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Louisiana and Texas: Songs and Musicians
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Style of Blues
Songs and Musicians
Louisiana and Texas
     

Songs and Musicians
The blues artists of Louisiana and Texas took the blues to new dimensions by adding more complex instrumentation, upbeat rhythms, and the varied cultural influences unique to each region. Learn more about Louisiana and Texas's most significant blues musicians and their music below:

Fats Domino   Lightnin' Hopkins
Dr. John   Professor Longhair
Blind Lemon Jefferson   Big Mama Thornton
Blind Willie Johnson   Stevie Ray Vaughan
Lead Belly   T-Bone Walker


 


 

Fat Domino Fats Domino
Born: February 26, 1928, New Orleans, Louisiana
Also known as: Antoine Domino

Fats Domino began performing at the age of 14. His music combines classic "boogie woogie" piano with a New Orleans beat and flavor and R&B and jazz roots, expressed through his signature warm, easygoing vocals. Domino was enormously popular throughout the fifties and into the early sixties, hitting the R&B charts time after time with his original songs (often co-written with manager Dave Bartholomew) and eventually crossing over onto the pop charts. He made rhythm and blues music palatable to a wider audience, as his style represented the calmer edge of the spectrum, in contrast to incendiary rock artists such as Little Richard. As a performer his shy charm and warm grin reflected the mood of his music. Domino's wide popularity helped black music reach a white audience. Most of his numerous hits have become classics.

Essential listening: "Walkin' to New Orleans," ""Blueberry Hill," "Ain't It a Shame," "I'm Walkin'," "Blue Monday", "The Fat Man"


Dr. John
Born: November 21, 1940, New Orleans
Also known as: Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr.

Dr. John combines the roots of New Orleans blues with jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, pop and rock, infused with his sense of humor and particularly original and inventive artistic sensibility. He grew up in New Orleans and was exposed to the city's music early on — his father owned a record store and repaired equipment in local nightclubs. Dr. John became a session musician, where he worked with such local legends as Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and continued doing session work. Legend has it he recorded his first album with excess studio time donated by Sonny & Cher. That first release, Gris Gris, along with a later release, Gumbo, are two examples of his finest work, although an even later album contained his 1973 chart hit "Right Place, Wrong Time." Dr. John is a charismatic performer who in his heyday outfitted himself in Mardi Gras regalia as a witch doctor of sorts to perform a show that was part theatric ritual. He has collaborated with many notable artists and is an accomplished producer and arranger. He continues to record, perform and work as a highly respected producer.

Essential listening: "Such A Night," "Right Place, Wrong Time," "Makin' Whoopee"


Blind Lemon Jefferson
Born: July 1897, Couchman, Texas
Died: December, 1929, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: Deacon L.J. Bates

Blind Lemon Jefferson was a groundbreaking artist on many levels, and is the undisputed father of Texas blues. His innovative guitar style — probably partly influenced by Mexican flamenco guitarists — featured a flair for arpeggios (playing each note of a chord separately rather than in unison), unconventional use of bass notes and unusual phrasing as well as jazz-inspired improvisation, all of which paved the way for the many brilliant Texas guitarists who would follow in his lineage, from T-Bone Walker to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Walker, in fact, knew Jefferson and was directly influenced by him. Even early in his career Jefferson's remarkable talent was evident. He built a fan base playing on the streets of Dallas, and was able to provide for his family on those earnings. He recorded close to 100 songs within only four years, and his commercial success broke ground for male blues singers in an era where the genre was dominated by women, such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. As a talented songwriter he shifted the common practice of blues vocalists primarily performing songs written by others. His original material includes many blues classics.

Essential listening: "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," "Jack of Diamonds," "Matchbox Blues"


Blind Willie Johnson
Born: 1902, Marlin, Texas
Died: 1947, Beaumont, Texas

Blind Willie Johnson was a deeply religious man who played gospel music, much of it blues-based, as a way to preach. His passionate performance style featured powerful, rough vocals designed to reach the masses from Texas street corners. Johnson was a talented songwriter as well as a superb slide guitarist. He would pick the melody while accompanying himself with a bass line he'd play with his thumb, and he reportedly played slide with a pocketknife rather than the customary bottleneck. During the 1930s Johnson did some recording for Columbia. A number of his songs became classics, and have been covered by many artists, including Eric Clapton, Peter, Paul and Mary and Ry Cooder.

Essential listening: "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time," "Let Your Light Shine on Me," "Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground," "If I Had My Way"


Lead Belly
Born: January 20, 1888, Mooringsport, Louisiana
Died: December 6, 1949, New York, New York
Also known as: Huddie William Ledbetter

By all accounts Lead Belly was a captivating performer, and the story of his colorful life certainly gives credence to the reputation. His performance was enchanting enough to disarm even the heavy arm of Southern, white, law enforcement — he twice was pardoned from long prison sentences as a result of his talent. Lead Belly was an itinerant musician, and a living catalogue of many musical traditions and influences, from folk to country blues to prison songs to ballads. His wide repertoire carried a rich sense of black history. He traveled and played for a time with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was probably his primary blues influence and reportedly taught him how to play slide guitar. It was folklorist John Lomax who recognized Lead Belly as a national treasure and orchestrated his second prison release on those grounds, later recording him and organizing performances. Lead Belly later moved to New York and became an integral part of the city's folk scene. During his lifetime he never experienced the success and recognition he deserved, but his influence on American music is incalculable. He has inspired many songwriters, including Bob Dylan, and his recordings document a rich musical legacy that without him might have been forgotten.

