Bland says he probably would have done OK if he had stuck around Memphis. But he acknowledges that Robey’s ticket money put him on the right track to work with the right musicians.
“I was gonna sing, period. Eventually, I would have hooked up with Stax [Records] or somebody. But I thank Don Robey today. If he hadn’t looked through his list [of artists] and sent $13.80. …”
If Robey hadn’t forced the deal, Bland might not have met Joe Scott, who was the arranger Bland credits for helping him create his smooth vocal sound. In Memphis, Bland had cut records and earned an early reputation singing in The Beale Streeters with B.B. King and Johnny Ace. But he lacked a distinctive style. He tended to copy rather than create.
“I listened to all the records on the juke box,” Bland says. “I did everybody [but] I didn’t have any style. I had all my ears open. [Scott] showed me how to do the approaches. He knew my voice.”
Through the ’60s and ’70s, Bland continued to record and became a huge attraction for black audiences. But he admits he never cracked the white market like his friend B.B. King. Bland is not sure why, but he has a theory.
Bland guesses that maybe it’s because he doesn’t play an instrument. “The white community, they love the guitar, period. I mighta had a better opportunity if I had. It just didn’t happen. If it hada been labeled rock ‘n’ roll it would have crossed over. Nevertheless, I’m not bitter. The system works like it wants to.”
Now 73, Bland continues touring, and Saturday he brings his seven-piece band to the Richmond Convention Center. He also records frequently and two weeks ago he began preproduction for a new CD. He admits singing doesn’t come like it once did. But as a student of the game, Bland treats his vocal instrument with care.
“I hit some things and some things I miss,” he says. “But after all the years in the business, you learn a lot of shortcuts. At 73, you can’t do some of the things. But you take your time. …You might use the same [vocal] run, but you take a different approach.”
Bland says he sees a few young faces at his show. He laughs when it’s noted that these fans are probably the ones who come to see the guy who first made “Farther On Up the Road” and “Turn On Your Love Light” hits in the ’50s and ’60s (later recorded by Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead, respectively). Bland has reason to be proud of his career, his Grammy lifetime achievement award and Hall of Fame inclusion.
“I think we left our mark,” he says simply, “I took the challenge. I survived a little, I guess.” S
Bobby “Blue” Bland plays the Greater Richmond Convention Center, Saturday, Nov. 29, at 9 p.m.. Millie Jackson, Sterling Harrison and Jesse James also perform. Tickets cost $40 and are available through Ticketmaster outlets including Ukrop’s and the Landmark Theater or by calling 262-8100.
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