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Chicago and Detroit: Songs and Musicians
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Style of Blues
Songs and Musicians
Chicago and Detroit
     

Songs and Musicians
Countless blues legends made their mark in Chicago and Detroit after migrating northward from the Delta and through the blues crossroads in Memphis. Their creation of a more urban blues style contributed significantly to the blues revival of the 1960s and influenced many of the R&B, rock, and even pop musicians of today. Learn more about Chicago and Detroit's musicians and their music, below:

Big Bill Broonzy   J.B. Lenoir
Paul Butterfield Blues Band   Magic Slim
Marshall Chess   Memphis Minnie
Willie Dixon   Jimmy Reed
Buddy Guy   Otis Rush
John Lee Hooker   Koko Taylor
Howlin' Wolf   Muddy Waters
Elmore James   Sonny Boy Williamson
Sam Lay    

Big Bill Broonzy
Born: June 26, 1893, Scott, Mississippi
Died: August 15, 1958, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: William Lee Conley Broonzy

As a young boy Big Bill Broonzy would return home from a day's fieldwork with cornstalks, which he'd rub together as a homemade fiddle while his many brothers and sisters — 16 — danced to the music he made. By the age of 14 he was performing as a professional fiddler, and after moving to Chicago as an adult he switched to guitar. He became a prolific songwriter as well as a performer and recording artist and was a foundational contributor to the pre-war Chicago blues scene. He was a clever lyricist with a flair for narrative, and is known for having one of the largest and most versatile repertoires on record, from a slick urban blues sound to his acoustic country blues roots as well as folk and traditional spirituals. Broonzy also acted as a mentor to younger musicians, helping many of them secure performing dates and recording sessions. When the Chicago blues sound was transformed by the emergence of the electric guitar, Broonzy kept performing as a more itinerant folk-blues act, paving the way for the future of blues in Europe and the U.K. As he aged he continued to perform, even as he suffered from throat cancer, to which he succumbed in 1958.

Essential listening: "Key to the Highway," "Big Bill Blues," "All by Myself"


Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Born: December 17, 1942, Chicago, Illinois
Died: May 3, 1987, Los Angeles, California

At the age of 16, harmonica player Paul Butterfield regularly sat in with blues legends Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Howlin' Wolf, among others, at Chicago clubs. Butterfield formed his own soon-to-be-legendary band in 1963 with guitarist Elvin Bishop and eventually drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold. This lineup was one of the first racially integrated blues bands in the city. Their 1965 self-titled release, featuring the additions of guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Mark Naftalin, had a huge impact on the 1960s blues revival, and they also broke ground backing Bob Dylan's legendary performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (the electric sound outraged many purist folk fans). Later the band changed personnel again, eventually including jazz great David Sanborn (in his early years) on saxophone. Their success began to wind down in the late sixties, although they did appear at Woodstock and released two final albums in 1968 and 1969. Paul Butterfield continued to perform throughout the seventies.

Essential listening: "I Got My Mojo Working," "Blues With a Feeling," "Born in Chicago," "Shake Your Money Maker," "Mellow Down Easy," "Two Trains Running"


Marshall Chess Marshall Chess
Born: March, 13, 1942, Chicago, Illinois

Marshall Chess is the son of Leonard Chess who, along with his brother Phil, co-founded the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records. Chess released some of the greatest blues ever recorded by legends such as Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, and many others, and Chess box sets are among the finest collections of blues available today. Marshall Chess grew up, literally, with the blues, hanging out at the Chess offices to be near his father, surrounded by blues greats and learning the finer points of recording. He later dropped out of college to work for Chess. After many years as a producer he started his own label, Cadet Concept, for which he produced the departure release Electric Mud, which featured Muddy Waters in a more electric, psychedelic blues arena. Despite initially strong sales, the album was widely panned by critics. After his father's death in 1969, Chess co-founded Rolling Stones Records and served as executive producer on the group's releases from 1971 through 1976 (or Sticky Fingers through Black and Blue, to be more specific). He has also worked as a film producer. One of his most admirable qualities is his confidence and resilience as a producer — in spite of its lukewarm reception, Chess still considers Electric Mud to be a great piece of work, and as he says in the film Godfathers and Sons, "I'm still not afraid to make the worst blues album ever made."

