I've been asked in the past who my favorites are in the world of blues and I always say that it depends. The genre encompasses way more styles that a lot of folks realize. Are we talking pre-war? Post war? Mississippi Delta? Chicago electric? Acoustic? Solo? Ensemble? Big Band? Piedmont finger picking? West Coast? East Coast? It is the ol' apples and oranges in some cases or Granny Smith's to Red Delicious in other cases, but it is always tied into the taste of the consumer and my appetite changes from time to time. There are some folks, though, that will always be on my list of favorites--regardless. No over analyzing here, just off the top of my head and off the finger tips. Here's a few:
1. Charley Patton--He could go from playing some of the deepest blues ever recorded to being a total clown, to singing a hymn book and he was a master at getting it all across. I think he influenced everyone who followed him out of the Mississippi Delta. He transformed the guitar into a percussive instrument that elicited a power that was definitive to the region's style. His recordings are an acquired taste, but once he settles into the soul, he stays awhile.
2. Robert Johnson--Arguably the most influential bluesman from the mid to late 1920s and I won't argue that he's not. His re-issued recordings went Gold 60 years after his death. The list of those that fell under his spell and the music is long. He was influenced by all who preceded him, but took what they gave him and created a window into the dark passages of man's existence and made it all his own. The man could play. His recordings sparked an interest in me to search out his influences and his contemporaries.
3. Blind Lemon Jefferson--He pretty much had everyone in the blues world beat out in terms of records on the market back in those days and he was from Texas and even T-Bone Walker cut his teeth by hanging with Lemon. Like Patton, his recordings suffer from needing a bit of a little modern techniques to clean up the sound, but also like Patton, once his message is grasped, it's hard to argue the genius of the man. Guitarists will tell you just how intricate his picking was and how difficult it is to master his stuff. Everybody who was anybody in 20th century blues owes a debt to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Many, many artists recorded his songs or stole lyrical lines from his songs that became famous down the line. Lightnin' Hopkins, who in his youth crossed paths with the blind man, covered a wealth of his songs and took his musical style and created in own methods and went of to influence succeeding generations. BB King goes back to his roots on his latest CD and knocks out a great version of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Roaring "20s" blues that remains important in the 21st century. Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley both did versions of his Matchbox Blues in the '50s.
4. Skip James--He was one of those "Re-discovered Bluesmen" uncovered by the folky musicologist in the '60s and they got him lined up with gigs and recording contracts, but the first time I heard his 1931 recordings and that eerie, falsetto voice of his, I was quite sure that he was summoning up spirits from the netherworld--Cypress Grove was particularly moving. The old recordings are a difficult listen with the snap, crackles and pops, but they are all so rewarding. Vanguard's '60s recording, Skip James Today, of course has the pristine sound of modern (for the time) equipment laying the tracks down. Although a Mississippian, his style of playing represents a recognizable difference from the Delta blues of Patton and has been tagged the Bentonia style, which is the hill country region of the state that James hailed from.
I'll just leave it at the big four here. This music does not represent a passive activity--ya' got to really listen to it to get it. There are oodles of others that I have listened to, but I always go back to these guys.
Blues music is as much about the human voice as any of the instruments used to get the emotion across and most time more effectively.
1. Otis Rush--His Cobra Records recordings are unequalled as an example as to just how much the voice can be a instrument in the blues. The hair on back of my neck stood up the first time I heard him sing Double Trouble (which by the way is where Stevie Ray came up with the name for his band).
2. Muddy Waters--He took what Robert Johnson and Son House were doing in the Delta into the city and sang it like his life depended on it, which was the only way the blues is supposed to be sung. No great octave leaps like Rush, but Muddy was the real deal deep blues dude.
3. Howlin' Wolf--I've had friends ask, "How can you listen to that?", in response to the Wolf's growling the blues. If you have to ask, then you just don't get it. He took his cue from Patton and like Patton, once he sinks in, he sticks. That's just it. Go ahead and listen to I'll Be Around and tell me that his message ain't gettin' to you.
4. Magic Sam--Died waayy to young, like Otis Redding, but Sam was a bluesman. I really believe that he could have ridden the wave of interest in the blues of the late '60s & early '70s to great success and I believe he could have sparked a great deal more interest had he lived longer. He threw in just enough R&B to excite the soul crowd and then he passed. He could wail.
5. Lightnin' Hopkins--To me, Ol' Lightnin' represents everything that people think of when they think of blues music--he's the prototype or stereotype or whatever you want to refer to him as, but the man could sing the blues in that deep East Texas drawl of his. He could read the contents off a cereal box and it would sound like the deepest blues ever recorded. HE WAS THE BLUES.
