In the early and mid-'50s, both Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Junior Parker did quite a bit of recording for the Duke label as their careers were getting off the ground, though both singers had previously recorded for other companies. The Earls of Duke rounds up their 1952-1956 Duke material, the 28 tracks evenly divided between sides cut by Bland and Parker. Though its comprehensiveness and thorough annotation make it valuable for the collector, it by no means represents the peak work of either artist. Both vocalists were still more in a straight blues bag than they'd be later on in the '50s and '60s, when more admission of R&B, soul, and rock influences made their work more impressive. That's particularly true in the case of Bland, whose earlier tracks on this disc, while certainly competent jump blues or bluesy ballads, lack much of the personality or jazzy R&B stylings he'd bring to his output in his lengthy prime. It's really only on the 1956 single "I Don't Believe"/"I Learned My Lesson" that he's really starting to become the Bobby Bland known and loved as a blues giant, both in his suave phrasing and the increased sophistication of the arrangements. Parker fares a little better, as he'd already arrived at a somewhat more mature phase in his development by the time he joined Duke. His offerings are decent early R&B/blues crossover sounds with more energy and, at least on occasion, rawer electric blues guitar than Bland's early Duke efforts. But there's nothing here as outstanding as his two prior Sun singles, "Feelin' Good" and "Mystery Train," though "I Wanna Ramble" and "Can't Understand" are obvious attempts to replicate them. This disc is substandard music, however, only in the sense that it doesn't represent the peak of either Bland or Parker; on its own terms, it's decent period blues/R&B, if rather average. As a small complaint, the CD might have been better sequenced by grouping all 14 Bland tracks and all 14 Parker tracks together in two separate portions of the disc, rather than alternating between several tracks each by one or the other singer.
The Earls of Duke Review
by Richie Unterberger