Essential listening: Electric Mud


Willie Dixon
Born: July 1, 1915, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Died: January 29, 1992, Burbank, California

Willie Dixon is best known for his songwriting prowess, although his influence on the blues includes his superb work as a producer, arranger, session musician and performer. Dixon began performing in Chicago in the late 1930s; his career was interrupted briefly in the early 1940s when he was jailed for refusing the draft as a conscientious objector. He later worked for the blues label Chess, where his songwriting gave a significant boost to the careers of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and others. Howlin' Wolf had such success with his rendition of Dixon's tunes that for years they were his primary recording and performance efforts. As a mentor to vocalist Koko Taylor, Dixon had her record "Wang Dang Doodle," which became a huge hit and is still her signature classic. Later in his life Dixon had to fight to reap the financial rewards of his art and subsequently worked on behalf of other artists to assist them in securing publishing royalties. He influenced not only his contemporaries, but countless blues and rock and roll artists, including Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Cream. His body of work as a songwriter boasts many blues standards and rock and roll classics.

Essential listening: "Back Door Man," "I Can't Quit You Baby," "The Seventh Son," "You Shook Me," "The Little Red Rooster"


Buddy Guy
Born: July 30, 1936, Lettsworth, Louisiana
Also known as: George Guy

Buddy Guy's name has become synonymous with Chicago blues. A dramatic, buoyantly joyful performer with a voice that can be at once smooth and gritty, Guy is also an esteemed guitarist. He has been idolized by the idols themselves for his superb musicianship — Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter and even, reportedly, Jimi Hendrix have all acknowledged him as an inspiration. Guy's style of playing was heavily influenced by B.B. King, to whom he is often compared. Early in his career he worked with many of Chicago's blues legends as a session player for Chess records and teamed up with harmonica player Junior Wells; the two were a popular duo in the city for many years. Guy was more popular as a live act than as a recording artist until he teamed up with Eric Clapton in the early 1990's, which precipitated a successful and enduring comeback. In Chicago he is known as the King of the Blues. His talent and influence, his long history with the city's blues greats and his successful local blues club "Legends," contribute to his own legend.

Essential listening: "Broken Hearted Blues," "Stone Crazy," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Try to Quit You, Baby"


John Lee Hooker John Lee Hooker
Born: August 22, 1917, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Died: August 21, 2001, Los Altos, California

John Lee Hooker was a master of "boogie" with haunting, sensuously compelling signature vocals and the ability to create a whole world of sound from a single, repetitive chord. His unique, original style hugely influenced other blues artists and especially rock and roll. The Rolling Stones, the Animals, early Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Winter are just a few of Hooker's admirers. Early on he was influenced by gospel and Delta blues. He learned to play guitar from his stepfather, who reportedly knew blues legend Charley Patton. In 1943 he moved to Detroit, where his sound was a welcome and complete change from the slicker post-war blues. For the next four decades Hooker continued to work with his signature style, performing and recording, and his devotion to his craft never faded, even when his popularity did. The respect he'd long garnered from the blues and rock community was evident in his comeback 1989 release The Healer, which featured a roll call of prestigious names from both genres. As he aged he was known as a living blues legend, and he continued to perform, even when he had to be slowly escorted to the stage.

