The Commercial Appeal
Dignitaries, fellow musicians bid farewell to Beale Street legend Bland
It was not one, but a multitude of Bobby “Blue” Blands who were hailed and mourned during funeral services at First Baptist Church-Broad on Thursday.
To some, he was the “pearl of the blues world”; to others a singer whose artistry was not limited by any single genre or form, but always a man with an abundance of “charisma and melisma.” Bland was remembered as a devoted husband, father and grandfather, but most of all a friend — to those he knew and loved, as well as to those who simply bonded with him through his songs.
Family, colleagues and dignitaries from near and far gathered at First Baptist to sing Bland’s praises, listen to his tunes, and mark the passing of a Memphis music giant. The 2½ -hour memorial proved a stirring celebration of the life of the veteran R&B singer, who died on Sunday at age 83 at his home in Germantown.
With Bland’s casket flanked by a bevy of colorful wreaths, and his family, including widow Willie Mae, at the front, a procession of speakers came to the church’s pulpit to tell the story of his life and legacy.
Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about his long relationship with the singer, which began five decades ago in South Carolina, when he and his wife — then just newlyweds — went to see Bland perform.
“For more than 50 years he remained relevant. … Bobby was a singer. But no one adjective is enough,” said Jackson. “Validated by his fans and peers — Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, Elvis Presley all looked up to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.”
“Today, death has been robbed,” continued Jackson. “It has taken his frail body, but has not taken the crown prince of melodic music. You belong to us forever, Bobby.”
Former Stax Records head Al Bell talked in detail about Bland’s musical contributions, charting
his career from his earliest Duke sides to his ’70s work on ABC, to his later efforts for Mississippi’s Malaco Records. Bell noted that through all the years, changes and albums, the singular spirit in Bland always shined through.
“I love the spirit that lived in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. And the spirit that lived in that body influenced us through its music, its thoughts, its contemplations and considerations for 83 years,” said Bell. “What a blessing.”
“Even though Bobby Bland … is gone, you still can experience that spirit … by just listening to his recorded music. You will experience the spirit, the care and love, the power and the glory.”
Local politicos also paid their respects, with former congressman Harold Ford Sr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell among those paying homage.
City of Memphis Mayor AC Wharton — who was out of town — sent a videotaped message. He praised Bland’s talents and silky way with a song. “He was smooth, smooth, smooth … often imitated, never duplicated,” said Wharton.
Wharton referenced Bland’s hit “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”: “Bobby, my dear friend, you got that wrong,” said Wharton, referring to the outpouring of affection for Bland in Memphis. “Ain’t nothing but love in the heart of the city for you.”
Former Memphis may- or Willie Herenton also evoked one of Bland’s signature tunes while ref lecting on his passing. “Bobby’s soul had to move,” said Herenton. “You know, Bobby left us with a song: ‘Further on Up the Road.’ Well, just a few days ago, Bobby moved a little further on up the road.”
Fellow musicians, including Stax songwriter David Porter, also shared unique personal insights. Porter told how he and his partner Isaac Hayes included a winking tribute in their classic 1967 hit “Soul Man,” by having Sam & Dave singer Sam Moore do a couple of Bland’s signature vocal “squalls” on the track.
Blues Foundation president Jay Sieleman reflected on Bland’s enduring musical impact, recalling how just this spring the singer was given the state of Tennessee’s highest cultural honor, the Distinguished Artist Award. While the recognition is typically reserved for those in the “fine arts” category, Siele- man noted that Bland represented the finest in any art form, praising him for his “exceptional talent and creativity.”
The eulogy, delivered by pastor Keith Norman, closed a program filled with music, including recordings of Bland’s own work, as well as rousing performances by gospel vocalist Deborah Manning-Thomas, Stax star Shirley Brown and Chicago soul singer and Hi Records artist Otis Clay.
The most halting moment of the ceremony, however, came near the end, as Bland’s fellow music legend and lifelong pal, guitarist B.B. King, rose from the pews to briefly address the audience. “If it’s possible that I see him again, I’ll have some (wise) cracks for him, which we always had whenever we met up,” said King.
“Bobby, I miss you, old boy,” he added, looking toward Bland’s casket. “He was my friend.”
Bland was buried at Memorial Park cemetery.