History and Highlights
During the 1920s, lured by the promise of more plentiful jobs and opportunities, more than half a million African-Americans migrated from the Mississippi Delta to northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, where, in turn, the rich musical traditions of the South would be transformed by the urban experience. The sheer magnitude of talent attracted by these areas, as well as their existing music scenes, recording and performing opportunities, and the forthcoming arrival of technology and amplification, led to an evolution of the Delta blues. Some of the most significant blues artists of the mid 20th century would make their mark in these very musical northern cities.
When Prohibition was enacted in 1920, Chicagoans found ways around the restrictions, and speakeasies popped up to replace the taverns, pubs, and clubs that provided steady work for musicians. Bluesmen played for the working classes in the clubs on the West and South sides of the city, and on the curbs and in front of the storefronts of Maxwell Street. From the 1920s through the 1950s, producer Lester Melrose of the Bluebird record label recorded many blues artists, including Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson (I) the latter's brilliance on the harmonica made it a lead instrument, revolutionizing the traditional blues lineup. In 1930 Memphis Minnie, an exceptional guitarist, songwriter and vocalist, moved from Memphis to Chicago, helping to round out the city's evolving blues sound, which eventually began to take on a more urbanized feel. These artists would act as mentors and gracious hosts to the many more Delta musicians who would settle in Chicago during the 1940s and '50s. The tight blues community that formed would ultimately contribute some of the most vital and highly influential music the genre has ever known.
By the late forties, that community was in place, and the city was headed for a blues heyday that would last through the fifties and into the early sixties. Muddy Waters revolutionized the raw Delta blues, updating it with an unmistakably urban, electric rhythm and force. He put together a brilliant band that regularly made musical mincemeat out of the local competition, nicknamed the "Headhunters" for their habit of asking to sit in with bands in local clubs and then promptly "beheading" them with their collective prowess. Elmore James, who regularly traveled back and forth between the Delta and Chicago, added his wicked slide guitar mastery and vocals to the local scene, and his band, the Broomdusters, was a match for the awe-inspiring Headhunters. Howlin' Wolf's incendiary live performances left crowds slack-jawed. Willie Dixon's bass playing was just one of his many talents that would prove indispensable to the city's scene he was a brilliant and prolific songwriter as well as talent scout, arranger, producer, adviser, and mentor, and instrumental to the careers of many blues artists, including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Finally, the Chicago blues scene also included several gifted harmonica players, including Little Walter, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Junior Wells.
When Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess first invested in and then purchased the Aristocrat label, changing the name to Chess, much of Chicago's collective blues talent was preserved on some of the finest blues recordings ever made. Another important Chicago label was Vee-Jay, which recorded the enormously popular vocalist Jimmy Reed as well as the legendary John Lee Hooker.
During the fifties and sixties, other artists who would become Chicago legends came to the forefront, including exceptionally talented guitarists/vocalists Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, who created an urbanized, emotionally expressive style that would come to be known as the West Side Sound. Koko Taylor, a sharecropper's daughter from Tennessee, moved to Chicago in 1953 and was discovered by Willie Dixon while she filled in for a performer on break at a local club. Taylor shares her early Chicago experiences in this video clip from the film Godfathers and Sons:
WATCH VIDEO CLIP: (Koko Taylor's performance and interview, from Godfathers and Sons)
In the late fifties, 16-year-old Chicago native Paul Butterfield, a white boy, rabid blues fan, and accomplished harmonica player, sat in with the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Otis Rush at local clubs and was quickly accepted into the blues community. Butterfield formed his own band in the early sixties; their self-titled release in 1965 had a profound impact on the decade's blues revival.
Chicago's contribution to the blues is immeasurable and its traditions continue in the city's blues clubs and in the enduring music of its legendary artists.
In Detroit the blues are often overshadowed musically by the city's Motown legacy and the bustling blues scene of nearby Chicago. However, while Chicago and Memphis attracted most of the aspiring blues artists heading out of the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s, Detroit drew its share, most notably, John Lee Hooker. As many other bluesmen before him, Hooker's northward travels took him first through Memphis before he arrived in Detroit in 1943, with the intention of finding assembly line work during World War II.
Detroit's blues prime took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, just as John Lee Hooker began to make his first recordings, such as his 1948 classic "Boogie Chillen," released on the Modern label. Hooker's voice was distinctive and sensual, and his unique style of Delta blues was often built around a single chord. He was one of the blues' most prolific recording artists, recording with a number of different labels, including Chess. He also made many recordings with Vee Jay Records, enormously influencing the British blues scene in the process with 1956's "Dimples" and 1962's "Boom Boom," which would become a hit for the Animals in 1964. Hooker continued to record and tour until his passing in 2001, his later career reaching a significant peak with the release of 1989's The Healer, for which he won a Grammy.
In both Chicago and Detroit, the popularity of R&B, rock, and soul chipped away at the popularity of blues, but the late 1960's blues revival among young listeners in the United States and Great Britain created a new interest in the roots music of the Delta, and especially its integration with Chicago blues, which continues to this day.