Essential listening: "Boogie Chillen," "I'm in the Mood," "Hoogie Boogie," "Boom Boom," "Baby Lee," "The Healer"


Howlin' Wolf Howlin' Wolf
Born: June 10, 1910, West Point, Mississippi
Died: January 10, 1976, Hines, Illinois
Also known as: Chester Arthur Burnett

Howlin' Wolf was inspired by the passionate showmanship of legends Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson, but he took it to the next level. More than just a great showman, "the howler" was an almost transcendent performer, losing himself in the power of the music and letting it flow uninhibitedly through his voice. Wolf could whip the crowd into a frenzy like no other performer, and his stature — at more than 6 feet tall and 300 or so pounds — matched his formidable musical presence. His voice was truly original, a nasty sounding, expressively gritty growl that conveyed the meaning of the lyrics — many of them penned by legendary songwriter Willie Dixon — and his interpretation helped many songs become classics. The allure of Wolf's music was further enhanced by the superb guitarists who played with him — Willie Johnson in the early years and Hubert Sumlin in later years — as well as his own skill with guitar and harmonica, the latter of which he learned to play from master Sonny Boy Williamson. Wolf was a hero of many equally gritty rock and rollers, including the Rolling Stones. Like many Mississippi bluesmen, Wolf saw his career take off in Chicago, where to this day he is an enduring and beloved part of the city's history.

Essential listening: "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Moanin' at Midnight," "Evil," "Killing Floor," "Shake for Me"


Elmore James
Born: June 27, 1910, Richland, Mississippi
Died: May 24, 1963, Chicago, Illinois

Elmore James was a master of slide guitar, and has influenced just about everyone who has ever picked up a slide. His powerful vocals would naturally and dramatically crack and catch, giving authenticity to his sound. His on-and-off day job as a radio repairman complemented his art — he experimented with sound distortion decades before it became a staple of modern rock. James began performing at the age of 14, and played with Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. His style as a vocalist and guitarist were heavily influenced by Robert Johnson, and his reworking of Johnson's original "(I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom" became a signature hit for him (under the shortened title "Dust My Broom"). Like his contemporary Muddy Waters, James brought his version of Delta blues to Chicago, where his amazing band, the Broomdusters, added to the city's superb music scene. James has influenced blues and rock and roll musicians, from B.B. King and Eric Clapton to Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, as well as many others.

Essential listening: "Dust My Broom," "The Sky is Crying," "Hand in Hand," "Shake Your Money Maker"


Sam Lay
Born: March 20, 1935, Birmingham, Alabama

Sam Lay is the quintessential blues drummer, and was a major figure on the Chicago blues scene in the 1960s. He played for years with legend Howlin' Wolf, and throughout his career has backed many other blues greats, including Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Willie Dixon. He eventually was hired away from Howlin' Wolf by the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Lay was part of Butterfield's band when they backed Bob Dylan at his infamous premier electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He has played on many classic albums, including the 1965 release Paul Butterfield Blues Band, that significantly impacted the 1960s blues revival; Muddy Waters's Fathers and Sons; and Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Lay is famous for the "double shuffle" beat, which, like Bo Diddley's famous rock beat, was originally inspired by the clapping rhythms of gospel congregations. Lay has been nominated for several W.C. Handy awards.

Essential listening: "I'm Ready," "Standing Around Crying" (from Fathers and Sons, Chess); "Blues With a Feeling," "I Got My Mojo Working," "Shake Your Money Maker" (from Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra)


J.B. Lenoir
Born: May 5, 1929, Monticello, Mississippi
Died: April 29, 1967, Urbana, Illinois

J.B. Lenoir probably picked up his solid "boogie woogie" influence in New Orleans, where he spent some time performing before he settled into Chicago's blues scene during the fifties and sixties. While in New Orleans he played with blues greats Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James. Once Lenoir made it to Chicago, Big Bill Broonzy helped introduce him to the local blues community, and he became an important part of the city's blues scene. He was a talented songwriter and bluesman with an obvious political awareness. Examples of his outspoken views can be found in "Korea Blues," and "Eisenhower Blues" — the latter reportedly caused enough controversy that his record label forced him to remake the tune under the title "Tax Paying Blues." His penchant for social commentary and his high-pitched vocals distinguish him from other bluesmen of that time. Lenoir's recordings are also distinctive for their excellent saxophone arrangements and unconventional drumming (Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton were often on sax with Al Gavin on drums). Lenoir had successfully toured Europe and was likely about to achieve greater fame when he died in 1966 due to complications from a car accident.

Essential listening: "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter," "Everybody Wants to Know," "Natural Man," "Eisenhower Blues," "Korea Blues," "Vietnam Blues"


Magic Slim
Born: August 7, 1937, Grenada, Mississippi
Also known as: Morris Holt

A Magic Slim performance brings the history of Chicago blues to life — he studied and played with the masters and he brings their styles together, infusing them with his own fiery skill. He might not be the King of the Blues in Chicago, but he's certainly one of the royal family. Slim grew up in Mississippi and knew blues great Magic Sam when the two were children — it was Sam who gave him the nickname. Slim came to Chicago in the mid-fifties with the hopes of becoming a great bluesman, but didn't have the skill level to hold his own with the city's stars. He came back ten years later having honed his licks and formed a band with his brothers; the group soon became a powerful force on the city's South Side. Slim was particularly influenced by the guitar work of Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and his old buddy Magic Sam, and he was a devoted student. Decades (and personnel changes) later Slim and his band still maintain a reputation for blowing the room away with their powerful lead and rhythm guitar stylings and a truly amazing repertoire, including fine original material.

Essential listening: "Scuffling," "Love My Baby," "Help Yourself"


Memphis Minnie
Born: June 3, 1897, Algiers, Louisiana
Died: August 6, 1973, Memphis, Tennessee
Also known as: Lizzie Douglas

Memphis Minnie was an accomplished guitarist, banjo player, vocalist and songwriter whose career was long and prolific, and she won the enduring respect of her contemporaries, male and female. Her talent had an impact on Memphis's famed Beale Street blues community as well as both the pre-war and post-war Chicago blues scene. She established herself on Beale Street during the 1920s, then moved to Chicago in 1930, where she reportedly regularly won guitar playing competitions, beating out the best of them, including Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Muddy Waters. In addition to her superb musicianship, her performance featured rich vocals with a deep, full tone. Her songwriting, often conveying a purely female perspective, was as gutsy and suggestive as any of her male counterparts, and many of her originals have become classics. Among her many contributions to the blues, she was also known for her kindness and generosity toward up and coming blues musicians. In 1971 Led Zeppelin recorded its take on her original "When the Levee Breaks" — a testament to the timeless appeal of her music.

Essential listening: "Bumble Bee," "I'd Rather See Him Dead," "Moaning the Blues," "When the Levee Breaks," "Hoodoo Lady"


Jimmy Reed
Born: September 9, 1925, Dunleith, Mississippi
Died: August 29, 1976, Oakland, California
Also known as: Mathias James Reed

Jimmy Reed's brand of blues was smooth, warm and even sweet — quite a contrast to the rough, gritty sound which usually characterizes the genre. Reed and his guitarist Eddie Taylor were childhood friends in Mississippi, and they later settled in Chicago, where they would became a unique recording presence. Reed's easygoing style, built on a solid foundation of Delta blues, featured walking "boogie woogie" bass notes, catchy rhythmic hooks — crafted by Taylor — and fluid harmonica riffs. All this was delivered through Reed's expressive, irresistible vocals — the combination was a contagiously compelling sound. Some of Reed's success was also due to his wife Mary Lee's considerable talent as a songwriter. Reed's recordings were hugely popular with both blues and pop audiences; he enjoyed a long series of hits from 1955 through 1961. Many of his songs have been covered by blues, rock and roll and pop artists, including the Rolling Stones, who along with Bob Dylan acknowledge him as a huge influence. Even the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, couldn't resist recording a Jimmy Reed song.

