It's telling how most obituaries of the late Bobby "Blue" Bland, who died on June 23 after reaching the stately and hard-earned age of 83, pivot on how Jay-Z sampled one of his last major hits, 1974's "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City," for The Blueprint's "Heart of the City." The Memphis blues singer never achieved the mainstream stature of his longtime friend and sometime-collaborator B.B. King. In the 1960s, when he charted an impressive 33 hits on Billboard's rhythm & blues charts, including No. 1 tracks "I Pity the Fool" and "That's the Way Love Is," he didn't reach the same level of success on the pop charts. His appeal lay outside the polished uptown backbeats of the Motown machine, and he spoke directly to a gospel and blues audience that thrilled to his appearances on the chitlin' circuit.
Born in 1930 in Tennessee, Bland recorded his first sides in early 1951 with Sam Phillips, the Chess Records engineer who later founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis Presley. By 1957, Bland had his first hit, "Farther Up the Road." Frequently described as a vocalist inspired by blues criers like Roy Brown as well as urbane pop sophisticates like Nat King Cole, he exuded a smoothness that transitioned easily between guttural shouts and effortlessly sad croons. In the gusty hollers of "Little Boy Blue" and "Turn on Your Love Light," you can hear traces of many that followed in his wake, from Southern soul legends Otis Redding and Johnnie Taylor to roots rockers like Van Morrison and The Grateful Dead.
Bland enjoyed an impressively long career: His last R&B top 100 hit, 1985's "Recess in Heaven," arrived nearly 40 years after "Farther Up the Road." As he racked up countless career achievement accolades, including a Rock Hall of Fame induction in 1992 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, Bland continued to tour and record for Malaco, the Mississippi-based label that specializes in blues, soul and gospel singers or, as its website says, "down home black music." In 2003, he released his final album, Blues at Midnight. Now, this pioneer of early rock 'n' soul has left behind a catalog of rich rewards for anyone who dives in.