in Germany.

The final purge that resulted was breath-takingly thorough, as Charlie Gillett’s research cited above indicates.

By 1960, country music had resurrected a wall around itself which was not even remotely threatened until the mid-seventies–when it was beaten back just as quickly and decisively (the signature symbolic event in that case was presenter Charlie Rich taking out his cigarette lighter and burning the card he had just read that announced John Denver was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year–an ugly incident the basic absurdity of which was compounded not so much by Rich’s admitted state of inebriation as by the fact that he himself was a successful crossover artist who was no closer to being “pure” country than Denver).

Just how high and effective the wall was in the beginning, though, can best be demonstrated by delving into Gillett’s point just a little deeper.

To wit:

When Tex Williams took “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” to #1 on both the pop and country charts in 1947, he spent 16 weeks at #1 Country and 6 weeks #1 Pop.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford took “Sixteen Tons” to the top in 1955, it was 10 weeks #1 Country, 8 weeks #1 Pop.

Even when Elvis took “Heartbreak Hotel” to the mutual top in 1956, it was 17 weeks #1 Country, 7 weeks #1 Pop.

In other words, under the old order, a country-charting record that managed to get to the top of the Pop chart was almost certain to spend longer–often much longer–at the top of the Country chart. And even in the volatile 1956–59 period, there was at least a rough parity.

In the last ten months of 1960, however, Nashville based artists spent 21 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts with six different records. (3 by Elvis, 2 by Brenda Lee, 1 by the Everlys).

Every one of those records got to at least the top ten on the R&B chart.

On the Country charts, four of them did not chart at all and the remaining two, (“Stuck on You,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,”) got to #27 and #22 respectively.

“Boycotts” don’t get much more effective than that.

Of course, country music fans did not “suddenly” stop listening to Elvis and the Everlys–and suddenly reject Brenda Lee (like the Everlys, almost literally a child of Nashville and, like both they and Elvis, eventually a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) and Roy Orbison in 1960, anymore than they had “suddenly” rejected Louis Jordan and Nat Cole in 1945.

But, as is usually the case with hidebound establishments, order was even more important than profit. And in the specific case of the Nashville establishment, it’s not hard to believe that the maintenance of racial order was most important of all.

Which leads us into the not-so-intricate explanation of the “why” of it all.

Nashville’s relationship to the mainstream has always revolved around a tricky but very simply defined dilemma: How to access the profit margins available only in the pop market while preventing interlopers from breaching the wall in the other direction–in other words, how to reach out from a protected space and grab the maximum amount of free-floating cash without letting any similarly grubby hands come reaching in from the other side.

As a business model one can at least present an argument–weak and facile, but not completely nonsensical–that this has been effective.

As a model for anything other than business it strikes me as pretty repulsive.

Much as those high-handed gents backstage at the Opry hated Elvis, there were things they hated even worse. At the back of the challenge early rock ’n’ roll represented, the history of the country was always lurking. The guardians at the Nashville gate knew quite well that if Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers were riding over the hill, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry wouldn’t be far behind.

They also knew that if they could shoot down Elvis, the rest of the riders would scatter hither and yon–that the assault would die with him.

They were right and the implications of the Nashville “ban” have been damaging the culture ever since, not least because they’ve played a major role in ultimately re-segregating American music, not only by race, but by class and generation as well (a state of affairs now accepted–even championed–by “realists,” of every imaginable political stripe, even as the popular audience keeps finding ways to express the common-sense desire to be done with this nonsense).

To the extent that the ban/boycott/no-longer-be-allowed phenomenon has ever been explained, it’s always been explained with some variation of the same theme: It was just business.

Of course.

And that’s the eternal problem with “it’s just business.”

No matter how ugly and false the sentiment is on its face–it’s always a mask for something worse. (For an extreme example, read any basic “Lost Cause” treatise on the “economic necessity” of slavery, a style of argument now also routinely adopted by African-American scholars bent on defending African slavery–the great minds among us really do think alike.)

By breaching the barriers between the carefully segregated Pop, Country and R&B charts to a degree which had not come close to happening before (and which, genius being the funny thing it is, could not have been achieved to anything like the same extent by anyone else), Elvis forced the honchos in every corner of the music industry to make hard choices. In Nashville, at least, the weight of those decisions leaned heavily and rapidly toward a greatly clarified end–to take whatever steps were necessary to make sure it never happened again.

Since at least the mid-sixties, it has been fashionable among the mostly liberal crit-illuminati to mock–or at very least seriously question–the idea of Elvis as either artistic or cultural Revolutionary and, not coincidentally, to treat with scorn any revival of the unique coalition he built against immeasurable odds in rock’s early dawn (which is how the early sixties and mid-seventies  came to be counted as rock’s famous descents into Hell, halted by the British Invasion and Punk respectively).

So it turns out the lefties on the sixties’ ramparts and the Klan-lovin’ Nashville suits had something in common after all.

To paraphrase the late, great Lester Bangs: They’ll never agree on anything as they agreed on Elvis.

(In Part Six, I’ll take a look at the unprecedented cultural assault on Elvis (which can, of course, also be traced by reading the “Stupid Things” posts) in the fifties and beyond. I’m also working on a post dedicated to “In the Ghetto” for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” segment….Til then!)