Forced to stand on a chilly, windy driveway outside the House of Blues on Monday while passes for him and his party were located, singer Bobby "Blue" Bland had a right to make a fuss.
After all, not only is he one of the true legends of blues music, a singer whose distinctively smooth style has been cherished for more than 40 years, but he was the guest of honor this night--there to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation.
Bland was getting that accolade along with Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in a gala that also featured Blues Hall of Fame inductions, including Sun Records' Sam Phillips and musicians Luther Allison and Junior Wells, both of whom passed away earlier this year, and brief, dynamic performances by Bland, Ray Charles, Boz Scaggs and Ruth Brown, as well as blues-loving rocker Stephen Stills.
So for Bland, a little fuss would have been quite understandable. But he didn't make one, instead standing patiently while the matter was sorted out.
It was typical of a singer known for his class. Here's a guy who names not Robert Johnson or Big Bill Broonzy, but crooners Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and Perry Como as his biggest role models and who is next year set to fulfill a longtime ambition of recording an album of standards.
In a field known for showiness and excess, his trademark throughout his career has been class and grace--on stage and off. Bland, 68, who before getting his own career break in the mid-'50s worked as pal B.B. King's chauffeur, is not your typical bluesman. But for the Tennessee native it works.
"If you've got something worthwhile, hold on to it," he said in his hotel room before heading across the street to the event. The comment was made with a loving glance at his wife of 20 years, Willie Mae, but it summed up his philosophy of life that keeps him on the road for 25 or 30 weeks a year--despite having had a triple-bypass heart operation in 1995.
Accordingly, there was not a discouraging word or complaint to be heard from Bland through the evening, whether on the matter of the over-crowded cocktail reception before the show (he simply found a table in a side room) or about the not-always-easy road of his career.
Like many in this music, he suffered through years of struggle, times when royalty payments never came. And he finds songs that he launched known to many people not for his versions, but by such rock acts as Eric Clapton ("Farther On Up the Road") or the Grateful Dead ("Turn on Your Love Light").
Fretting about such things, he said, doesn't do any good.
"When you are pouting, life still goes on," he said. "What you can do is try to regroup and just stay with the thing you do. If someone comes and catches a trend, more power to them."
His own desires are simple.
"I'd like to stay healthy and keep singing as long as I can," he said.
Bland did get to sing Monday, doing a short medley of his hits (including "That's the Way Love Is"), with longtime admirer Scaggs augmenting the backing band with his rich, delicate guitar work.
This was the fourth annual Lifetime Achievement Awards and Hall of Fame induction from the Blues Foundation, a Memphis-based organization that was founded in 1980 to promote and preserve blues music. This year's Hall of Fame inductees represented not only Chicago traditions (both Allison and Wells were from there) along with the Memphis rock 'n' roll connection (Phillips, who was unable to attend), but the blues' wide-reaching cultural appeal.
The latter came strongly in the person of Lillian Shedd McMurry. Despite having grown up without exposure to the blues, she turned an adult discovery of the music into a passion that led her to found and operate the '50s label Trumpet, through which she found and recorded, among others, Sonny Boy Williamson.
She's been out of the business for more than 40 years (though she still, without pay, pursues due royalties for her former artists), but her acceptance remarks tickled the audience with their passion and wit.
It was Ertegun who made the biggest statement about the global reach of the blues. A native of Turkey who came to America the son of a diplomat, the veteran executive--who later was seen dancing at his table to Stephen Stills' performance--cracked the crowd up with some lyrics he wrote especially for the occasion.
"I was born in Turkey, raised in Washington, D.C.," he recited, to the audience's delight. "But these L.A. women, they're gonna wear the hell out of me."
Ertegun used his own early love for the blues as an example of blues being, as Quincy Jones called it in his introductory remarks, the "Esperanto of music," the true global language.
"If you go to Singapore or Stockholm . . . and you go to a discotheque," Ertegun said in his acceptance, "the music you hear is either black American music or music derived directly from it."
Fittingly, the evening included a song performed by Ertegun's latest signing, 13-year-old Ashley Ballard from an unlikely home of the blues: Orange County. While her performance was closer to Whitney Houston than real blues, she impressed with a terrific voice and performance instincts--the very tools Bobby Bland has used so well in his lifetime of achievements.