6. Bobby 'Blue' Bland--I'm not a big fan of soul/blues, but when Bobby sings the blues, he just can't be beat. His recording of Further On Up The Road grabbed me back in the day and never let go.
7. BB King--He hasn't been the King of the Blues for near 50 years for nothing. Don't know who the king will be after he passes, but he's still got it going on and his latest release, One Kind Favor (a lyric from the Blind Lemon song) proves that he is not about to abdicate.
8. Little Walter--I know, I know, but I think that part of being an effective blues singer is being about getting the song's emotional message across and no one could do Blues With A Feeling like Walter. Try singing that one sometime.
9. Kim Wilson--I know, I know that I'm sticking some of my favorite harp guys in here, but he fits the same mold as LW--he can just get a song across and proves that white boys can sing the blues.
10. Tad Robinson--Another white boy singer and like Bland, when he lays off the blue eyed soul music and sings the blues, it really sounds like it comes from the heart--if not then he gets my vote as being an excellent actor also.
You do know that this is difficult to do, don't you, and that this just scratches the surface of the wonder of the blues? Let's just say that these blues folks are at the surface of my psyche at this moment.
There is a lot of fluff out there and derivative lyrical sludge, but a great blues song last forever and a day.
1. Blind Lemon Jefferson--He could actually write fluff and give it a spin that made it sound so important and deep. When you listen to his songs, it dawns on you that you've heard it before and you have. Maybe as a credited cover or a disguised version or as a complete rip-off or in a lyrical snippet or two over the decades that followed him.
2. Robert Johnson--Like Jefferson, his influential songs had such a decades long reach that still hasn't relented. He had few recording opportunities before his death, but what he did write prevailed and has stood the test of time.
3. Howlin' Wolf--Chester Burnett wrote some of the most hair raising blues music put to wax. There's not many songs of despair that can beat examples such as, How Many More Years, Smokestack Lighting, Killing Floor, or Moanin' At Midnight.
4. Muddy Waters--I'm not going to reel off the number of blues classic written by McKinnley Morganfield because I'd get tired of typing and you'd get tired of reading.
5. Sonny Boy Williamson I-Hey I'd take a dollar every time I heard a cover of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl or Sugar Mama Blues or Sloppy Drunk Blues or ideas stolen from John Lee Williamson. He took the country blues to the city before Muddy or the Wolf and his recordings were numerous, accessible, and influential throughout the African American communities, both urban and rural.
6.. Sonny Boy Williamson II--Alex Rice Miller, or whatever his real name was, wrote with a sense of humor that belied the nature of the genre. He showed that blues didn't have to be all downhearted with a hung down head and even when it was, it might just be funny. I mean, just think about having two fine chicks to romance, but just what the repercussions might be if they lived on the same street as in his classic Too Close Together or being put out in the cold in Nine Below Zero or looking for a way out of the house when the husband comes home in One Way Out (famously covered by the Allman Brothers Band). His songs had great twists of fate associated with the story.
7. Slim Harpo--James Moore was one of the first blues artists (Jimmy Reed was another)to cross over and appeal to teenage boppers back in the '60s. The Rolling Stones grabbed and covered a number of his tunes back in the day along with the Kinks and Van Morrison and numerous others that were nowhere near being African American or considered blues men. His songs such as, Raining In My Heart, Scratch My Back, and Shake You Hips became Top 40 hit singles on Anglo radio stations from coast to coast. He made the Louisiana Swamp blues sound cool.
8. Jimmy Reed--Ditto. He's got to be included for the same reason as Slim Harpo. We could hear him on OUR radios. Teen bands had to cover Baby, What You Want Me To Do, You Don't Have To Go or Ain't That Loving You Baby or some other of Reed's hits or be run off the stage.
9. James Harman--Another one of my triple threat guys. He plays harp and sings as well as anyone, but his written word captures stories and tales that are just so real. Sometimes they are comic, sometimes tragic and sometimes in between or both, but his songs are short novels that I can relate to, so they are relative--right?
10. Rick Estrin--Took me awhile to get Estrin, because I really dismissed songs that had a hokum quality to them. Once I really listening to what he was saying, I realized that he was singing the blues with a humor spin that wasn't a whole lot different than the take that Sonny Williamson II gave us. The more I listened, the more I understood that Rick had the ability to understand this side of the human condition and his method of getting across works well in the blues. Blues with a touch of irony from the soul.
So, that's it for now. Just a few blues guys that I thought about today. I'll come back around at some point with those I like best at the guitar or harmonica and maybe throw a few girls in the mix. Anyway--
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