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JUST a few days ago, on June 23, the music world lost a true icon, following the death of American singer Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland at age 83. Often known as ‘Sinatra of the Blues’ because of his silk smooth voice, Bland, successfully bridged traditional blues with contemporary soul music, in what came to be known as the ‘blues-soul crossover’. As such, most obituaries have described him as a blues and soul legend.

How did the blues-soul crossover take place? As the blues often told stories of hard times and bad luck, the younger generation turned their backs on it in the late 1960s, preferring the more forward-looking and optimistic love stories which gave soul more mass appeal. To cater to their tastes, blues musicians began adapting elements of soul. Besides Bland, artistes in this movement included Little Milton, Little Johnny Taylor, ZZ Hill, Lowell Fulsom, O V Wright and the great Etta James. They confidently straddled the divide between the two forms, and helped attract more youngsters to the blues.

Soon, soul stars began returning the compliment. Sam Cooke cut a definitive version of Willie Dixon’s seminal blues hit ‘Little Red Rooster’. Otis Redding cut a tremendous version of BB King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ and Al Green converted the classic Temptations song ‘I Can’t Get Next to You’ into a slab of pure gutbucket blues. Booker T & the MGs, creators of the famed Memphis Soul Sound, backed blues legend Albert King on his albums.

From 1970 onwards, a generation of new and younger artistes showed their readiness to exploit the blues and soul fusion. Typical of these was the harmonica-playing Little Sonny, an artiste who, while being undeniably influenced by the great Sonny Boy Williamson, was also modern in terms of sound. Another was Bobby Rush — pictured on his debut album riding a sleek BMW motorbike, a far cry from the broken-down shacks, moody sunsets and dusty roads which were the visual image of the blues past.

Even songwriting styles changed, as the big-voiced Latimore wrote optimistic songs, and the eclectic Taj Mahal displayed a certain assertiveness in his music. Music analysts attribute the success of this fusion to the fact that soul grew out of a blend between the blues and gospel music. Instead of the rough and full-throated voices of blues singers, what one had was soft timbres full of emotion and romance. Bland played a major role in creating this sound, and his death marks an end of a chapter in the blues.

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