Bland developed a sound that mixed gospel with the blues and R&B. He was described as "among the great storytellers of blues and soul music... created tempestuous arias of love, betrayal and resignation, set against roiling, dramatic orchestrations, and left the listener drained but awed." He was sometimes referred to as the "Lion of the Blues" and as the "Sinatra of the Blues". His music was also influenced by Nat King Cole.
Bland was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2012. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described him as "second in stature only to B.B. King as a product of Memphis's Beale Street blues scene".
Bland was born Robert Calvin Brooks in the small town of Barretville, Tennessee. His father, I.J. Brooks, abandoned the family not long after Robert's birth. Robert later acquired the name "Bland" from his stepfather, Leroy Bridgeforth, who was also called Leroy Bland. Robert dropped out of school in third grade to work in the cotton fields and never graduated from school.
With his mother, Bland moved to Memphis in 1947, where he started singing with local gospel groups, including 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 including B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace, who collectively called themselves the Beale Streeters.
Between 1950 and 1952, Bland recorded commercially unsuccessful singles for Modern Records and, at Ike Turner's suggestion, for Sun Records (which licensed its recordings to Chess Records). He then signed a contract with Duke Records. Bland's recordings from the early 1950s show him striving for individuality, but his progress was halted for two years while he served in the U.S. Army, during which time he performed in a band with the singer Eddie Fisher.
When Bland returned to Memphis in 1954, several of his former associates, including Johnny Ace, were enjoying considerable success. He joined Ace's revue and returned to Duke Records, which was then being run by the Houston entrepreneur Don Robey. According to his biographer Charles Farley, "Robey handed Bobby a new contract, which Bobby could not read, and helped Bobby sign his name on it". The contract gave Bland just half a cent per record sold, instead of the industry standard of 2 cents.
Bland released his first single for Duke in 1955. In 1956 he began touring on the chitlin' circuit with Junior Parker in a revue called Blues Consolidated, initially doubling as Parker's valet and driver. He began recording for Duke with the bandleader Bill Harvey and the arranger Joe Scott, asserting his characteristic vocal style and, with Harvey and Scott, beginning to craft the melodic big-band blues singles for which he became famous, often accompanied by the guitarist Wayne Bennett. Unlike many blues musicians, Bland played no instrument.