History and Highlights
The blues scene in Great Britain began to build momentum in the late 1940s and early '50s, when songster Lead Belly, blues legend Lonnie Johnson, and, in 1951, Bill Broonzy performed there. The U.K. had long been home to a fanatical underground gathering of blues fans, but these tours by U.S. bluesmen, and Broonzy's success in particular, helped pave the way for other American blues artists to tour Great Britain.
At the same time, skiffle and trad bands were gaining popularity in the U.K. (skiffle being a combination of jazz, country blues and other forms of traditional and folk music played on a variety of simple, homegrown instruments, a kind of do-it-yourself, underground genre; and trad a loose form of Dixieland jazz) and these artists, especially Ken Kolyer and Chris Barber, incorporated traditional blues into their performance, doing much to promote the genre. In 1958 Chris Barber brought Muddy Waters and his piano player Otis Spann to England, backed by Barber's own band. The audience overall was shocked by Waters' searing electric guitar blues, but when Waters returned just a few years later in the early sixties, the crowds were wild for it.
In order to capitalize on the new appetite for American acts, blues songwriter Willie Dixon helped organize the first American Blues Folk Festival in 1962. Blues legends including T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, and Memphis Slim headlined the first tour and were followed by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Sonny Boy Williamson II at subsequent festivals. By the early sixties the stage was almost set for what would evolve into a full-fledged blues-rock explosion in the U.K.
Guitarist Alexis Korner had discovered blues, literally, during World War II, listening to American blues during the London blitz as a boy. He played with both Barber and Kolyer, and in 1961 formed Blues Inc. with harmonica player and fellow blues aficionado Cyril Davies. The band was enormously influential, with a revolving lineup, including, at one time or another, various members who would eventually join the Rolling Stones.
With the formation of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in 1963, the foundation for the future evolution of English blues was complete. Mayall was a blues purist, and the band's shifting lineup provided members with a thorough blues apprenticeship. The band's 1966 release, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, was a groundbreaking classic, with Clapton's virtuoso solos setting a new standard of technical prowess and sheer volume that would increasingly characterize the British interpretation of the blues.
The rest, as they say, is history. Clapton left the Bluesbreakers to form Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, a trio of brilliant musicians who inspired one another to new heights. Using their collective experience and knowledge of the blues as a starting point, Cream incorporated elements of jazz and emerging psychedelia into their performances. The result, enormously popular and influential in both the U.K. and the U.S., was monumental instrumental excursions, alternately self-indulgent and screamingly triumphant. Together with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who formed and achieved their first great successes in England, Cream paved the way for a succession of blues-rock artists, including Led Zeppelin.
The Rolling Stones, who had formed in the early sixties, idolized and supported Delta bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and based their early sound on a blues template infused with their own gritty sensibility. Even the Beatles had a blues influence, buried as it might have been in their fascination with Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. The success of these groups helped both the U.S. and the U.K. embrace the blues, and went on to hugely influence generations of both British and American blues and rock artists.
WATCH VIDEO CLIP (B.B. King, Georgie Fame, George Melly, and Eric Clapton look back at how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones brought the blues to a new audience in the sixties, plus Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger perform together in this clip from Red, White & Blues).
The blues had crossed the Atlantic and returned home again and, as in the genre's previous evolution as it migrated from the Delta throughout the USA, new forms of the blues were born in its path. The British Blues influence is still heard in many of the most popular bands of today.