BOBBY BLAND: THE "3B" BLUES BOY – THE EARLY YEARS: 1952-1959 (1991)
1) No Blow, No Show; 2) Wise Man's Blues; 3) Army Blues; 4) Lost Lover Blues; 5) It's My Life Baby; 6) Honey Bee; 7) Time Out; 8) A Million Miles From Nowhere; 9) Woke Up Screaming; 10) You've Got Bad Intentions; 11) I Can't Put You Down Baby; 12) I Don't Believe; 13) I Learned My Lesson; 14) I Smell Trouble; 15) Don't Want No Woman; 16) Further Up The Road; 17) Teach Me; 18) Bobby's Blues; 19) You Got Me; 20) Loan A Helping Hand; 21) Last Night; 22) Little Boy Blue; 23) You Did Me Wrong; 24) I Lost Sight Of The World; 25) Wishing Well.
Other than the kinda dumb subtitle, this collection is a pretty damn good way to get a good picture of Robert Calvin Bland, a.k.a. Bobby "Blue" Bland, in his formative years, when his steady coming sets of singles were not yet reworked into LPs on a consistent basis. There are other compilations on the market as well, and some might be a little (but not a lot) more comprehensive, but the 25 recordings collected here capture all of his sides and sub-periods, except for a few of the earliest recordings that were made for Chess rather than Duke records — so that the rest is essentially for completists.
The biggest turn-off in Bobby Bland's career is probably Bobby Bland's own name — whatever sort of singer would want to be associated with «bland», anyway? — but that bias is pretty easy to overcome once Mr. Bland gets his anything-but-bland vocal cords operating. Granted, throughout the 1950s, he wasn't that much of a «genre innovator»: in fact, the earliest stuff consists of rather generic jump blues, in the tradition of Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner, and then starts drifting towards slow, moody «blues-de-luxe» with a little bit of soul to it, kind of like a Big Mama Thornton (in pants), nothing particularly extraordinary in terms of composition or arrangement — the blues is just the blues, after all.
Two things drag these recordings out of potential mediocrity. First, the arrangements are sharp and punchy. The first few songs rely on saxophones and vibraphones for most of the mood, but after Bobby returns from the Army (an unhappy predicament of his lamented over in ʽArmy Bluesʼ), the emphasis shifts on to the guitar, and there is some damn fine guitar playing on these songs — as far as I can tell, B. B. King is not here (despite being tightly associated with Bobby as one of Memphis' original «Beale Streeters» circa 1951-52), but Clarence Hollimon, Roy Gaines, and, occasionally, Pat Hare, all of them fine 1950s players in their own rights, are just as good, and kick far more ass than is usually expected of a singing frontman's backers. Already ʽHoney Beeʼ, from around 1955, has a terrifically tight, concentrated rock'n'roll solo, and it hardly ever stops from there — Bobby's guitarists play within and around his phrasing all the time, and he is wise enough to let the recordings transform into duets rather than have the spotlight permanently occupied by his own persona.
But the main thing, of course, is the singing. Bobby Bland may be «bland» indeed in that he's no Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf — no big-time voodoo practitioner, just a full-time popular entertainer, like his good friend B. B. In that category, however, the man was essentially peerless already back then. The first great example is ʽLost Lover's Bluesʼ, where he gets to modulate his voice at top range, doing the best thing about a 12-bar blues delivery that can be done — build it up to a climax instead of delivering three interchangeable verses in a row. Later on, the same psychotic falsetto appears in a couple dozen more numbers, but he is being careful about not overdoing it, and there are numerous other emplois tested out — rougher, softer, barkier, croonier, higher, lower, whatever: the guy was testing out approach after approach, obsessed with working out his own style, and it is fun to watch him doing that. (Certainly more fun than sitting through twenty Jimmy Reed songs in a row, no matter how «cooler» Jimmy's «anti-mainstream» style might seem to British boys at the time).
Pat Hare, the wonder guitarist of James Cotton's ʽCotton Crop Bluesʼ fare (hyperbolically called the «first heavy metal song» by those out on a mission to return the stolen back to its owners, but still a damn fine track, by the way), is present only on a few songs here — but he does contribute aggressive, nasty lead guitar to ʽFarther Up The Roadʼ, a number that we usually know as ʽFurther On Up The Roadʼ, in a sped-up version or batch of versions performed by Clapton, but yes, Bobby Bland recorded it first, and here it is in all its primal awesomeness. It was a hit, too, as was ʽLittle Boy Blueʼ, a slow R&B dance number that eventually whips itself into total vocal frenzy (a James Brown influence is in the works here), but the rest of the singles mostly didn't manage to chart anywhere high, which is sort of strange — this is all definitely Top-10 material for any sorts of blues or R&B charts — and a little unfortunate, because many of these songs show a rough and tough side to the guy that would be seriously downplayed in his commercially gold period.
Random subjective highlights, for me, would also include ʽI Woke Up Screamingʼ (impersonating lovestruck paranoia is a particularly successful venture for Bobby), ʽI Smell Troubleʼ, ʽYou've Got Bad Intentionsʼ... well, just about anything where he gets to unwind that fabulous waaah-waaah of his. Too bad there are so few fast tunes — just ʽHoney Beeʼ and ʽLoan Me A Helping Handʼ — but there are also no hyper-sappy ballads (ʽLast Nightʼ is sort of an exception, but it's not like it's got any strings or anything), and at the end, there is at least one excellent «world-at-an-end»-style lament — ʽI Lost Sight Of The Worldʼ, on which Bobby is accompanied by a frantic flute part rather than guitar. In the end, it is all probably much more diverse than one could ever hope from a popular entertainer in the 1950s, and there is not a single reason not to give the collection a firm thumbs up. It is not yet the Bobby Bland of ʽI Pity The Foolʼ's fame, but in some respects, it's actually better.