R&B legend Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, who influenced everyone from Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to The Band and Van Morrison, died June 23 at his home in Germantown, Tenn., a small town near Memphis. He was 83.
Though not a household name like B.B. King, Bland was every bit as much a pioneer, albeit an unlikely one. He never played an instrument or wrote music, and he dropped out of school in the third grade to pick cotton. But his velvet voice and relaxed stage presence set him apart from his contemporaries. “I’d like to be remembered as just a good old country boy that did his best to give us something to listen to and help them through a lot of sad moments, happy moments, whatever,” Bland said in 2009 on the House of Blues Radio Hour.
If the blues typically burn hot, with stories about heartbreak, grief, and trials of the flesh, Bland lowered the temperature. Sure, in his early days in the mid-1950s playing clubs and serving as an opening act for other blues musicians, he mimicked the B.B. King approach, wailing and sobbing on songs like “It’s My Life, Baby” and “Farther Up the Road” as if hell had come to earth. But by 1958, Bland partnered with trumpet-player Joe Scott and radically changed his style.
Drawing from mellow crooners like Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Tony Bennett, Bland started to convey laid-back intimacy with his vocals. He abandoned his falsetto and embraced a slow-burn approach that would influence decades of soul acts after him, like Redding and Pickett. It’s why “That’s the Way Love Is” broke out of the R&B chart to become a Top 40 pop hit in 1963. And when Kanye West was looking for some molasses-smooth soul to add to Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” on 2001’s The Blueprint, he sampled Bland’s 1974 lament “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City.”
In the late ’60s and ’70s, his gentle approach to the blues influenced The Band, who recorded his 1964 song “Share Your Love With Me” themselves, and Van Morrison, who was known to play Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do” in his live shows.
That’s why he got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. And it’s why we’re still listening to his music now. The only thing bland about Bobby ‘Blue’ was his name.