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R&B Hitmaker Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland Dies at 83

Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead covered Influential blues singer's tunes

Singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, one of the most prolific R&B and blues hitmakers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 83.

Memphis’ WREG-TV reported Bland’s death. The station said the musician lived in Memphis’ Germantown neighborhood.

Bland charted more than 60 R&B hits — including 27 top-10 smashes and three No. 1 platters — over the course of his career, which stretched back to the ‘40s. His best-known numbers included “Farther On Up the Road,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Turn On Your Love Light” and “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do.” He reached the lower rungs of the pop charts with 37 of his singles.

Though he never crossed over to the pop side to the degree that his contemporary and collaborator B.B. King did, Bland had an impact on many rock musicians, including Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, the Band and Van Morrison, all of whom incorporated his songs in their studio work and stage shows.

He was equally comfortable as a smooth balladeer and a propulsive house-rocker, and often decorated his crushed-velvet performances with a distinctive snort. Though his early work was gutbucket blues, his major hits for Houston’s Duke Records were distinguished by big, sophisticated arrangements by Joe Scott, the sharp bandleading of Bill Harvey and the sleek guitar work of Wayne Bennett.

He sustained his career well into the new millennium on the chitlin circuit, touring regularly and cutting a series of soul-blues recordings, aimed at the Southern market, on Malaco Records.

Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. He was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

He was born Robert Calvin Bland in Rosemark, Tenn., and moved with his family to Memphis at an early age. He began singing with a gospel group, the Miniatures, but later segued into blues and R&B; he performed with a legendary, unrecorded group called the Beale Streeters with B.B. King, Johnny Ace and Rosco Gordon.

Bland patterned his early work after King, for whom he worked for a time as a valet and chauffeur. He also did roadwork for Junior Parker. His gritty first singles for the indie R&B labels Chess and Modern met with no success, but hit on a winning combination with his sides for Parker’s label Duke, the Texas label run by iron-handed entrepreneur Don Robey.

His first chart single, 1957’s “Farther On Up the Road,” was a No. 1 hit. It was followed by a succession of ardent top 10 sides, including “Little Boy Blue” (No. 10, 1958), “I’ll Take Care of You” (No. 2, 1959), “Lead Me On” and “Cry Cry Cry” (both No. 9, 1960), “I Pity the Fool” (No. 1, 1961), “Don’t Cry No More” and “Turn On Your Love Light” (both No. 2, 1961), his remake of T-Bone Walker’s “StormyMonday Blues” (No. 5, 1962) and “That’s the Way Love Is” (No. 1, 1963).

His top-selling album, “Call On Me/That’s the Way Love Is,” reached No. 11 nationally in ’63. Though it never charted, his first long-player “Two Steps From the Blues” (1961) has proven to be an enduring classic. His Duke sides have been extensively reissued by Universal Music Group, which now owns the catalog.

Bland continued to rack up some lesser top-10 singles on Duke through the early ‘70s. His track record cooled somewhat after he segued to ABC/Dunhill in the early ‘70s, but he did attract attention with a pair of long-running live albums that partnered him with B.B. King in 1974 and 1976; the first of these, “Together For the First Time,” was his only gold LP.

Bland’s last chart single, “Members Only,” was released in 1985 by Jackson, Miss.-based Malaco, the label that would shepherd the singer through much of his latter-day career. The company marketed him skillfully to his core audience – a mature, largely Southern, largely female fan base that bought his material and faithfully attended his concert and club dates year in and year out.

Survivors include his son Rodd.

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