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THE BIG 3 : Together, Ruth Brown, B.B. King and Bobby (Blue) Bland Are Even Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts

December 26, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

In 1991, the pop music world seemed to be paying as much attention to dollars paid as to notes played.

Multimillion-dollar recording deals signed by Janet and Michael Jackson, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones were certainly jolting, and perhaps a little incomprehensible, to anyone whose own finances revolve around the paycheck and the credit card bill.

But in terms of truly remarkable numbers, all of them will be hard pressed to ever match some of the figures associated with B.B. King, Bobby (Blue) Bland and Ruth Brown.

One number is 190. That's the combined current age of the three performers, who will share a bill together at the Celebrity Theatre on Friday, Dec. 27. Next month, when Brown celebrates her 64th birthday and Bland his 62nd, it goes up to 192. King will hold steady at 66 until September.

Forty is another pertinent figure.

It was 40 years ago this week that King's first hit, "Three O'Clock Blues," entered the charts.

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Bland's first recording. The soulful blues singer can start the celebration on Jan. 15, when he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (joining King, his longtime friend and mentor, who was inducted in 1987).

Brown, meanwhile, is one of the few people entitled to josh, if she chooses, about King and Bland being late arrivals. She scored her first chart hit 42 years ago, in 1949.

Most impressive of all, each of these three veterans arrives at the Celebrity with strong new music to play.

Brown's new release, "Fine and Mellow," underlines her versatility and her ability to use an actor's touch to inject drama or humor into a song. The album incorporates straight jazz performances of songs by Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, moves into the jumping early R&B of Louis Jordan, and on into rocking soul numbers popularized by Toussaint McCall and Jackie Wilson.

Brown's own career stretches back to the big band era: Bandleader Lucky Millinder hired her, then fired her a month later. Brown moved on to better things, emerging as the first major artist on Atlantic Records. Her early streak of hits ran out after 1960. But over the past few years, Brown has made an impressive comeback. In 1989, she won a Tony award for her lead role in the Broadway musical "Black and Blue," and her "Blues on Broadway" won her a Grammy as best female jazz vocalist. Brown also played the role of Motormouth Mabel in the film "Hairspray," John Waters' engaging, anti-racism spoof about the early days of rock 'n' roll.

Bland's new album, "Portrait of the Blues," serves up his familiar sound, straddling soul and deep blues with rich, horn-embellished arrangements. Bland's voice has a tempered, almost chastened quality that is well suited to the roles he likes to play. Most often, he is the burnished voice of hard-won experience, offering advice about love's pitfalls, or holding out the comforting hand of someone who knows what it means to hurt. Bland's previous album, "Midnight Run," spent more than a year on Billboard's R&B album charts, indicating that his warmth and intimacy still get through to a substantial audience.

For King, the Celebrity show marks his fourth headlining engagement in Orange County this year (previous gigs were at the Celebrity, the Pacific Amphitheatre and Michael's Supper Club). Those earlier shows proved that his powers are undiminished (King's jubilant "I'll Still Be Around" at his previous Celebrity stop in March was one of the best musical moments of the year).

This time he brings along new material from his latest album, "There is Always One More Time." The album features some of King's strongest songs in years, most of them written by Crusaders pianist Joe Sample and Will Jennings, who is Steve Winwood's regular songwriting partner. The record also finds King stretching out adventurously on guitar.

Endurance is the album's key theme. "I'm gonna roll, roll, roll forever," he declares in one ebullient chorus. Coming from B.B. King, it's hard to dispute.

Who: B.B. King, Bobby (Blue) Bland and Ruth Brown.

When: Friday, Dec. 27, at 8 p.m.

Where: Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim.

Whereabouts: Take Harbor Boulevard south from the Riverside Freeway or north from Santa Ana Freeway and head east on Broadway. The Celebrity is on the left, just past Anaheim Boulevard.

Wherewithal: $28.

Where to call: (714) 999-9536.

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