Essential listening: "Ain't That Loving You Baby," "Baby What Do You Want Me to Do," "Hush, Hush," "Shame, Shame, Shame," "You Don't Have to Go"


Otis Rush
Born: April 29, 1934, Philadelphia, Mississippi

Otis Rush is a stunning vocalist, innovative guitarist and songwriter who has hugely influenced blues and rock artists, including Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan (whose band, Double Trouble, was named after Rush's song of the same name), Jeff Beck, and Carlos Santana. Rush was inspired to become a bluesman after he moved to Chicago in the late forties and saw Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf perform. Along with Buddy Guy and Magic Slim, Rush developed a playing style that would become known as the "West Side sound," an emotionally intense combination of guitar licks and expressive vocals, with an urban sound that signified a departure from classic Mississippi Delta blues. Willie Dixon recognized Rush's genius early on, and Rush's recording of Dixon's original, "I Can't Quit You, Baby," reached number 9 on the R&B charts in the mid-fifties. A songwriter in his own right, Rush's frequent use of minor keys provides his music with a subtle but unmistakably anguished tone and interesting moodiness. He is a left-handed guitarist, and like Albert King, one of his primary influences, he plays the guitar upside down rather than having it restrung. Rush continues to tour.

Essential listening: "I Can't Quit You, Baby," "Double Trouble," "So Many Roads, So Many Trains," "All Your Love"


Koko Taylor Koko Taylor
Born: September 28, 1935, Memphis, Tennessee
Also known as: Cora Walton

Koko Taylor is a living testament to blues history and can still belt out a song as powerfully and joyfully as ever. A warm, charismatic performer, she has been the undisputed Queen of Chicago Blues for decades, and her reign is still going strong. Taylor's career began after she and her husband moved from Memphis to Chicago, where they frequented the local blues clubs. Once she began sitting in with bands it quickly became obvious she could hold her own not only among female vocalists, but with any of the male heavy hitters, such as contemporaries Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Among her fans was blues great Willie Dixon, who was instrumental in the advancement of her career. Her recording of his original song "Wang Dang Doodle" climbed the rhythm and blues charts, was a million-plus seller, and remains one of her classics. For almost 20 years running she garnered the pretigious W.C. Handy Award. A legend in her own right, she has been compared to blues greats Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. In the late 1980s Taylor overcame health challenges and adversity to maintain her reputation as a performer and recording artist of passionate, soulful blues.

Essential listening: "I'm A Woman," "Wang Dang Doodle," "What Kind of Man is This," "I Got What it Takes"


Muddy Waters Muddy Waters
Born: April 4, 1915, Rolling Forks, Mississippi
Died: April 30, 1983, Westmont, Illinois
Also known as: McKinley Morganfield

Muddy Waters grew up in the Mississippi Delta, singing as he worked in the cotton fields as a boy and playing near his favorite muddy creek — thus the nickname. He picked up a guitar when he was 17. Influenced by the deeply emotional performer Son House as well as Robert Johnson, Waters became an accomplished bluesman himself. In the early 1940s he took the raw depth of the Delta blues to Chicago, and in a few years he had revolutionized the city's blues scene. His many contributions to Chicago blues include his skill with an electric guitar, his tough, powerful vocals, and his evocative, compelling songwriting. As a bandleader he established the ensemble sound and style of Chicago electric blues — just about every great Chicago blues player of that time was in Waters's band at one point or another. British rockers the Rolling Stones took their name from a Waters's song — a testament to Waters's extensive influence on both American and British rock and roll.

Essential listening: "Rolling Stone," "Honey Bee," "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Mannish Boy," "Got My Mojo Working"


Sonny Boy Williamson
Born: March 30, 1914, Jackson, Tennessee
Died: June 1, 1948, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: John Lee Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson's innovative skill with the harmonica brought it to center stage as a lead instrument in Chicago blues. He also popularized the "call and response" performance technique with the instrument, delivering a vocal line, answering with his characteristically sharp harp riffs followed by another vocal delivery. Williamson acquired his nickname because of the young age at which he began performing; during those early years he traveled the South, sometimes in the company of his biggest influence, Sleepy John Estes, as well as Robert Nighthawk and others. In the late 1930s he moved to Chicago where he worked as a session player and became an influential and successful mainstay of the city's blues scene as a performer and recording artist. He is credited with composing many original songs that became blues standards, especially for the harmonica, and he influenced a long line of superb harmonica players, including Junior Wells, Little Walter and Rice Miller, who was also known as Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Essential listening: "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Early in the Morning," "Whiskey Headed Woman Blues," "Shake that Boogie"