By John Floyd
MAY 10, 1999: Nearly 40 years after its release, Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1960 single "Lead Me On" remains one of the most frightening moments in the pantheon of human expression, a song of despair so bottomless it can crumble even the most stable of emotional foundations. The thing is barely two minutes long, but by the time it's over, "Lead Me On" has saturated your soul and psyche like a virus, leaving you shivering throughout the night, tormented by doubt, teased by blind hope, reaching for something you know damn well isn't there -- or worse, reaching for something you actually think is there and coming up miserably, pathetically empty-handed.
The song was a Top 10 hit on Billboard's R&B chart, but, predictably, it never made a dent on the pop side of the fence. By the always questionable standards of blues purists and the guitar obsessives who rally around the tepid likes of Buddy Guy, the song is probably something of an abomination of the form, with its blatant pop production, soaring vocal chorus, melodramatic strings, and its failure to adhere to the rigidity of the traditional 12-bar structure. Yet "Lead Me On" is as harrowing as the deepest, darkest blues, from Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues" to Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' at Midnight," from Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" to Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail."
On paper, the lyrics -- written by Deadric Malone -- read like little more than the outpourings of a lonely lover begging for solace from the person he thinks he knows best. Hearing them, though, the words transcend mere loneliness or the basic need for comfort and companionship. The portent of doom is established from the minute the ominous, skittering strings and teardrop piano set it up, and Bland answers with a vocal belying the hope inherent in the lyric, begging his lover to walk with him through his loneliness to someplace better, hand outstretched as he repeats the title, pleading for her to take it, while the song concludes amid a swirl of haunting flute and a positively haunted vocal chorale. When it's over, only the most determined, dogged optimist can think even for a minute that she ever took his hand.
Bland more than earned his nickname through songs like "Lead Me On" and the hits that followed, nearly all of which were touched with some kind of romantic pathos, whether they swaggered with the hard-earned assurance of "I Pity The Fool" or flat-out rocked like "Turn On Your Love Light," a gospel-tinged rave-up worthy of Ray Charles. But as a bluesman per se, Bland has always occupied a singular place in the genre. On the sides he cut for the Texas-based Duke label from the late '50s to early '70s, Bland proved he could be as savage and fierce as Muddy Waters (cf., "Farther Up The Road," "I Don't Believe"), or as cocky and assured as Wynonie Harris ("It's My Life Baby," "36-22-36"), and more times than not the production and arrangements of trumpeter Joe Scott fused raw Delta grit with taut, big-city swing and the incessant drive of vintage gospel. Bland could sing with the melismatic ferocity of the toughest sanctified vocalists, but just as often he would croon with the delicacy and nuance of the best white-pop titans of the pre-rock era. He was as comfortable with a full orchestra as he was with a stripped-down rhythm section, a group of wailing horns, and the versatile guitar work of several ace players, most notably Roy Gaines and Wayne Bennett. And his own vision was wide-ranging to the point that he could take songs from such strong personalities as T-Bone Walker ("Stormy Monday Blues") and Charlie Rich ("Who Will The Next Fool Be") and make them his own.
That melding of diverse Southern sounds produced a body of work that wielded immense influence over a number of blues, R&B, and rock singers, both during and after Bland's hit-laden glory years of the Sixties, when he placed a staggering 33 singles on Billboard's R&B chart (27 of which crossed over to the magazine's pop chart). You can hear it in soul singers from Z.Z. Hill to Johnnie Taylor, and the late-night melancholy smeared across his finest sides has drawn the likes of Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Doug Sahm, and the Band to the canon of Bland's greatest hits -- "Farther Up The Road," "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," "Cry Cry Cry," "Black Night," "St. James Infirmary," "Turn On Your Love Light," "Stormy Monday Blues," "Ain't That Loving You," "Share Your Love With Me," "If You Could Read My Mind," and, of course, "Lead Me On."
Robert Calvin Bland was born January 27, 1930, in Rosemark, Tennessee. He and his family moved to Memphis when Bland was 17, and he quickly fell into the local gospel scene, singing in the late '40s with the Miniatures before the secular sounds on Beale Street pulled him from the gospel fold. Along with B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Willie Nix, Earl Forest, and Rosco Gordon, Bland was a member of the Beale Streeters, a sort of loose-knit Million Dollar Sextet. He made his recording debut in 1951 at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service with a pair of songs featuring backup by Gordon and his group and leased by Phillips to the Chess label. The next year, four sides cut under the auspices of Ike Turner were issued on Modern, but it wasn't until Bland was picked up by Duke Records, operated initially by area disc jockey David James Mattis, that he began to find his own voice.
