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The Songs & the Artists
Jeff Beck
Born: June 24, 1944, Surrey, England

Jeff Beck is a musician's musician — he never reached the mainstream superstardom of many of his contemporaries, probably partly due to his sporadic presence on the music scene and the fact that he is not a vocalist. Regardless, Beck is an innovative master of electric guitar and as such he has been idolized by other guitarists for decades. Among other virtuoso qualities of his playing, he is known for the stunning power, authority and control of his fretwork as well as for his somewhat erratic versatility. Beck took his initial place in British rock by joining the Yardbirds as Eric Clapton's replacement. He later formed his own self-named group, with then unknown vocalist Rod Stewart and bassist Ron Wood (who would later join the Rolling Stones as a guitarist). The Jeff Beck Group put out some blisteringly rocking versions of blues classics such as Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious" and "You Shook Me," influencing both blues-rock and hard rock devotees in the process, including Led Zeppelin and Cream. Beck's later work reflects a continuous evolution and includes superb jazz-fusion. He continues to record and tour, and his latest album includes a cover of Muddy Waters's "Rollin' and Tumblin."

Essential listening: "You Know What I Mean," "Led Boots," "Escape," "Cause We've Ended As Lovers," "I Ain't Superstitious," "You Shook Me"


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: "When Will I Get to be Called a Man," "Key to the Highway," "Big Bill Blues," "All by Myself"


Ruth Brown
Born: January 1, 1928, Portsmouth, Virginia

Ruth Brown's smooth vocals made the rhythm and blues charts regularly between 1949 and 1955, and helped a then-fledgling Atlantic Records establish itself as a formidable presence in the R&B world. Later in her long and versatile career she became known as a rock and roll and pop singer as well as a stage and film actress, winning a Tony award on Broadway. She has influenced many R&B and soul artists, and her enduring talent is evidenced by her recent solo recordings and guest appearances with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland and B.B. King, as well as a Grammy win in the late 1980s. Brown continues to perform.

Essential listening: "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "Teardrops From My Eyes," "Don't Deceive Me," "Mambo Baby"


Willie Brown
Born: August 6, 1900, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Died: December 30, 1952, Tunica, Mississippi

Willie Brown was an outstanding guitarist as well as vocalist who had an enormous influence on the origination and development of Delta blues. Brown performed regularly with blues legends Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, and also backed Patton and House on recordings. He is known as an accompanist rather than a soloist, although he did record three extraordinary solo performances. Later in his career he primarily performed with Son House. Both Brown and House disappeared from the music scene during the 1940s, and, sadly, Brown died before the blues revival of the 1960s, when many of his contemporaries were rediscovered by blues scholars.

Essential listening: "M & O Blues," "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," "Future Blues"


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"
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Ray Charles Ray Charles
Born: September 23, 1930, Albany, Georgia
Died: June 10, 2004, Beverly Hills, California

Ray Charles is known for his innovative blend of genres — his enormously popular body of work reflects inspiration from gospel, blues, jazz, pop, R&B, soul and country. As a vocalist he was originally inspired by Nat King Cole, and his early recordings reflect this smooth influence. Charles later came into his own with 1954's "I've Got a Woman," which marked a dramatic change in his style — it reflected a heavy gospel influence integrated with pop and his vocals were suddenly uninhibited and raw. This trend in Charles's music would continue, culminating in his 1959 signature hit and timeless classic "What'd I Say." His ability to bring together many influences, infusing them all with a gospel core, has had a huge impact on both soul and rock and roll music, influencing Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, and others. Charles is often referred to as the Father of Soul. He is a legendary musical figure and continues to tour.

Essential listening: "Losing Hand," "I've Got a Woman," "Unchain My Heart', "What'd I Say," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hit the Road Jack"


Sam Chatmon
Born: January 10, 1897, Boltmon, Mississippi
Died: February 2, 1983, Hollandale, Mississippi

Sam Chatmon was born into a highly musical family — reportedly there were 11 sons, all of them musicians. As a boy Sam often played with the Chatmon Family String Band, and when three of his brothers formed the Mississippi Sheiks, who became very popular, he sometimes played with them as well. But Sam Chatmon was a multi-instrumentalist in his own right — playing mandolin, bass, guitar and banjo — and worked as a traveling musician with a wide repertoire that included blues until the early 1940s. He became a plantation worker until the 1960s blues revival, at which point, like many of his contemporaries, he embarked upon a second career as a musician, performing and recording until his death in 1983.