Essential listening: "Goodnight Irene," "Bourgeois Blues," "Scottsboro Blues," "Rock Island Line"


Lightnin' Hopkins
Born: March 15, 1912, Centerville, Texas
Died: January 30, 1982, Houston, Texas
Also known as: Sam Hopkins

Lightnin' Hopkins's influence on Texas blues is surpassed only by that of Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker. Like Walker, Hopkins met Jefferson when he was just a boy and was forever influenced by his exposure to the musician. Hopkins's original brand of blues was characterized by an unusual sense of rhythm and loose sense of structure. His many moods and personality nuances came through in his ever-changing performance and diverse repertoire. He was a talented songwriter, known for his ability to create lyrics on the spot, and he hardly ever played a song with the exact same lyrics twice. Hopkins played and recorded primarily in Texas throughout most of his career until, as one of the many blues greats who benefited from the blues revival of the 1960s, he was kept busy touring and performing at festivals. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, two years before his death.

Essential listening: "Tim Moore's Farm," "Coffee Blues," "Lightnin's Boogie," "Hopkins's Sky Hop"


Professor Longhair
Born: December 19, 1918, Bogalusa, Louisiana
Died: January 30, 1980, New Orleans, Louisiana
Also known as: Henry Roeland "Roy" Byrd

Professor Longhair is known as the Father of New Orleans rhythm and blues. He was a vocalist and songwriter, and as a pianist his wildly innovative style combined zydeco, jazz, blues, calypso and ragtime influences with an amazing sense of rhythm. Longhair's infectious talent influenced New Orleans-based greats such as Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Fats Domino, among others. He began performing when he was quite young, and later formed several bands, including Professor Longhair and his Blues Jumpers, with whom he recorded the single, "Baldhead," which eventually reached number 5 on the R&B charts. During most of his career he remained a local legend because of his lack of interest in touring, but many of his recordings became New Orleans classics, including "Tipitina," for which the legendary nightclub was named. Longhair's popularity subsided during the 1960s and he worked as a janitor until his performance career was revived in the early seventies. Thereafter he was a regular at New Orleans's Jazz & Heritage Festival, toured the U.S. and Europe and continued to record to critical acclaim.

Essential recordings: "Tipitina," "Baldhead," Big Chief," "Go to the Mardi Gras," "In the Night"


Big Mama Thornton
Born: December 11, 1926, Montgomery, Alabama
Died: July 25, 1984, Los Angeles, California
Also known as: Willie Mae Thornton

Big Mama Thornton was a great blues vocalist in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Ma Rainey, and was also a drummer and harmonica player. She had considerable success with her 1953 recording of "Hound Dog," which reached number 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for seven weeks. (Three years later the song was immortalized by Elvis Presley.) Thornton began her professional singing career at the age of 14, touring the South with the Hot Harlem Revue. She later moved to Houston, Texas where she did some recording and worked with Johnny Otis and Junior Parker, among others. In the early sixties she settled in San Francisco, playing in local blues clubs as well as touring with blues festivals. Thornton continued to perform until her death in 1984. Among her recordings is "Ball 'n Chain," recorded in 1965, which Janis Joplin covered three years later.

Essential listening: "Hound Dog," "Ball and Chain," "Just Like a Dog," "I Smell a Rat," "Stop Hoppin' on Me"


Stevie Ray Vaughan
Born: October 3, 1954, Dallas, Texas
Died: August 27, 1990, East Troy, Wisconsin

Stevie Ray Vaughan almost single-handedly created a blues revival during the 1980s — for blues fans it was a refreshing, electrifying change from the predominant sound of that decade. He was assisted in this feat by contemporaries Albert Collins and Robert Cray. Vaughan was a stunning guitarist who mesmerized crowds and listeners with a signature sound and breathtaking skill, combining the influences of both Texas and Chicago blues. His guitar gymnastics echoed those of Jimi Hendrix, and that combined with his soulful, original style made his music irresistible to rock fans as well as blues aficionados. The Texas native dropped out of high school and made his way to Austin to play music; he formed a band that soon became well-known in the city. Eventually he and his band were signed to Epic and their first release, Texas Flood, made blues history. He had taken his rightful place alongside other blues legends when his life and career were cut short by tragedy. Vaughan died in a helicopter crash after a performance with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

Essential listening: "Pride and Joy," "The Sky is Crying," "Texas Flood," "Couldn't Stand the Weather," "Little Wing"


T-Bone Walker
Born: May 28, 1910, Linden, Texas
Died: March 16, 1975, Los Angeles, California
Also known as: Aaron Thibeaux Walker

Some music critics maintain that no one has ever matched T-Bone Walker's genius as an electric blues guitarist. His extraordinary talent influenced blues and rock greats, including Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Otis Rush and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others. Walker was born into a musical family, and Texas blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson was a family friend. As a boy Walker reportedly acted as escort to Jefferson when the blind musician played on the streets of Dallas, and was definitely influenced by Jefferson musically. Walker began his career in Texas and later moved to Los Angeles. Walker's absolute authority with the instrument translated into precise, incendiary musicianship complemented by a confident, masterful stage presence. His ability as a vocalist was every bit as impressive, and he is the author of many blues classics, including "Stormy Monday," which has been covered endlessly and would probably appear in any top 10 list of the best blues ever written.

Essential listening: "Stormy Monday," "Strollin' With Bones," "T-Bone Shuffle," "T-Bone Blues," "I Walked Away," "Cold Cold Feeling"