WHEN THE news was announced that the vast ABC/Dunhill Record complex had purchased the Duke-Peacock group of companies, speculation began as to what ABC would and could do with the Houston-based company's major asset — one Robert Calvin Bland, universally known as Bobby Blue Bland, and who for more than eighteen years had consistently churned out hits on the beloved orange Duke label. Well, now comes the happy part of the story.
ABC added Bobby to their growing roster of Dunhill artists, put him on a plane from his hometown base of Memphis, Tennessee, and brought him to Los Angeles. There, they hired the services of Steve Barri, a talented, gifted producer whose track record spanned several years and numerous big pop hits. Most recently, ABC have had him producing hits for the Four Tops. The outcome of all this manoevering is: Bobby Blue Bland — "His California Album" — Dunhill DSX 50163.
In the R&B America section of this issue of B&S, you'll see what we think of the album. It is the most ambitious effort yet to break Bobby into the high-spending pop market and ABC have the right pedigree for it was that company who carried Bobby's great friend, B.B. King, over that same route and with considerable success.
Naturally, the album includes songs from Deadric Malone, alias Don Robey, Duke's President. With Oscar Perry, Don penned the current Bland single giant, "This Time I'm Going For Good". But did you ever expect to hear Bobby singing a Gerry Goffin penned song? Well, there's two on this album. And there's another penned by Leon Russell. And there's Bobby's excellent handling of the soul classic, "If Loving You Is Wrong". The album is the first from Bobby in something like four years — and it is showing on the American album chart only days after its release.
So, how does Bobby feel about this sudden wind of change after eighteen years in the backwoods? He recently played Maxi's Kansas City Club, one of the few Blues rooms in New York and we were able to speak with him for a few minutes before he left to go on stage.
"I'm very happy about it all," he began, almost non-commitally. "It's a very commercial album and I feel relaxed about everything that's happening. Now that I'm with a big company, I'm hoping that it will help me to be able to play different rooms."
And how did Bobby feel when he was first told that he would be produced by Steve Barri, who — in all fairness to himself — is from a completely different musical world to Bobby? "Well, it's funny but I had no feeling at all about it," he mused. "I really didn't know what to expect, you see. I guess I just wondered what would happen but he is such a wonderful person that any fears I could have formed would have quickly been cleared away. It's been a changeover for me but I am happy with all the material."
And after eighteen years with Duke, how did Bobby feel about being on a new label? "Well, I'm signed to Dunhill Records now so I have to look to the future," he explained, "but I'm really grateful for everything that Mr. Robey and the people at Duke all did for me. Let's be honest, it was they that got me to ABC anyway."
I then tactfully asked Bobby why he had stayed with the company for so many years — what magic did they have that kept a potential world beater down in Texas when every record company in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or even London would have given their proverbial right arm to sign him?
"I'll tell ya'," he carefully began, "it's this family atmosphere that the company has. Whenever I would run into any kind of problem, I could always go to Mr. Robey or Evelyn Johnson and they would help me. No matter what it may be, I always knew that they were with me. Sure, there were times when I wanted to try and do something a little different but it was those people who taught me everything I know and they made me what I am today."
All of which is true because Duke signed Bobby at a time when his career was going nowhere. In his late teens, he played with a local group in Memphis, Tennessee, his adopted home after his family had moved from his birthplace in Rosemark, Tennessee, a little town not too far from Memphis. He played in the same band as Johnny Ace, his Duke predecessor who died so mysteriously before his career ever really got going. Roscoe Gordon was the leader of the band.
It was Roscoe and B.B. King — another of the Memphis Beale Streeters — who first got Bobby into recording. Both Roscoe and B.B. were recording for Kent Records at the time and they introduced the young man to the Bihari Brothers, who owned Kent-Modern Records. He debuted with "Cried All Night" and "Dry Up Baby" but then went into the army for three years or more. He spent some time overseas and played in the same group as a young man called Eddie Fisher — right, the one who was once Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.
On Bobby's demob, he joined Duke Records. That was in 1954 and he has been turning out hits ever since. His R&B Top Ten hits include: "Farther Up The Road"; "I'll Take Care Of You"; "Lead Me On"; "Cry Cry Cry"; "I Pity The Fool", his first No. 1; "Don't Cry No More"; "Turn On Your Love Light"; "Ain't That Loving You"; "Stormy Monday Blues"; "That's The Way Love Is"; "Call On Me"; "These Hands"; "I'm Too Far Gone"; "Good Time Charlie"; "Poverty"; "That Did It" and "Chains Of Love". "Farther Up The Road" remains one of the best selling R&B singles of all time.
Bobby's career in Europe has always been hampered by the fact that Duke has never had any continuous representation. At first, they were channeled through the Vocallion label and then through Sue until Action came into existance and, in all honesty, that was the first time that Bobby's career was taken seriously.
Now he will benefit from ABC's impressive worldwide distribution and both the single and album are already scheduled for release. And there is every chance that Bobby will finally make his British debut as part of a worldwide tour next spring.