Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bobby Bland

  • The Best of Bobby Bland [Duke, 1967]
  • His California Album [ABC/Dunhill, 1973] B
  • Dreamer [ABC/Dunhill, 1974] B+
  • Get On Down With Bobby Bland [ABC, 1975] B+
  • Reflections in Blue [ABC, 1977] B
  • I Feel Good, I Feel Fine [MCA, 1979] C-
  • The Best of Bobby Bland, Vol. 1 [MCA, 1990]
  • The Anthology [Duke/Peacock/MCA, 1991] A-
  • Sad Street [Malaco, 1995] Neither
  • Greatest Hits Volume One: The Duke Recordings [MCA, 1998] A
  • Greatest Hits Volume Two: The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings [MCA, 1998] A-
  • Blues and Ballads [Star Trak, 1999] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of Bobby Bland [Duke, 1967]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]

His California Album [ABC/Dunhill, 1973]
With Bland's old label, Duke, which ABC purchased partly to get at his contract, you cut an LP when you score a single. This is a tragically short-sighted way to treat the greatest pure singer in blues, but it does help guarantee that at least one cut will connect instantaneously, like "That Did It" on Touch of the Blues or "Chains of Love" on Spotlighting the Man. The pop moves here are no more arbitrary than the ones Bland has always gone for. But whether he's sticking to Duke material or inserting a growl into a Barry Goldberg song, he puts his stamp on nothing. B

Dreamer [ABC/Dunhill, 1974]
On their second try, producer Steve Barri and arranger Michael Omartian pull out the pop stops, and while the result isn't too long on conviction it does have its own ersatz character. Refabricated intros worthy of Three Dog Night, prefabricated songs worthy of Bobby Bland, and a woman named Yolanda who leaves Bobby "in this wilderness with no money down"--the wilderness being Charlestown, South Carolina, and Yolanda's Pygmalion being the same guy who wrote "My Maria" and "Shambala." B+

Get On Down With Bobby Bland [ABC, 1975]
Despite the funky title, this is Bland's country album, and while it won't turn him into Ray Charles, it's a modest success--he gets more suitable (even funky) arrangements form Nashvillians Don Gant and Ron Chancey than Charles gets from Sid Feller. On side one he sounds completely at (or down) home stealing songs from Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich. Overdisc he seems a little ill at ease reassuring a virgin with bom-bom-boms, but wouldn't you? B+

Reflections in Blue [ABC, 1977]
Blues is an art of narrow margins, and ABC's production honchos push this too far--their two songs are bores, and every time Michael Omartian touches a keyboard or a chart the record dies a little. Not a lot--I really believe he's doing his best. But though there are good moments on all of the seven remaining tracks, only "I Intend to Take Your Place"--by Jimmy Lewis, a hidden treasure of contemporary blues and soul songwriting--belongs in Bland's canon. B

I Feel Good, I Feel Fine [MCA, 1979]
Then you must be on something--you don't even get to sing on that track. C-

The Best of Bobby Bland, Vol. 1 [MCA, 1990]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

The Anthology [Duke/Peacock/MCA, 1991]
Since it costs the same per track as the matched 1998 Duke and Dunhill Greatest Hits collections I recommended back in the day, my review is mostly discographical bookkeeping. Although it includes all of the Duke disc's tracks, it goes rogue on Bland's Dunhill years while retaining the half dozen or so essentials. But in the wake of the big man's death, more is more, and by doubling the Duke picks, most of them uptempo, this accesses some major work--"Little Boy Blue" and "Ain't Doin' Too Bad" discoveries for me, "Poverty" and "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" (!!) conspicuous omissions from GH. So if you're just getting started, it's probably the right choice. If you aren't, do the math yourself. Docked a notch on general principles. A-

Sad Street [Malaco, 1995] Neither

Greatest Hits Volume One: The Duke Recordings [MCA, 1998]
His strapping young voice set apart by his trademarked gargling snort as well as a falsetto he claims he found when he had his tonsils out, Bland was never more puissant than when knuckling under the broad thumb of Don Robey, the label owner (they hadn't invented executive producers yet) who surfaces in parentheses as song-copywriter Deadric Malone. "Turn On Your Love Light," "Farther up the Road," "I Pity the Fool"--you'd think they'd always been there, so familiar are their tropes and tunes. But they were tailored to a specific voice and market, defining upwardly mobile blues in a moment when r&b was wide open. Later Bland would lean into the soul beat of "These Hands (Small but Mighty)" and the pop-Latin lilt of "Call on Me," incite harmonettes into chirping "Yield not to temptation." But postblues are his home ground. And most of the time, Jabo Starks is his drummer. A

Greatest Hits Volume Two: The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings [MCA, 1998]
Insofar as it's now dimly believed that blues and soul were the same thing, kinda, perhaps I can rescue B.B. King's perpetual opposite number from the limbo of name recognition by promoting him as a great soul voice. After all, he did sing gospel before moving down, up, or over to Beale Street, and by the time mean old Don Robey sold him up the river, he was ready for anything--soul, lounge, country, disco, B.B. duets. Be it an aab gem like "Goin' Down Slow" or generic gold like "Yolanda" or a pop gewgaw like "Love To See You Smile," he claims these songs with his suave baritone and trademarks them with his unique growl. Never played an instrument, or danced much. Never had to. Proves sophistication has nothing to do with diplomas. A-

Blues and Ballads [Star Trak, 1999]
Even though the parent corp owns Duke-Peacock, where Don Robey held Bland in servitude while compelling him to record Robey-copyrighted crap by the fictional Deadric Malone, Bland's catalogue is the usual mess. I estimate that anyone who chooses to own MCA's two early-'90s Duke double-CDs, I Pity the Fool and Turn On Your Love Light, can add the one-volume Greatest Hits Volume Two: The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings and stop there. I also estimate that the use value of his most renowned original-release album, Two Steps From the Blues, is significantly diminished by all the duplications on almost any Duke-era best-of one might chance upon. But this surprisingly intelligent 16-track comp is different. Half Duke, half MCA-etc., it showcases the Bland I've never trusted: the schlock adept, the midtempo crooner-groaner who dug Texas-sized horn sections and was fine with strings, the lover who played in the same league as jazz status symbol Billy Eckstine and citified rivals Lou Rawls and Brook Benton. And it convinces me I prefer Bland to any of them. Never flaunting his virtuosity like Eckstine or conflating smarm and cool like Rawls or clinging to Nat Cole's coattails like Benton, Bland begins by nailing two Malone songs too dull for anyone else to sing, reminds you what a mother he is with "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," and then goes cornball commando, claiming a Malone trifle Aretha Franklin took over in 1969 as well as "If Loving You Is Wrong," "Georgia on My Mind," and "I've Got to Use My Imagination." Tossing in the occasional signature growl, he relies on his midrange like a veteran fastballer working the corners and never cracks the ice as he skates the groove. Insofar as these songs can be killed, he does the deed. A-

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: After MCA hung him out to dry he found a home at Biloxi-based Malaco, where Z.Z. Hill had become a belated hero by reproducing his mannerisms. He got good songs in a sympathetic environment, but with Bland the physical instrument was always crucial, and near as I could tell it had lost its edge. Hope I was wrong.