Essential listening: "My Little Woman," "Shake 'Em All Down," "God Don't Like Ugly," "Hollandale Blues," "Sitting on Top of the World"


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


Eric Clapton
Born: March 30, 1945, Ripley, England
Also known as: Eric Patrick Clapp

Eric Clapton's talent has graced some of the best bands in rock and blues history: the Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith. He is a rock and blues star in his own right, maintaining a reputation for decades as one of Great Britain's finest guitarists. Clapton reportedly left the Yardbirds in order to immerse himself in blues with the Bluesbreakers ; his subsequent forays into blues-rock with Cream and Blind Faith did a lot to merge the two genres in popular music. He has moved between rock, blues and pop throughout his career, but his major influences include Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Robert Johnson, and his renditions of blues classics — especially his cover of Johnson's "Crossroads" — are among his best-known recordings. He is a master of painfully expressive guitar work, matched by his emotional vocal delivery. Although much of his work is outstanding, he is probably best known for the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which is commonly considered to be a masterpiece. Among other brilliant work, that album includes the rock classic "Layla."

Essential listening: "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "Bell-Bottom Blues," "Crossroads" "Key to the Highway," "Layla"


Shemekia Copeland Shemekia Copeland
Born: 1979, New York, New York

Shemekia Copeland began appearing on stage with her father, Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, as a child, and as a teenager she toured with him as his opening act, stunning audiences with a confident stage presence which seemed to belie her youth. Her vocal prowess matches her charisma as a performer. At the age of 19, Copeland released her debut album, inspiring comparisons to blues legends Etta James and Koko Taylor. By 2002 Copeland had released two more albums to critical acclaim, and won three of the blues' prestigious W.C. Handy awards. She has worked with Ruth Brown, one of her original influences, as well as Dr. John and others.

Read an archived version of Shemekia Copeland's USAToday online chat.

Essential listening: "The Other Woman," "I Always Get My Man," "Have Mercy," "Your Mama's Talking," "Not Tonight," "The Push I Need"
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Ida Cox
Born: February 25, 1896, Toccoa, Georgia
Died: November 10, 1967, Knoxville, Tennessee
Also known as: Ida Prather

Ida Cox was one of the great 1920s blues singers. She began her career as a teenager, traveling throughout the south as a singer with tent and vaudeville shows. Cox was also a versatile businesswoman — for a time she ran her own touring company, working as a producer and manager as well as performer. She was a prolific and popular recording artist throughout the 1920s who wrote many of her own songs, one of which is the well-known "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues." Cox tended to direct her shows toward black female audiences, with songs that examined various issues from a female perspective. Cox's career was active throughout the 1930s, when health problems reportedly forced her into retirement, although she did manage an additional recording session in the early 1960s.

Essential listening: "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," "Last Mile Blues," "Pink Slip Blues," "Cemetery Blues"


Cream
Eric Clapton, born March 30, 1945, Ripley, England; Ginger Baker, born August 19, 1939, Lewisham, England; Jack Bruce, born May 14, 1943, Lanarkshire, Scotland

Cream combined the superb musicianship of bassist Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker, and guitarist Eric Clapton, and became a powerhouse of blues-rock that had an enormous influence on the future of rock and heavy metal. They were all groundbreaking musicians known for their innovative, aggressive styles, and when they played together as a band they inspired one another to new heights of brilliance. They brought to the blues a jazz-inspired flair for improvisation, and although they were sometimes criticized for their seemingly endless jam sessions, at their best their competitive instrumental assaults showcased their unique gifts. Eric Clapton raised the blues guitar solo to a high art form; Jack Bruce's fervent and often melodic bass playing could pass for a second lead guitar; and rock had never seen the likes of Ginger Baker's percussive mastery (and it's possible that no one has matched him to this day). The trio covered blues classics from legends such as Albert King, Skip James, and Willie Dixon in addition to original material, and in the process introduced the blues to a new audience and broke ground for subsequent heavy blues-rock bands such as Led Zeppelin. Cream formed in 1966 and broke up in 1968. All of their releases are classics.

Essential listening: "Sunshine of Your Love," "Crossroads," "Strange Brew," "Tales of Brave Ulysses"


Bo Diddley
Born: December 30, 1928, McComb, Mississippi
Also known as: Otha Ellas Bates McDaniels

Like many bluesmen, Bo Diddley has his deepest musical roots in gospel. He also studied classical music in his youth, but turned to blues after he was introduced to the music of John Lee Hooker. Reportedly it was Hooker's classic "Boogie Chillen" that had such a dramatic impact. Diddley's music is definitely blues-based, however he has had a more profound impact on rock and roll, especially through the beat he's known for, which became foundational in the genre. He influenced the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, among many others, with his particularly lighthearted, rhythm-based brand of blues. Diddley grew up in Chicago and began his blues career playing on the street, eventually forming his own band — which included harmonica master Billy Boy Arnold — and signing with record label Chess. Many of his songs are blues and rock and roll classics. Diddley further influenced rock and roll with his design of a square guitar, one of his trademarks. He continues to tour and record.

