“One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called ‘The Unfortunate Rake’…”
– Bob Dylan (Theme Time Radio Hour, Doctors)
The Best Songs: St. James Infirmary blues
“St. James Infirmary Blues” is an American folksong of anonymous origin, though sometimes credited to the songwriter Joe Primrose (a pseudonym for Irving Mills). Louis Armstrong made it famous in his influential 1928 recording.
There are hundreds of recordings and it has been difficult to choose my favourites. I’ve tried to pick some for their historic significance and some just because they are so incredibly good.
“St. James Infirmary” is based on an 18th-century traditional English folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake” (also known as “The Unfortunate Lad” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”), about a soldier who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease.
My first pick is an a cappella version of The Unfortunate Rake done by Ian McShane from the TV-series Deadwood (we can also clearly hear the melody that became Streets of Laredo):
Robert Calvin “Bobby” Bland (born January 27, 1930), is also known as Bobby “Blue” Bland. He is an original member of the Beale Streeters, and is sometimes referred to as the “Lion of the Blues”. Along with such artists as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Junior Parker, Bland developed a sound that mixed gospel with the bluesand R&B.
It’s my own fault, B.B. King and Bobby Bland live on Soul Train:
Bobby Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. He was also inducted into The Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
Happy birthday Bobby Bland!
This great picture was taken when Elvis returned to the WDIA Goodwill Revue on December 6, 1957, it’s a stylish shot of him ‘talking shop’ withLittle Junior Parker and Bobby ‘Blue‘ Bland and appeared in Memphis’s mainstream afternoon paper, ‘The Press-Scimitar’, accompanied by a short feature that made Elvis’ feelings abundantly clear. ‘It was the real thing’, he said, summing up both performance and audience response. ‘Right from the heart’ (Elvis Australia)
Allmusic.com (Bill Dahl):
Bobby Bland earned his enduring blues superstar status the hard way: without a guitar, harmonica, or any other instrument to fall back upon. All Bland had to offer was his magnificent voice, a tremendously powerful instrument in his early heyday, injected with charisma and melisma to spare. Just ask his legion of female fans, who deemed him a sex symbol late into his career. (Read More)
My Favourite Bobby Bland track is his version of St. James Infirmary, and thankfully it is part of today’s Spotify album, but here is a very nice live version:
Bland was born in the small town of Rosemark, Tennessee. Later moving to Memphis with his mother, Bland started singing with local gospel groups there, including amongst others The Miniatures. Eager to expand his interests, he began frequenting the city’s famous Beale Street where he became associated with an ad hoc circle of aspiring musicians named, not unnaturally, the Beale Streeters.
Bland’s recordings from the early 1950s show him striving for individuality, but any progress was halted by a spell in the U.S. Army. When the singer returned to Memphis in 1954 he found several of his former associates, including Johnny Ace, enjoying considerable success, while Bland’s recording label, Duke, had been sold to Houston entrepreneur Don Robey.
In 1956 Bland began touring with Junior Parker. Initially he doubled as valet and driver, a role he reportedly fulfilled for B. B. Kingand Rosco Gordon. Simultaneously, Bland began asserting his characteristic vocal style. Melodic big-band blues singles, including “Farther Up the Road” (1957) and “Little Boy Blue” (1958) reached the US R&B Top 10, but Bobby’s craft was most clearly heard on a series of early 1960s releases including “Cry Cry Cry”, “I Pity The Fool” and the sparkling “Turn On Your Love Light”, which became a much-covered standard.
Todays chosen album is the classic, Two Steps From The Blues: