I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to track down anyone and everyone I can that had a hand in shaping the sounds of Houston’s vast soul scene. Over the years, I’ve found a decent number of long-lost musicians, a handful of hustling record label owners and fortunately, a couple fellows who produced their music.
That being said, there’s still a lot a people out there I’d like to sit down with and listen to their stories. Please send me an email if you have an uncle or friend that was involved locally with soul music in the 1960s or 1970s that I could speak with. The one thing I’ve had the hardest time getting my hands on is local music ephemera like posters, playbills and pictures. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when this Bobby Bland flier showed up in my mailbox recently.
Bland, born and raised in Tennessee made a name for himself more than half a century ago when he recorded his first record for Chess in 1951. It wasn’t long afterwards that he signed with the then-fledgling recording label Duke. After a short stint in the military shaped his resolve to sing, upon his release he learned Duke had been sold to Don Robey and its base of operations relocated to Houston to run side by side with his Peacock imprint.
The combination of Bland’s booming vibrato with Robey’s zestful approach to the music industry forged a hit machine that would last for over twenty years.
While considered by many to be primarily a blues musician, in all actuality, Bland worked across finite styles and sounds. Bobby has better defined the most literal meaning of the genre R&B in that he represented both the Rhythm of soul music with the heart of the Blues.
He’s demonstrated a dynamic range from the chugging beginning of songs like “I Pity the Fool” to the squall you feel in your bones by its conclusion. He recorded what has to be hands down, the most haunting version of “St. James Infirmary” ever done. Joe Scott’s arrangement of the song conjures a gloomy drunken haze, something Bland was all too familiar with until he gave up the drink in the seventies.
Ever-changing musical styles never threw Bland for a loop. By the time Motown was at the top of the heap in sixties, he’d adapted his musical direction to a more soul-driven sound like “Shoes” and Yum Yum Tree” while still incorporating the large productions that distinguished him to begin with.
Bland left one hell of a mark on Houston and beyond with his music but the other performers on the flier have been relegated more to the shadowy annals of history. Who are they?
With five singles under their belt, the Malibus were one of the more recorded vocal groups in Houston. Don Robey signed the group on the cusp of the mid-sixties as fashionable sounds shifted from R&B more towards soul. Robey quickly put the group to work at his Sure Shot imprint, banging out four quality group soul 45s including the extraordinary “Gee Baby I Love You.”
But by 1967, Robey closed up his Sure Shot imprint and shifted his attention towards focusing on the Peacock, Back Beat and Duke labels. The Malibus were the only group that made the jump from Sure Shot to Duke, if only all too briefly. The group cut one last record, the up-tempo “I Just Can’t Stand It” in 1970 and unfortunately disappeared into the ether soon thereafter.
Vi Campbell, Emmett Davis and the Buffalo Booking Agency all have their own stories to be written about in the future.