The history of R&B and soul music is, of course, the story of rhythm -- the slow-burn blues, the moneymaker-shaking strut -- a physical propulsiveness that drove white and black audiences to delirium during the 1950s and '60s. But groove is easy enough: Any solid drummer and bass player can lay it down -- a listen to contemporary R&B from the last decade betrays groove to burn but also reveals a grave absence. Great singers and great songs, in the end, are infuriatingly rare. The 50-year history of Bobby "Blue" Bland
is the story of an American singer, a genius of phrasing and tonal control, blessed by close association with some great songwriters, especially Deadric Malone and Don Robey and a genuinely visionary arranger in trumpeter Joe Scott. But you know that voice from one breath, though it isn't the trademark gargle-snort -- developed while listening to Aretha Franklin's father preach -- that sets Bland apart but, rather, Bland's inner sense of timing. He moves, like a great preacher storming from the altar to aisle, between supple pleas and melismatic moans to throat-bleeding howls, as if the Maker really were paying a visit to his body -- and wreaking a violent bliss all over. Bland's voice was a secular medium for sacred spirit. The women who flocked to his live shows would leave far wetter than from any baptism.Of course, that was some 40 years ago, when Bland was tearing up the R&B charts -- he's had more than 60 big-time hits -- with "Call on Me," "Cry Cry Cry," "Farther Up the Road" and his frenzied masterpiece (featuring Joe Scott's classic, much-imitated horn chart), "Turn on Your Love Light." What does Bland sound like today? He's found a home at Malaco and continues to cut hard-soul and blues records, notably 1998's Memphis Monday Morning
, which features a stunning nine-minute title track but an ill-advised cover of ZZ Top's "Tush." His voice may be far from the gospel truth of "I Pity the Fool," but, at 71 years old, it's far from gone.