Essential listening: "Who Do You Love," "You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover," "Mona," "I'm a Man"


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"


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"
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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"


Rosco Gordon
Born: 1934, Memphis, Tennessee
Died: July 11, 2002, New York, New York

Rosco Gordon was an integral part of the Memphis Beale Street blues scene during the forties and fifties. He created a shuffle rhythm on piano known as "Rosco's rhythm" that influenced blues, and, in the opinion of some historians, also inspired the creation of the distinctive rhythm of Jamaican ska, itself a precursor of reggae. On Beale Street Gordon worked with Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland and others, and in the early fifties his song "Booted" hit number one on the R&B charts. That same year he had another hit with "No More Doggin'." Throughout his career he never matched that early success, but he did continue to record and perform. Like many bluesmen he took an extended hiatus from music to earn an alternative living, but later in his life he began performing again, and continued to do so until his death in 2002.

Essential listening: "Booted," "I'm Gonna Shake It," "No More Doggin'," "She's My Baby"


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 1990s, 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"


W.C. Handy W.C. Handy
Born: November 16, 1873, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Died: March 28, 1958, New York, New York
Also known as: William Christopher Handy

W.C. Handy is widely recognized by his self-proclaimed moniker, "Father of the Blues" due to his steadfast and pioneering efforts to document, write and publish blues music and his life-long support of the genre. Although much of his musical taste leaned toward a more sophisticated and polished sound, Handy was among the first to recognize the value of the blues, and Southern black music in general, as an important American legacy. Handy was an accomplished bandleader and songwriter who performed throughout the South before continuing his career in New York. He came across the Delta blues in the late 1890s, and his composition "Memphis Blues," published in 1912, was the first to include "blues" in the title. Some historians don't consider "Memphis Blues" to be an actual blues song, however it did influence the creation of other blues tunes, including the historic "Crazy Blues," which is commonly known as the first blues song to ever be recorded (by Mamie Smith in 1920). A Memphis park was named after Handy in recognition of his contribution to blues and the Blues Foundation recognizes the genre's achievements annually with the prestigious W.C. Handy award.

Essential listening: "St. Louis Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Beale Street Blues"


Corey Harris Corey Harris
Born: February 21, 1969, Denver, Colorado

Corey Harris can play and sing like a classic bluesman — his first album was a thorough exploration and interpretation of Delta blues. Since then he has incorporated the influence of rich musical traditions from New Orleans to Africa to the Caribbean, all while maintaining his reputation as a first-class performer and recording artist. Harris learned how to play the guitar when he was 12, and was originally inspired by Texas blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins. As a student he traveled to Africa and later moved to New Orleans where he performed on the streets before signing a recording contract. Each of Harris's albums has received critical acclaim, and he continues to draw from a wide range of influences, including hip hop, reggae, funk, jazz, blues, R&B and Latin music.

Essential listening: "Black Maria," "Feel Like Going Home," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," "Bound to Miss Me," "Capitaine"
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Alvin Youngblood Hart
Born: March 2, 1963, Oakland, California

Alvin Youngblood Hart is a contemporary bluesman whose original music and cover interpretations are infused with a pure Delta blues influence. A native of California, Hart's family roots are in Mississippi, and he grew up visiting the area annually, falling in love with the rural lifestyle and hearing stories of blues patriarch Charley Patton. The influences of legendary bluesmen such as Bukka White, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters can be heard in Hart's many classic interpretations of blues standards as well as his original material. His additional influences include the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King as well as formidable vocalists Jimmy Witherspoon and Jimmy Reed. While living in California as a teenager, Hart taught himself to play guitar and spent a lot of time immersed in the Delta blues and its history. Ironically, his performance career began when he just happened to be stationed in Natchez, Mississippi as a member of the Coast Guard. He eventually began playing gigs in California, and ended up with a record deal after a stint opening for Taj Mahal brought him wider visibility. In 1997 Youngblood won the W.C. Handy award for Best New Artist.

