Early in their friendship, Bobby “Blue” Bland famously worked as B.B. King’s chauffeur and valet. But Wednesday night, the King of the Blues paid service to Bland, capping off a star-studded 80th birthday tribute to the Bland before a sold-out crowd at Sam’s Town’s River Palace Entertainment Center.
From his throne atop the blues world, B.B. King, at age 84, can’t look around and see too many peers, much less one he has called a friend for more than 50 years. The two have nurtured an uncommonly close-knit relationship over their decades in the blues, from their early days on Beale Street, playing Palace Theater talent shows and jamming with the Beale Streeters, through their years passing each other on the touring circuit and even a string of popular records together in the 1970s.
“However life has taken us, whichever way it took us, I admire this man’s singing; nobody can sing like him,” King told the crowd of more than 1,600. “I’m so happy to call him my friend.”
Bland soon joined his friend on stage, and the pair, sitting next to each other like peas in a pod, swapped good-natured barbs, stories, and verses of songs like “Guess Who” and “Farther Up the Road” for nearly a half hour with a front porch kind of intimacy. Then the two blues legends teamed up for free-flowing, joke-filled versions of “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Three O’clock Blues,” and “Take Off Your Shoes” before King led the room in a rendition of Happy Birthday.
King was just one of a string of blues and Southern soul greats who turned out to honor Bland in a program hosted by WDIA’s Bev Johnson. Bobby Rush and Clarence Carter set the tone early, delivering mini-sets that included some of their best known songs, including “I Ain’t Studdin You” and “Strokin’,” respectively.
Also performing were Floyd Taylor, playing his father Johnnie’s hit “Who’s Making Love,” and J. Blackfoot, apparently working the circuit after having wowed the audience at the birthday celebration for the Bar-Kays’ James Alexander and Larry Dodson a few nights earlier.
Benny Latimore performed his classic slow jam ‘Let’s Straighten It Out” but also added a song written especially for the occasion with the tag line “Happy birthday Bobby Blue/Can’t nobody sing the blues like you.” Latimore also did keyboard duties throughout the night, backing up King, who made a rare vocal appearance without his guitar, Lucille, and also joined diva Shirley Brown on a birthday improvisation.
Brown was not the only female artist present, though .Millie Jackson, driving in from Atlanta, did not know she was going to be asked to perform. Instead, the “It Hurts So Good” belter delivered an uproarious stage tribute, mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s birthday serenade of President John F. Kennedy and proving the only performer on the night who could accurately replicate Bland’s famous “pig snort.”
Between musical performances, Bland received a number of tributes, including proclamations from the states of Tennessee and Mississippi, an award from WDIA’s Bobby O’Jay, and a testimonial from former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.
Famously soft-spoken, Bland did not have much to say about all the hoopla, preferring to let his night-closing renditions of “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Members Only” (a request from King) do the talking for him. But the video screen did reveal a torrent of emotion when Bland’s family, including wife Willie Mae and son and drummer Rod, took the stage.
“He’s told me many times: I’m his drummer, his pride, and his inspiration,” Rod Bland said from the stage as his father began to tear up in his seat. “Dad, I just want to tell you, we feel the same way about you.”