Greatest Hits, Volume One: The Duke Recordings
Rating: 9 (library disc)
It’s funny how collective memory works if you ask most people about the blues, the mental image they’ll conjure is of a Delta crossroads in the Depression, or maybe a postwar Chicago nightspot, but not a thriving element of 1960’s music. The truth is, though, that blues records were great sellers among African-American audiences through the end of the 1960’s. All those white bluesmen were not so much reviving an old tradition as extending a popular form to a new audience (this makes Eric Clapton the Vanilla Ice of the blues.)
Towering over the sixties blues scene were two giants: B.B. King and Bobby Bland. While King has gone on to a revered position as a national icon, Bland is hardly remembered outside of the circle of aging blues fans and record geeks. Perhaps it’s because Bland didn’t play any instrument in an age that worshipped guitarists, or simply because he never shilled for McDonald’s, but in any case it’s a shame, because Bobby Bland is a master of blues singing, whose style and repertoire have largely defined modern blues.
Bland’s presence was so pervasive that many of his signature tunes have entered the public consciousness without taking his name along with them. “Further On Up the Road”, “I Pity the Fool”, “Ain’t That Lovin’ You”, “Turn on Your Love Light”, “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” all Bobby Bland records, but until I found them on this record, I simply thought of them as old standards, like “Blue Moon” or “Old Man River.” (Interestingly, most of them bear the composer credit for Deadric Malone, who never existed Don Robey, owner of Duke Records, simply bought out the rights of any song he wanted to record, and copyrighted them under the Malone name.)
But Bland’s prominence was due not just to picking great tunes; he was also a superb singer, and virtually every vocalist who has wanted to sound “soulful” since has taken a page from his book: a menacing growl in the lower register, heating up to a gruff shouting style when he’s agitated. But that’s just one side of Bobby Bland: he’s also got an easy grace that caresses the melodies, with a supple richness and an elegant approach. Not only does he hit every note, but he delivers just the right manly attitude to go along with it.
For while Bland was a richly emotional singer, he always kept his dignity. Without resorting to hysterics or bluff machismo, he was able to convey the entire spectrum of human feeling in a riveting manner and always keep his cool. “I Pity the Fool” may be his most famous number, and it’s a classic. You can practically hear his head shaking as he lays out the verse with resignation, and then the microphone practically explodes as he cries out the bridge with vein-bursting fury. Similar moments abound in his career, from the resolute “Further On Up the Road” (which Dave Marsh calls the most influential record of the decade) to the soothing “I’ll Take Care of You” and the slinky “Ain’t That Lovin’ You?”, Bobby Bland always delivered the goods.
Although this record’s not perfect (where’s the majestic “Lead Me On”?), no greatest hits record ever is. It’s still a great place to start if you want to appreciate an unacclaimed master of the blues.
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