Essential listening: "Devil Got My Woman," "Things "Bout Coming My Way," "That Kate Adams Jive," "Jinx Blues," "Motherless Child"


Jimi Hendrix
Born: November 27, 1942, Seattle, Washington
Died: September 18, 1970, London, England

Seattle-born lead guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist Jimi Hendrix created an amazing body of work during his short career, changing the face of music forever through his revolutionary guitar playing and recordings. Although he is often perceived as a rock and roll icon, his roots lie in the blues. As he once recalled: "The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy and it scared me to death, because I heard all of these sounds. Wow, what is that all about?" Picking up the guitar in his teens, Hendrix eventually spent four grueling years on the national R&B circuit as a sideman. Upon setting out on his own, he settled first in New York, then relocated to London. By late 1966 he was a sensation in Europe, and in the U.S. shortly thereafter, mesmerizing audiences with searing electric guitar work coupled with the flash of an R&B road band — playing the guitar with his teeth, behind his neck, and between his legs. Hendrix became the Aquarian Age avatar of the no-holds-barred African-American showbiz tradition, and the blues were rarely far from the surface of his work. His career and creative trajectory took him to ever greater heights until his passing in 1970. Today, his legend continues to grow, and his example continues to inspire new generations of musicians.

Essential listening: "Devil Got My Woman," "Things "Bout Coming My Way," "That Kate Adams Jive," "Jinx Blues," "Motherless Child"

Text derived from the Jimi Hendrix Gallery at Experience Music Project, Seattle.


Billie Holiday
Born: April 7, 1915, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: July 17, 1959, New York, New York
Also known as: Eleanora Fagan Gough

Billie Holiday was a legendary vocalist whose uncompromising artistry and highly original, personalized style — which included an innovative sense of phrasing, rhythm and harmony — has had a tremendous impact on generations of vocalists from all genres. Holiday's life was fraught with difficulty, which may be why she was able to sing the blues so convincingly. A huge part of her appeal was her ability to convey the meaning of the lyrics, giving the impression that she had lived her material. Holiday has acknowledged Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as two of her primary influences, and during her career she worked with legends Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. Among her many classic recordings are the disturbingly evocative "Strange Fruit," which controversially addressed the violence of racism, and her own composition "God Bless the Child."

Essential listening: "Lover Man," "God Bless the Child," "Strange Fruit," "Good Morning Heartache"


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"


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"
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Son House Son House
Born: March 21, 1902, Riverton, Mississippi
Died: October 19, 1988, Detroit, Michigan
Also known as: Eddie James House, Jr.

Son House was originally a preacher, and he brought the fiery intensity of Baptist gospel to his interpretation of Delta blues. A powerfully emotional performer, his presence onstage was riveting and almost frightening in its ability to move the listener. He was influenced by and often played with blues greats Charley Patton and Willie Brown, yet his style remained distinctly his own. He is credited as the primary influence on blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters as well as Bonnie Raitt and many others. House disappeared from the blues scene from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s, until researchers tracked him down, whereupon he began a second career as a respected performer. His past association with Patton and Johnson, as well as his own legendary skill, made him particularly valuable and respected as a living record of blues history. As music critic Cub Koda put it, "Hailed as the greatest living Delta singer still actively performing, nobody dared call themselves the king of the blues as long as Son House was around." *

Essential listening: "Preachin' the Blues," "Death Letter," "John the Revelator," "Dry Spell Blues," "My Black Mama"

* www.allmusic.com


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"


Mississippi John Hurt Mississippi John Hurt
Born: July 3, 1893, Teoc, Mississippi
Died: November 2, 1966, Grenada, Mississippi
Also known as: John Smith Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt brought unprecedented warmth to the blues, characterized by his gentle, gracious presence as a performer and the tenderness and depth of his songwriting. Hurt mastered a form of finger picking on the guitar that significantly influenced generations of blues, folk and rock musicians. From the time he was 14, Hurt performed locally in and near his tiny hometown while making his living as a farm laborer. Like other Mississippi masters, he was tracked down later in life by a blues fan and scholar and introduced to the burgeoning blues revival of the mid-1960s. During the last three years of his life, to his surprise and delight, he was accepted with open arms by thousands of fans and subsequently made his living as a performer. He has influenced the musicianship and songwriting of blues, folk and rock and his musical descendants include Taj Mahal, Ben Harper, Bob Dylan and many others.

Essential listening: "Frankie," "Louis Collins," "Avalon Blues," "Stack O' Lee," "Big Leg Blues"


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"


Skip James Skip James
Born: June 21, 1902, Bentonia, Mississippi
Died: October 3, 1969, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Also known as: Nehemiah Curtis James

Skip James is known for his unique, haunting style of blues. He combined falsetto vocals with minor chords, complex finger picking, an idiosyncratic tuning, and a highly personal style of songwriting to create some of the genre's most original music. James was one of Robert Johnson's biggest influences; his original song "Devil Got My Woman" was reworked by Johnson and became the latter's signature hit "Hellhound on my Trail". Like many of his contemporaries of the early Delta blues scene, he turned to another means of livelihood, becoming a preacher at the age of 30 and turning his musical attention to gospel. By chance James was rediscovered during the early 1960s, and subsequently thrilled blues fans at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, thereby re-launching his career. It was obvious that his musical skills were still as sharp as ever and his unique style was intact. In 1966 the band Cream released a popular version of James's original "I'm So Glad."

Essential listening: "Devil Got My Woman," "I'm So Glad," "Sickbed Blues, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"
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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"


Robert Johnson
Born: May 8, 1911, Hazelhurst, Mississippi
Died: August 28, 1938, Greenwood, Mississippi

A young Robert Johnson hung around the Saturday night dances in the Delta watching Son House, Willie Brown and Charley Patton play and, to their amusement, trying to play guitar during the breaks. Years later Johnson ran into House and Brown, and Johnson's skill on the instrument stunned them. He had acquired his skill in such a short time that it inspired a rumor that became legend — Johnson must have sold his soul to the devil. His tortured voice and emotional intensity seemed to give credence to the legend, although it is more likely that his own determination and inherent talent, as well as his exposure to the great Delta bluesmen, deserve the credit for his genius. In addition to being a gifted lyricist and composer and innovative guitarist, Johnson transferred "boogie woogie" from the piano to the guitar, playing the bottom guitar strings to accompany himself with a bass line, a technique that has become standard in blues composition. His influence on blues, from Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, is legendary.

Essential listening: "Walkin' Blues," "Love in Vain Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen" "Terraplane Blues," "Cross Road Blues"


Tommy Johnson
Born: 1896, Terry, Mississippi
Died: November 1, 1956, Crystal Springs, Mississippi

Tommy Johnson was a hell-raiser who could belt out the blues with a wide vocal range, from a low throaty snarl to a high falsetto. He had a dramatic flair in performance similar to his contemporary, Delta blues king Charley Patton, and in the early, pre-Robert Johnson days his influence on the genre was second only to that of Patton and Son House. He was not a virtuoso on the guitar, but had an original, evocative style, well-matched to his theatrical delivery. Johnson significantly influenced blues greats Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk and especially Howlin' Wolf, who would carry on and even outdo the Patton/Johnson tradition of incendiary, down-and-dirty showmanship. Johnson was also the quintessential blues bad boy, with a penchant for rampant womanizing and for alcohol, the latter of which led him to drastic extremes. He was known to down denatured alcohol, used for artificial heat, when the real thing wasn't available, a habit he documented in his original song "Canned Heat," from which the 1960s blues-rock group took its name. Johnson left behind a small but outstanding collection of recordings, almost all of which became classics.

Essential listening: "Maggie Campbell," "Big Road Blues," "Cool Drink of Water," "Canned Heat"


Tom Jones
Born: June 6, 1940, Pontypridd, South Wales

Tom Jones is a stunning vocalist with a powerful, emotionally expressive baritone-tenor range matched by a legendarily charismatic stage presence that has often been compared to that of Elvis Presley — Presley, in fact, regarded him as one of the world's finest vocalists. Jones's first hit, "It's Not Unusual," reached number one in the U.K. and placed in the U.S. top 10 in 1965. He followed that up with a steady string of hits throughout the sixties, and eventually landed his own TV series. Jones's prolific recording career has encompassed everything from gospel to rockabilly to funk to electronic and dance music — in the late eighties he collaborated with techno group Art of Noise, and had a big hit with a tongue-in-cheek cover of Prince's, "Kiss," a recording that showcased Jones's enduring talent and appeal as well as his sense of humor. Other milestones include a superb recording collaboration with the Chieftains and an acclaimed performance at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, both in the early nineties. Jones remains an esteemed performer worldwide, and continues to tour and record; his latest release, Mr. Jones, is a collaboration with acclaimed hip hop artist Wyclef Jean.

