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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, we remember a pioneer of blues and soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN ON YOUR LOVELIGHT")

BOBBY BLUE BLAND: (Singing) Come on, Baby. Come on, please. I'm begging you, Baby. I'm down on my knees. Turn on the light. Let it shine on me.

SIEGEL: Bobby "Blue" Bland died yesterday. He was 83. He brought the elegance of jazz and big band music to Southern soul, and he influenced such musicians as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, he never achieved their crossover celebrity.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Bobby "Blue" Bland was known as the Frank Sinatra of the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAD ME ON")

BLAND: (Singing) Lead me on, lead me on. You know I'm a stranger, and I'm so all alone.

ULABY: "Lead Me On" from 1960 was among Bland's dozens of R&B hits, and it was a personal favorite, or so he told NPR in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLAND: Because I'm kind of a - I don't know what you say, a sentimentalist, I guess, sometime, takes me back to the country.

ULABY: The country is where Bland was born, in rural Tennessee, as Robert Calvin Brooks. He dropped out of school as a third grader to help support his single mom by picking cotton. The two moved to Memphis when Bland was a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BOY BLUE")

ULABY: He started hanging out on Beale Street, a veritable backbone of the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BOY BLUE")

BLAND: (Singing) When I thought I was so high above you...

JAY SIELEMAN: He is the greatest male blues singer ever.

ULABY: Jay Sieleman runs The Blues Foundation based in Memphis. He says Bland started recording there in the 1940s with the likes of B.B. King.

SIELEMAN: You know, he had that signature squall, which almost sounded like someone clearing their throat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BOY BLUE")

BLAND: (Singing) You don't know how much I miss you, baby. Yeah, yeah.

ULABY: He incorporated that squall from recordings of Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C. Franklin. It became a trademark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BOY BLUE")

BLAND: (Singing ) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, baby.

ULABY: But Bobby Bland also loved the rich, brass-infused cosmopolitan sound of 1940s big bands. With his collaborator, trumpet player and arranger Joe Scott, Bland blended in their sumptuous sensibility and their singers' phrasing and softness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLAND: I learned all the softness from Nat King Cole. You know, I used to listen to him all the time then. And the soft approach that he would have to different lyrics, I used it in blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAND: (Singing) And I'll understand if you go. So...

ULABY: Bland is credited with modernizing the sound of the blues. He worked steadily for most of his career as a headliner on the blues circuit, but he was slowed down for decades by his struggle with alcohol. Jay Sieleman says Bobby Bland was solely a singer, not a guitarist, so he never got mainstream attention from blues-loving British rock stars who'd invite B.B. King or Muddy Waters on stage. But Sieleman says Bland's achievements were astonishing for someone who never learned how to read music.

SIELEMAN: He would hear it, and he would get it, and then he would sing his heart out. It is amazing how someone with so little education and born in such humble beginnings can accomplish so much. That's the story of the blues right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Bobby "Blue" Bland died yesterday at his home in Memphis after a long illness, surrounded by his relatives. He was 83 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ON ME")

BLAND: (Singing) Love and affection...

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