I owe Bobby Bland a real debt of gratitude.
Not just for the time he always graciously gave me (Bobby was the definition of “gracious”), particularly when I was working on the profile of him that appeared in Lost Highway.
Not just for the music he gave the world, which, like Sam Cooke’s, was an extraordinary blend of silky-smooth and deliberately rough. In Bobby’s case – and I guess he was like Sam in this, too, and, obviously, an entire generation of gospel-based soul singers – he took his inspiration from Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Nat “King” Cole on the pop side and from the gospel shouters on the “rough” side. Particularly Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys and, of course, the Reverend C.L. Frankin, Aretha’s father, from whom he always said he got his patented squall. (Listen to Rev. Franklin’s “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” if you don’t believe me.)
But I said that I owed him something more – and I do.
Bobby “Blue” Bland gave me my vocation.
I first met Bobby when he was appearing at the Sugar Shack in April of 1975. I had published Feel Like Going Home three and a half years earlier. At the end of that book (and you’re going to laugh at me here) I bid a fond farewell to the world of music writing. “I consider this chapter a swan song,” I wrote in the Epilogue, “not only to the book but to my whole brief critical career. Next time you see me [Note the Little Junior Parker reference!] I hope I will be my younger, less self-conscious and critical self. It would be nice to just sit back and listen to the music again without a notebook always poised or the next interviewing question always in the back of my mind.”
I told you you were going to laugh. But I really did quit – for about two years. I wrote another novel. Oh, I might have written a few things about music, but then the devil in the form of Jim Miller, who had recently become Music Editor of the Real Paper, lured me back, first with the promise of my own column, which I called “Jackie Wilson Said!,” then with a request for a profile of Waylon Jennings. Which was followed a year or so later by the opportunity to do a story on Bobby “Blue” Bland.
That’s how I came to spend a week with Bobby when he was appearing at the Sugar Shack in Boston, just after finishing a country album of which he was very proud. I won’t go into the story of that whole week – suffice it to say, it was thrilling, enthralling, fascinating and inspiring, to various degrees and in various turns. But the point of this story is that in the course of that week I experienced an epiphany, a word for which I am frequently rebuked by my writing students – and rightly so.
This particularly epiphany had partly to do with Bobby Bland, partly to do with the Sugar Shack, but most of all to do with me.
It was a rough week for Bobby. The Sugar Shack was a rough club (demi-monde might be a polite way of describing it), and Bobby said at one point that he hadn’t had a good night – a night when the music really set him free – all week. One night I stayed after the show until 2 or 3 in the morning, waiting for a horn rehearsal that never happened, which ultimately resulted in the firing of a member of the band. The club was in a sad and bedraggled state, as clubs tend to be after all the customers are gone (remember, this was in the days when smoking was not only permitted but encouraged, and the air was permanently thick with fog), and the only people left in the room had either long since completed their business or were frustrated by the business they had left to complete.
Anyway, the next day I went for an interview for a teaching position at an exclusive private school outside of Boston. My Boston University teaching gig had run out, and I knew I had to make some more money, if only to support my writing.
Well, I went out to the school – I knew the headmaster, who had been a teacher of mine in another life – and I had a very pleasant, altogether affable lunch, discussing books I loved, like Tristram Shandy, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Confessions of Zeno, and V. It was all very civilized.
But then I went back to the Sugar Shack that night – and, you know, I’m not really sure at this point if the failed horn session preceded or followed my prep school audition, but it suddenly hit me that I would rather spend the rest of my life listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland and waiting for a horn section rehearsal that never happened than spend a minute in an exclusive private school, even teaching books that I loved. And that resolve lasted a lot longer than my retirement notice at the end of Feel Like Going Home.
Bobby, as I say, was a wonderfully gracious man, possessed of a storehouse of keen insights based on what he always referred to as “mother wit.” Check out the fine documentary about him, Two Steps From the Blues, by Paul Spencer, who also made the wonderful Solomon Burke documentary, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.
But most of all listen to his music, that unexpected blend of the seductive and the apocalyptic. Listen to “Little Boy Blue,” a song that Bobby didn’t sing often in later years, because, as he said, “You can’t just stand up and do it at will. It takes a lot of effort to make it come out – I mean, like it supposed to.” But occasionally, if he was really feeling the spirit, he did do it – and when he did, he definitely made it feel just like it was supposed to.
Bobby put his whole soul into the music. You can hear it in all his great numbers from his signature adaptation of T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday” to one of the most beautiful (and resigned) of racial declarations, “Lead Me On.” I could pick out several dozen of Bobby’s greatest (did I mention “I Pity the Fool”?) – but it doesn’t really matter. Choose your own. But don’t hold back. Let Bobby draw you in, the way he always would. Let Bobby lead you on.