You know how it feels—you understand
What it is to be a stranger
In this unfriendly land
Here’s my hand
Here’s my hand
Take it darling—
And I’ll follow you
Bobby Bland first sang those lines fifteen years ago; it is not likely that there is another singer alive who could bring them to life as fully as he has done, all across the country, in bars, nightclubs, and one-night stands, ever since.
The man’s touch is very soft. He guides a listener into his song as firmly and gently as he guides his guitarists through their solos. When Bland sings “St. James Infirmary” he makes his way through the familiar, inevitably melodramatic horns that begin the song, to places the song has never been before.The pace of the music seems to slow, and you feel his hesitation as he draws back the sheet that covers his lover’s face. When he reaches out to touch her lips, you feel the chill. And he will not get out of the song, nor will he let you out, until he has taken it as far as it will go. “It took me five years to learn how to sing that song,” Bland once said. He is not a facile artist.
When the blues began to move from the country to the city in the `40’s, many new styles were formed: the rough, vulgar music of Wolf and Muddy Waters, still basically tied to Mississippi; the hot R&B coming out of the Sun Studies in Memphis: the jump blues of Roy Brown, and later B.B. King: and a softer, smoother sound that Bland, Junior Parker, and Johnny Ace created.
Tending towards ballads, often using strings and horns, this music was in its way closer to the original country blues than any other. Its soul was melancholy; its loneliness cut as deeply as loneliness can. Yet unlike the country blues of Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson, this new music was as romantic as it was despairing; the singer took you to the edge, and led you back.
You can hear this in the arrangements of Bland’s finest songs (and the best of them are on Two Steps From the Blues—Duke 74). The first notes are all tension, as if some sort of blasted optimism is rising through a storm. Then Bland comes in and the music drops back: it’s his story, and the story is all in his phrasing, in his timing, and, perhaps most of all, in his sympathy for the men and women who walk through his songs.
“I know you’ve been hurt/By somebody else,” he sings to a woman in “I’ll Take Care of You.” “I can tell by the way… you carry yourself.” And you—he sings to that woman, and to you if you are listening—you could tell the same thing about me: all you have to do is look. And if you can’t tell by looking, Bland’s song says—then the song will teach you how to see.