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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bobby Bland, "Two Steps from the Blues"

Bobby Bland
"Two Steps from the Blues"
Duke/MCA (1961)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Being able to express grief is a vocal blessing. And there's just something about the South that really brings out the best in some when they sing about the worst.

Bobby Bland was born north of Memphis, a city in competition with only New Orleans for the bluesiest place on Earth (in music terms, at least). Looking at the track listing of "Two Steps From The Blues" in retrospect, it seems impossible for a young man like Bland to have endured so much heartbreak. And no one's accusing Bland of posing; all songs are attributed to Deadric Malone (actually the head of Duke Records). So why aren't there calls of dismissal for Bland and the group? One of the most frequent complaints against modern musicians is a lack of authenticity after all.

I jest of course. Blues is a genre that's at the heart of the authenticity debate. Some say vocalists like Bland aren't true blues because they don't play the guitar, and because they have full bands backing them. Some say Eric Clapton can't play the blues because he's British, and more offensively, white. Some label modern players like Jack White and Dan Auerbach as merely fanboys. Such nitpicking is pointless and fruitless. I'm not the first to make the highfalutin argument that the concept of the blues rises above music. At some point all the individuals listed experienced the emotion of the blues, and were obviously inspired by the genre of the blues, which to my knowledge has done the best job of evoking that feeling.

So Bobby Bland didn't hitchhike around the South, toting a guitar. I don't know the whole story of his upbringing, but I know that he didn't face crippling poverty at any point. I don't know much about his love life either. But he proves on "Two Steps" that personal experience with the subject matter doesn't matter for the blues. It's about generating sympathy. Whether he's mournfully wishing angst upon a past flame ("Cry, Cry, Cry") or regretting that he let a good one get away ("Little Boy Blue"), his voice lives out a broken heart through humbled asides and shrieking outbursts. He felt the music and in turn, we feel the music.

The blues isn't about how or where. It's a universal concept. Everyone feels it, and musicians have expressed it in hundreds of ways. Although, despite being felt the world over, I'll admit that Southern musicians still do it best.

INTERESTING FACT: Don Robey, aka Deadric Malone, is pretty much the apex of crooked record executives. Although there are many songs attributed to his name, in most cases he was actually the publisher and didn't write a thing. But by muddling who wrote what, in many cases the original writer never got fiscal kickbacks from their work. Robey didn't make more money, but he didn't have to pay it out either.

Little Boy Blue by Bobby Bland on Grooveshark

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