Essential listening: "Tennessee Waltz," "Kiss," "Green, Green Grass of Home," "She's a Lady," "I Who Have Nothing"
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Albert King
Born: April 25, 1923, Indianola, Mississippi
Died: December 21, 1992
Also known as: Albert Nelson

As a child an enterprising Albert King reportedly built his own guitar out of a cigar box. A brilliant guitarist in his own right, King was originally inspired by Texas blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like B.B. King, he was a master of single string solos and used the technique of "string bending" to great emotional effect. He was also left-handed, and instead of restringing the guitar, he just learned to play it upside down, which added an original tone to his style. His blues are infused with a Memphis soul sound; he became a rock and blues star after signing to the Memphis-based Stax label, which was responsible for some of the finest soul music ever recorded. King always managed to keep his sound fresh and original, and had a significant impact on blues and rock; he has influenced Eric Clapton, Robert Clay, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Otis Rush, among others. He had the honor of playing San Francisco's Fillmore West on opening night with John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix and often shared the bill with rock artists throughout his career. King continued to tour until his death in 1992.

Essential listening: "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong," "Crosscut Saw," "Born Under a Bad Sign," "I'll Play the Blues for You"


B.B. King B.B. King
Born: September 16, 1925, Indianola, Mississippi
Also known as: Riley B. King

B.B. King's career has spanned five decades and taken him from the clubs of Memphis to the finest concert halls in the world. He's known as the King of the Blues, and for his enduring and successful efforts as a gracious, respected blues diplomat he deserves much of the credit for the genre's mainstream popularity and recognition. Early in his career King worked as a Memphis disc jockey, where he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which was later shortened to B.B. Although King's roots are in Delta blues, his sound has always been more polished, probably due to his wide variety of influences, which include jazz, gospel and pop. King's highly influential style — probably originally inspired by Texas blues greats Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker — features "single string" guitar solos that are so well-integrated with his commanding vocals that it's sometimes hard to tell the two apart. He also "bends" the strings, which continues the sound in a way that enhances the music's emotion. He has influenced countless blues and rock artists, including Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and Jeff Beck. King continues to record and perform as powerfully as ever.

Essential listening: "Three O'Clock Blues," "How Blue Can You Get," "The Thrill is Gone," "Sweet Little Angel," "Paying the Cost to be the Boss"


Chris Thomas King
Born: October 14, 1963, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Also known as: Chris Thomas

The essence of Chris Thomas King's versatile, heavily blues-influenced music can perhaps best be hinted at with a quick sample of his album titles: his 1986 debut, The Beginning; 1995's 21st Century Blues…From da Hood; 2000's Me, My Guitar and the Blues; and 2002's Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues. King's early influences leaned toward soul, rock and reggae, specifically Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, but it was inevitable that his blues birthright (as the son of Louisiana bluesman Tabby Thomas) would eventually wend its way into his work. King toured Europe with his father in 1983, and since then the blues have been an integral part of his work. Throughout his career he has fused the blues with hip hop, rap, funk and soul, and also has repeatedly returned to a more pure form of blues, exploring the soul and history of the music in a critically acclaimed, always-evolving body of work. King is most recently known for his appearance on the award-winning soundtrack from the film O Brother Where Art Thou , in which he also played a supporting role.

Read an archived version of King's Washington Post online chat.

Essential listening: "Soon This Morning Blues," "Mary Jane," "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," "Da Thrill is Gone From Here," "Revelations"


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 1960's. 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)


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"
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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: "Shot on James Meredith," "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter," "Everybody Wants to Know," "Natural Man," "Eisenhower Blues," "Korea Blues," "Vietnam Blues"


Little Richard
Born: December 5, 1932, Macon, Georgia
Also known as: Richard Wayne Penniman

Little Richard was a crucial link between R&B and rock and roll, merging the two with passionate, gospel-inspired vocals and a truly incendiary presence that translated incredibly well onto recording tape. The true peak of his career only lasted three years (and included appearances in rock and roll films), but his many hits are absolute classics and he had an enormous influence on blues, rock, and pop music. Little Richard's recordings feature an overwhelming compilation of superb musicianship — his ferocious vocals and relentlessly wild piano playing, strong baritone and tenor sax (often Alvin Tyler and Lee Alvin, respectively), and fabulous rhythm section (namely drummer Earl Palmer). Like other performers such as Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, the religious fervor Little Richard brought to his music was key to its riveting appeal. In 1957 he actually turned his back on his music career in favor of religious studies. He came back to music in the early 1960s, and later repeated the journey from music to religion and back again. Little Richard continues to perform on occasion.

