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Monday, February 18, 2013

Bobby Bland: Two Steps From The Blues


BOBBY BLAND: TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (1961)

1) Two Steps From The Blues; 2) Cry, Cry, Cry; 3) I'm Not Ashamed; 4) Don't Cry No More; 5) Lead Me On; 6) I Pity The Fool; 7) I've Got To Forget You; 8) Little Boy Blue; 9) St. James Infirmary; 10) I'll Take Care Of You; 11) Don't Want No Woman; 12) I've Been Wrong So Long.

Like most «LPs» from the era, this is not a real «album», but rather a collection of singles scat­tered over five years of recording — the earliest tunes here, like ʽLittle Boy Blueʼ, go all the way back to 1957. However, this streak certainly has a more coherent flavor to it than 1952-1959 (ac­tually, the bulk of the material was recorded over just two sessions in late 1960 with the same band), and for all it is worth, could be considered a wholesome set. Particularly seeing as how it is often seen as the ultimate best set in Bobby's career.

Most of the songs, as on Bobby's earlier singles for Duke Records, are credited to «Deadric Ma­lone», formally a pseudonym for Don Robey, who was the owner of the label and had a reputa­tion of a violent thug, forcing anonymous songwriters to yield him all the credit — so that, in the end, nobody knows who really wrote ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ or ʽI Pity The Foolʼ and whether they really had their fingernails pulled in the basement by Don Robey or if it was just a matter of an extra bottle or two and a drunken signature on a white sheet of paper. But who cares if it's just music that we have to be concerned about? The shady aspects of the music industry are supposed to come and go — the music is here to stay.

ʽTwo Steps From The Bluesʼ — the song — is a masterful piece of work that belongs to no genre in particular. Part time blues, part time vocal jazz, part time doo-wop, part time New Orleanian funeral music, it is a giant step forward for Bobby and Duke Records in general in terms of pro­duction. No longer do the boys sound like Wynonie Harris with extra electric guitar — the sound is fully fleshed out and rehearsed, with guitars, pianos, horns, and vocals sharing near-equal parts of the cut, and each partner bringing on a little something from a different area.

It actually helps that Bobby is not associated with any particular instrument other than his voice — not being a guitar hero like B. B. King or a piano whiz like Ray Charles — and that, at the same time, his backing band is given a fairly free hand to do whatever it chooses to do, so they all do whatever they do best, particularly Wayne Bennett on guitar and Teddy Reynolds on piano (the brass section is too large to type them all in). Behind the vocals, there is always some sort of battle going on, usually between the guitar and the brass, and most of this stuff would be brilliant even without Bobby Bland — the sheer dynamics of ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ and ʽI Pity The Foolʼ put them way above the average R&B level of the times.

Still, the immediate memorability is all due to the vocal hooks and «temperatures». Along with the improved production values, we have an extra level of smoothness and steadiness achieved here — Bobby rolls into 1960 as one of the most technically accomplished vocalists of his gene­ration; in fact, if we eliminate the «over-affected» people like Clyde McPhatter from the starting line, his only real competition back then is Sam Cooke, and Sam was too much into his emploi of «sweet ladies' man» to try on gritty «screamers» like ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ (although he had his own advantages and know-hows, obviously). Actually, come to think of it, Bobby himself must have influenced subsequent developments of Sam's career — I hear definite echos of ʽLead Me Onʼ in ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ, for instance.

There is plenty of soul throughout and not the slightest ounce of cheap sentimentality. Orchestral arrangements appear only once, on ʽLead Me Onʼ, and they are heavier on flutes and cellos than on violins — together with the backing vocals, this gives the song an anthemic gospel flavor ra­ther than a balladeering one. The lush «I-will-always-love-you» ballads often have an oddly dark undercurrent (ʽI'll Take Care Of Youʼ, colored with a rather ominous organ part; ʽI've Been Wrong So Longʼ, a chivalrous love confession led by an equally ominous guitar line that could be counted as a pre­decessor to Albert King's ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ), and to top it all, there is a fine take on ʽSt. James Infirmaryʼ (with heavily euphemized lyrics, but still...) — overall, the album matches its name fairly well.

Two Steps From The Blues ain't «scary» or «evil» — it's all in the line of respectable adult en­ter­tainment — but it is highly intelligent, innovative, and deep-reaching adult entertain­ment, and then there is that voice. Two steps from the blues? One step from a masterpiece, and only because some of the basic melodies still sound like minor variations on all-too familiar themes (which shouldn't be surprising considering all the «anonymous authorship»), and some of the songs break away from the stylistics (like the uptempo, atypically misogynistic, flashy electric-guitar-driven, ʽDon't Want No Womanʼ — although I do like the song a lot), reminding us that this is, after all, a mixed-up bag in the end. Still, thumbs up without the slightest doubt.

Check "Two Steps From The Blues" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Two Steps From The Blues" (MP3) on Amazon

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