by Pete Wilson
The detour came Sunday, June 23, at Bland's home in Germantown, Tenn. — a Memphis suburb. He was 83. His voice — practically even his breath — had just about forsaken him years before, but he kept performing until quite recently. He had long since been installed in the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, but his true triumph was singing so meaningfully that people would pay to listen, again and again, for 60 years. Bland was irreplaceable.
As music biographer Peter Guralnick (whose brilliant piece on the singer at a low point in 1975 can be found in his book Lost Highway) said in a memorial post on his blog, Bland’s voice was “an extraordinary blend of silky-smooth and deliberately rough.” It could be soft and gentle as ice cream, or it could roar, rasp and rise into a wounded cry he called “the squall." He was equipped equally for tenderness, fear and menace.
Bland understood profoundly how to color and deepen a lyric with this precious instrument. You hear a sinking heart or a raw nerve in his tone. When he bemoans yet another faithless lover, he sounds freshly bewildered by the cruelty of life, helpless before it, vulnerable. When he rebukes her misuse of him, you feel with him the erosion of his dignity. When there’s joy in a song, it may feel shadowed, as if he can't entirely trust the optimistic lyric (this becomes explicit in "Is It Real?"). It's unusually easy to forget Bland is performing, not responding to a genuine existential challenge in the moment. A more florid soul singer like Otis Redding exaggerates emotional experience, even to the point of lampoon, and performs a sort of priestly ritual of catharsis through art. Emotion is recollected, if not "in tranquility," then in hyperbole. On the other hand, Bland seems to stay at most two steps from the real blues — not just the style, but “the blues as such” (in critic Albert Murray’s term), the feelings that hurt right now, that won’t be stylized into submission.
"Blue" made dozens and dozens of great sides. A couple were recorded in Nashville, 50 years ago last month: “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” with a Willie Dixon-style litany of troublesome situations that aren’t as irremediable as love, and a sexy but anxious rumination called “If I Hadn’t Called You Back.” I also especially like the devastating kiss-offs "Farther Up the Road" and "You've Got Bad Intentions," the slow, spooky but hopeful "I've Been Wrong So Long," the upbeat "Don't Cry No More," and of course the beautiful downer "Two Steps from the Blues."
But the greatest is “I Pity the Fool” from 1960. Damn Mr. T for making its title a joke, but the song more than abides. Bitter and masochistic aboard a deliberate, insistently pushing rhythm, Bobby grimly pities “the fool who falls in love with you,” then starts to howl, “Look at the people!” who are “watching you make a fool of me!” Riffing horns stand in for the gawkers. "Blue" mainstay Wayne Bennett delivers a spiky guitar obbligato, and finally a lone sax cuts the other horns off with a querulous squawk, creating a slightly disorienting off-center feel as the song fades and Bobby pities us fools a little bit more. (Such are all we mortals, says Puck.) The song’s a black diamond of compressed resentment and humiliation — a perfect record — and I can listen to it again and again.