Essential listening: "Lucille," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally," "Tutti Frutti"


Alan Lomax
Born: January 15, 1915, Austin, Texas
Died: July 19, 2002, Sarasota, Florida

Alan Lomax began his long career as a folklorist when he was still a teenager, traveling with his father, John, throughout the South to preserve the area's music legacy of folk, work songs and spirituals, among other music. During their travels to Southern prisons, the father and son team came upon William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, recorded him for the first time and actually negotiated his release on the basis of the singer/songwriter's talent. Alan Lomax subsequently returned to the South on his own, where he recorded many Mississippi bluesmen, including Muddy Waters, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. He also recorded jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. Lomax's life was dedicated to preserving the musical legacy of not only the United States, but other parts of the world as well, including Europe and the Caribbean. His blues recordings are classics, and in his award-winning memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, he not only chronicled the history of the blues as seen through his field experiences, but also captured the bitter racism that was faced by the now-legendary artists he recorded. Lomax left behind an invaluable musical and historical legacy.

Essential listening: "Walking Blues," "Country Blues," "Life is Like That" (from The Land Where the Blues Began, 2002, Rounder)


Brownie McGhee
Born: November 30, 1915, Knoxville, Tennessee
Died: February 23, 1996, Oakland, California
Also known as: Walter McGhee

Brownie McGhee played blues guitar in a style that was heavily influenced by Blind Boy Fuller, a North Carolina native whose repertoire included a complicated finger picking style characteristic of a regional genre known as Piedmont blues. Early in his career, McGhee worked as a traveling performer. When he made it to North Carolina he met Blind Boy Fuller and his manager, J.B. Long, and it was Long who helped McGhee make his first recordings. McGhee later moved to New York where he teamed up with harmonica player Sonny Terry. With the help of legendary singer/songwriter Lead Belly, McGhee and Terry became an important part of the city's folk scene, working with such artists as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. As a duo they were enormously popular performers and prolific recording artists for almost four decades. McGhee also opened a music school in Harlem where he offered guitar lessons. Both individually and in his partnership with Sonny Terry, McGhee had a lasting influence on both blues and folk. He was an accomplished and versatile guitarist and vocalist whose mastery as a musician included R&B, electric blues and vintage country blues, in addition to the Piedmont style he helped preserve.

Essential listening: "Workingman's Blues," "Death of Blind Boy Fuller," "Living With the 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"
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Taj Mahal
Born: May 17, 1942, New York, New York
Also known as: Henry St. Claire Fredericks

Taj Mahal is an extremely versatile songwriter, musician and performer who incorporates his lifelong study of blues and other genres, as well as the music of other cultures — including Hawaiian, West African, reggae, zydeco, R&B, Latin, gospel, jazz and folk — in his songwriting and performance. Mahal has mastered many instruments, including piano, bass, guitar, banjo and harmonica, and is an expressive vocalist. His deep respect for the true roots of all musical styles is evident in his performance. Stories of legendary and obscure artists from blues and other genres as well as various musical styles and influences are often interspersed between songs. Mahal began performing as a folk singer while he was still a teenager, and during college he became part of Boston's folk scene. He eventually moved to Los Angeles where for a short time he worked with guitar master Ry Cooder. Mahal's loyalty to blues can be found on most of the albums he has released in his prolific career, and is particularly evident in his early, critically-acclaimed releases. Taj Mahal continues to record and perform.

Essential listening: "Fishin' Blues," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Do I Love Her," "Satisfied and Tickled Too," "Strut," "Hard Way"


John Mayall
Born: November 29, 1933, Manchester, England

John Mayall's considerable talent as a composer and performer is often overshadowed by the influence of his ever-changing band, the Bluesbreakers, which has been in existence since the early 1960's, and early on gained a prestigious reputation that has endured to the present day. Mayall brought together a stunning array of talent in the groundbreaking group, which mined the annals of American blues history in addition to performing original music. The group was partly experimental, and as a result its sound was inconsistent, but much of it was outstanding. Many members of the Bluesbreakers subsequently became superstars. Even a short list of the band's veterans reads like a who's who in enduring sixties and seventies blues-rock: Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce, who left to form the supergroup Cream; guitarist Mick Taylor, who left to join the Rolling Stones; and guitarist Peter Green, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, who with others co-founded Fleetwood Mac (originally conceived as a pure blues band). Mayall continues to perform, often with longtime Bluesbreakers veterans and other blues legends.

Essential listening: "All Your Love," "Room to Move," "Ramblin' On My Mind," "Parchman Farm," "It Ain't Right"


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"


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"


Willie Nix
Born: August 6, 1922, Memphis, Tennessee
Died: July 8, 1991, Leland, Mississippi

Willie Nix was an innovative drummer and gifted lyricist as well as vocalist, and was an integral part of Memphis's Beale Street blues community during the late forties and early fifties. Nix originally began performing as a tap-dancer when he was very young — his creative sense of rhythm as a drummer likely had its roots in his instincts as a dancer. Nix recorded and played in both Memphis and Chicago, and worked with legendary bluesmen in both cities, among them Junior Parker, B.B. King, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Bobby Blue Bland. Nix eventually moved back to Memphis and continued to be a local fixture in the blues community. He performed on and off until his death in 1991.