A two-year stint in the Army kept Bland out of the studio, and by the time he was back among the civilian ranks, Duke had been sold to Don Robey, a Houston-based hustler who had been issuing gospel and R&B singles on his Peacock label. Robey soon fixed Bland up with the Bill Harvey Orchestra, whose trumpeter/arranger Joe Scott began adding the string-and-horn-laden charts that would help distinguish Bland from even the greatest of his contemporaries, among them B.B. King and his Duke labelmate (and Sun alumnus) Junior Parker.
Bland wasn't the first blues singer to record amid the often-lavish settings arranged for him by Scott, but few tuned in so acutely to the additional drama they could bring to his already-harrowing voice and his set list of utterly bleak songs of pathos, heartbreak, disappointment, and anger. Throughout the '60s and early '70s, Bland explored the depths of romantic anguish, turning what could've been ordinary blues-based ballads into moments of emotional exorcism, and bringing new life to hoary standards from "Blue Moon" and "Blues In The Night" to "Who Can I Turn To" and "Ain't Nobody's Business." In addition to the countless classic singles, Bland's years with Duke produced a number of equally classic albums that hold together as artistic statements as well anything in the catalogs of Frank Sinatra or the Beatles -- the sparkling 1961 long-playing debut Two Steps from the Blues especially, but also the four follow-ups, Here's The Man, Call On Me, Ain't Nothing You Can Do, and The Soul of the Man.
Most of those albums have been long out of print since the late 1970s, but MCA (which acquired the Duke masters in the mid-'70s) has reissued the bulk of Bland's vintage recordings on a magnificent trio of double-disc sets: I Pity the Fool, Turn On Your Love Light, and That Did It, issued between 1992 and 1996.
Through them all, Bland howls and growls and swoons and croons from the dark underbelly of romance, where promises are broken and love inevitably shatters. Whether begging for redemption on the wailing "Turn On Your Love Light," trying to shake his misery in "I've Got To Forget You," or trying to bring back a drifting partner in "Share Your Love With Me," Bland's mastery of melancholia is staggering: This is quintessential midnight music, no matter what hour it's played.
Although he continued to draw crowds and gain airplay through the '70s and '80s, Bland floundered artistically in the years following his triumphs at Duke. The vastly overrated 1973 release His California Album was a listless experiment in slick pop, and its follow-up from the next year, Dreamer, was even worse. Similarly, his pair of live collaborations with B.B. King -- Together for the First Time ... Live and Together Again ... Live -- lack the fire and energy both men are capable of conjuring on a concert or nightclub stage. As for the Malaco albums he's been cranking out since the mid-1980s, most of them suffer from that label's typically sterile production and material hardly worthy of Bland's superb instrument, which has aged as well as his old Duke recordings.
But like Elvis Presley in the 1970s, when given the right song, Bland can still amaze you, remind you that the vitality of his voice, his artistry, is still there, still potent. That's exactly what he does on the title cut of his 1995 Malaco album Sad Street, a mostly disappointing hodgepodge of ready-made throwaways ("I Wanna Tell You About The Blues," "Mind Your Own Business," "Let's Have Some Fun") and covers both predictable ("God Bless The Child") and out of the blue (a suitably slinky take on Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" that's much better than you might want to believe).
"Sad Street," though, is a marvel -- utterly contemporary, politically charged like the finest call-to-arms soul of the '70s, yet steeped in the legacy of Bland's definitive work. Penned by the ace soul songwriter and ex-Ovations vocalist George Jackson, and musically powered by the veterans of Muscle Shoals soul, "Sad Street" surveys the violence and decay of America's inner cities without succumbing to cheap sentimentality or rose-colored nostalgia, and Bland sings the words like they've been eating at him too long, keeping him awake too many nights. He sounds weary, sick of what he's seeing but unsure of what to do about it, unable to shake the memory of when things didn't seem so bad -- when you could sit on the front porch without taking a bullet, when you could let the kids go outside and not worry about them coming back in a body bag.
"The street that used to be filled with love, all you hear about now is blood," he groans, singing that last word like he's knee-deep in it, with ominous horns and eerie wah-wah guitar underpinning his sorrow and rage. It's a bone-chilling commentary, inseparably linked to Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, War's "The World Is A Ghetto," and Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City."
It's a different kind of sorrow and rage, though, for a man who's spent the last four decades essaying the pain and perils of romance and misery. But as "Sad Street" fades, with Bland facing the realization that he has to call that bleak, blood-soaked place home, the song takes its place next to the sad, desperate likes of "Lead Me On," driving home the fact that, emotionally or otherwise, Bobby Bland has never lived anywhere else.
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