December 26, 2003
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
No one in America has played more Bobby Bland songs than Pervis Spann.
The legendary WVON-AM disc jockey met the Rosemark, Tenn.-born rhythm and
blues singer in 1960. Sparks flew. Things went bump in the night.
Bland's moodbending songbook includes his first hit, "Farther Up The Road
(1957)" the soulful, hopeful "Members Only" (1985) and seductive ballads
from "Blues at Midnight," his latest album for Malaco Records. Bland
appears with his seven-piece band tonight at The Sabre Room. Opening acts
include Howard Scott and the Scott Brothers Band as well as Stan "Have You
Seen My Boo" Mosely.
Last week Spann called Bland in East Memphis, Tenn., from his cluttered
WVON office on the industrial corridor off the Stevenson Expressway. Black
and white photos of former Mayor Harold Washington and soul singer Minnie
Ripperton hang on the wall. They worked at WVON.
I listened to Bland and Spann while sitting next to a box full of hard soul
CDs by Tyrone Davis, Bobby Rush and others. Over an old school speaker
phone Spann declared, "I'm on the air five hours a night, six nights a week
(Saturday through Thursday starting at midnight). I have played over a
million records, but Bland is a standard bearer. I can always build my show
up with a Bobby Bland song. No live human being in America has played more
Bobby Bland music than I have."
Record moguls Leonard and Phil Chess owned the 1,000-watt radio station
when it became WVON-AM in April, 1963. Leonard named it "The Voice of the
Negro." It is now "The Voice of the Nation," found at 1450 on the AM dial.
Spann has been spinning the blues on the station since it became WVON. Next
year he is publishing his autobiography, 40 Year Spann.
"And Bland, I first placed you on a show at the Ashland Auditorium in
1960," Spann said with a shout out. "It was at the corner of Ashland and
Van Buren in Chicago. "
Bland, 73, took it all in.
"Things have changed quite a bit since I started with Spann," he said. "Its
a new day. Back in those days, I was entertaining to nothing but my own
color. There was no crossover. Chicago has always been good for me, because
you have people from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas; a good mixture. I could
come to Chicago when I couldn't go anywhere else."
Bland had first explored Chicago's blues scene during the late 1950s when
he was part of a package tour with Little Junior Parker that stopped at
(DJ) Big Bill Hill's club on West Roosevelt.
"But one of my first [headlining] experiences in Chicago was at the Burning
Spear [5523 S. State]," Bland said. "I met people like [hard bop
saxophonist] Gene Ammons who came through there."
In 1963 Spann and fellow WVON disc jockey E. Rodney Jones bought the club,
where second sets usually began around 3 a.m. In 1973 Led Zeppelin appeared
at the Chicago Stadium for one of its last stands. After the concert, lead
singer Robert Plant led a fleet of six black limousines to the Spear to
catch Bland's late set. By the end of the night, Bland, Plant and Chicago's
Otis Clay were on stage jamming, accented by the Burning Spear's legendary
Bland developed his soft, appointed style of phrasing by studying the
diction of Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. He is forever paying attention
to detail by folding his tongue in a certain way, or stretching a phrase
across the microphone.
"I liked Jimmy Witherspoon," Bland said. "'Spoon was a little more upper
crust for me. I liked that. I love to hear Otis Clay sing. Charles Brown
was one of the people I took up with, because he had good stories. Back in
his time you had to tell a story in a song. So if the lyrics hit me, I
learn how to deliver the words in the right spot, where it means something.
I basically sing to the ladies."
Bland's trademark is a vocal squall that stops on a dime. He learned the
technique from Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father.
"One of my favorite sermons of his was 'The Eagle Stirred His Nest'," Bland
explained. "I'm from the church, which is another reason my lyrics have to
tell stories. Rev. Franklin would do the squall when he got real wound up.
The reason I paid attention to that is that I used to sing real high. I had
my tonsils removed and lost that falsetto. So I had to come up with a
gimmick. I started closing my throat and worked on it until I got a flavor
for it and it would blend to whatever key I was in.
"Spann was the man," Bland said. "He played everybody -- blues, soul,
rhythm and blues -- he kept me hot for a lot of years around Chicago. He
had a radio station [WXSS-AM, 1030] in Memphis that gave competition to the
stations around here. "
Spann looked around his dusty office. He did not smile. He looked ahead and
said, "I am the first black American that built a 50,000-watt radio station
on United States soil. And I built it in Memphis. It was like having twin
boys. This was in the 1980s. I could listen to my station in Memphis riding
up and down the Dan Ryan expressway. Then I'd ride all over [his native]
Mississippi listening to my station. Made me feel good. That's the reason,
Bobby Bland, I didn't have no girlfriends."
Bobby "Blue" Bland said, "I won't bother with that. I'm married."
Pervis "The Blues Man" chuckled. Each of these men has devoted a lifetime
to the blues, but the room was full of laughter. Songs of friendship go