Here it is now 41 years on -- rescrubbed, remastered, reannotated, with two bonus tracks to boot -- the greatest album ever recorded (partially) in Houston and released on a local label: Bobby Bland's Two Steps from the Blues.
Of the principal players on the album, only Bland is alive today, unless you count Texas Johnny Brown, who doesn't play on the album but wrote the title track. The last ten years have seen such Duke-Peacock house band legends and Two Steps session vets as piano man Teddy "Cry Cry" Reynolds, lead guitarists Clarence Hollimon and Wayne Bennett and bass player Hamp Simmons all pass away, and it's a shame this finely produced reissue couldn't have come sooner. But better late than never.
All too many people today know Bland only through his more recent Malaco output, and as enjoyable as that can be, it doesn't hold a candle to the stuff he made in Houston. Sadly, he sang his voice out on early songs like the hair-raising "Little Boy Blue." Listen to his swooping, bellowing, melismatic outro; it's one of the most majestic vocal moments in American recorded song. In the liner notes, Bland credits the Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father and a fantastic singer in his own right, as his inspiration for the "squall," which is now more like a skronk, that became his trademark. It sounds as if it would have shredded a lesser man's larynx after performing it only once, but Bland did it night after night on the grueling tours that blues musicians made in those days. Little wonder that his voice is but a husk of its former self.
But when he recorded Two Steps from the Blues, he still deserved the sobriquet "The Sepia Sinatra." There's a joy in his voice not present in most African-American music predating these sessions. Part of it comes from the gospel of Jesus that Bland was weaned on back home in Memphis, but there's more to it than that. This was 1961. Another gospel loomed on the horizon: that of Martin Luther King. African-Americans could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and at last it wasn't another onrushing train. The despair that lived in the voices of bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson was gone, replaced by hope and outright jubilation.
And perhaps forgiveness. A song like "I'm Not Ashamed" can be seen as just another brokenhearted love song, and indeed it works quite well on that level. But maybe in this case the personal is political. Could not these lyrics be seen as a declaration of MLK's Christ-like love?
"I'm not ashamed 'cause you saw me cryin' /
I'm not angry 'cause I caught you lyin'
No matter what you do / I'm gonna keep on lovin' you
I'm not ashamed, oh no, I'm not ashamed.
I'm not ashamed 'cause I fell on my knees /
Begged you baby to take me back please.
Some people call me the biggest fool in town
But I'm not ashamed / Oh no, I'm not ashamed
Although you lied / scandalized my name
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I still love you just the same."
That song is followed by the ecstatic romp "Don't Cry No More," with its message of "wiping away tears" and looking toward the future. Is it just a random juxtaposition of two Duke-Peacock singles? Naah. The message is clear: The days of bowing and scraping, of stepping aside on sidewalks, of back-door service and whites-only water fountains are gone.
Never can enough be said about Joe Scott, the Duke- Peacock house bandleader and arranger. In fact, it's a crying shame that so little praise has come his away. Scott is the reason that this and everything else he had a hand in still sounds as fresh today as it did the day of John F. Kennedy's inauguration. The man was a master at meshing guitar, horns, strings, drums and voice in ways that continue to amaze. There's not a track here that's anything less than perfect. Most of the old hands who were at Duke-Peacock in those days will tell you that Scott was a genius, and though it's an overused word, in Scott's case it's correct.
Masterpiece is another overused word, although it's the only one to use when writing about Two Steps from the Blues.