Essential listening: "Truckin' Little Woman," "Nervous Wreck," "No More Love"
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Junior Parker
Born: March 27, 1932, West Memphis, Arkansas
Died: November 18, 1971, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: Herman Parker, Jr.

Junior Parker was known for his prowess as a vocalist, bandleader, songwriter and harmonica player, but it was his voice — which music historians describe as "honeyed," "velvet-smooth" and "magic carpet" — that brought him real fame. Parker was mentored in the subtleties of blues harp (harmonica) by the blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II, and joined Howlin' Wolf's band when he was still a teenager. He was part of Memphis's famous Beale Street blues community. Reportedly one of talent scout Ike Turner's many discoveries, Parker recorded for Sun records in the early fifties; his rendition of the self-penned "Mystery Train" made it to number 5 on the R&B charts and was later covered by Elvis Presley. Parker's recordings would make the charts many more times throughout the decade and into the early sixties. During the late fifties Parker led a highly successful R&B revue, Blues Consolidated, which also featured fellow Beale Street vocalist Bobby Blue Bland. Though he never was able to sustain the fame he'd achieved during the fifties, Parker continued working as a recording artist and performer throughout the sixties.

Essential listening: "Mystery Train," "Next Time You See Me," "Barefoot Rock," "Feelin' Good," "Love My Baby"


Charlie Patton Charley Patton
Born: 1891, Edwards, Mississippi
Died: April 28, 1934, Indianola, Mississippi

Charley Patton is the uncontested father of the Delta blues. His ferocious, high energy performance brought the house down on a regular basis with a gritty, raw vocal style and an ability to act as a one-man percussion section with his guitar, creating an innovative flow of rhythm and counter-rhythm. His uninhibited performances onstage were reflected in his lifestyle — he was a match for any one of his musical descendants as a hard drinker and womanizer. Patton's legacy has inspired, directly and indirectly, generations of both blues and rock and roll musicians. The guitar gymnastics of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are echoes of Patton's performance style, and his use of rhythm and "popping" bass notes presaged funk by decades. Patton influenced and played with blues greats Son House and Willie Brown, and also influenced Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Shines, John Lee Hooker, and Pop Staples, among many others.

Essential listening: "Pony Blues," "High Water Everywhere," "Oh Death," "High Sheriff Blues"


Sam Phillips
Born: January 1, 1923, Florence, Alabama
Died: July 31, 2003, Memphis, Tennessee

Sam Phillips has had an enormous impact on music, particularly blues, rock and roll and rockabilly. As an innovative producer and owner of Memphis's legendary Sun Studios, Phillips made his mark on music history by discovering and recording such legends as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and others. Slightly earlier in his career, however, Phillips recorded many blues legends, including Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Little Milton and Junior Parker. Sun Studios is often called "The Birthplace of Rock and Roll" — in 1951 Phillips recorded the legendary single "Rocket 88," which is often referred to as the first rock and roll record. The song reached number one on R&B charts and helped put Memphis on the musical map. Phillip's obvious gift for bringing out the best in his recording artists is evident on early Sun recordings, which are also known for their live, vital sound. Sun Studios still exists in its original Memphis location.

Essential listening: "B.B. Blues," "My Baby Walked Off," "I Found a New Love," "Lookin' for My Baby" (from Blue Flames: A Sun Blues Collection, Rhino-Sun)


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 1960's 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"


Gertrude "Ma" Rainey
Born: April 26, 1886, Columbus, Georgia
Died: December 22, 1939, Columbus, Georgia
Also known as: Gertrude Pridgett

Ma Rainey is commonly known as the Mother of the Blues because of her significant influence on the many female blues singers who succeeded her. She began performing in minstrel and vaudeville shows around the age of 14, and is widely considered to be one of the first female singers to perform blues in that setting. She was an important link between the rough vocals of country blues, then a male-dominated genre which her vocal delivery resembled, and the more polished sound of classic urban blues, a female-dominated genre which she ultimately influenced. In 1904 Rainey married William (known as Pa) Rainey, and the two of them performed together calling themselves "Assasinators of the Blues." Legend has it that during their travels Ma Rainey met Bessie Smith, and became somewhat of a mentor to the young singer. In addition to Rainey's vocal prowess, she was also a talented songwriter. After more than two decades of performing, Rainey began to record in 1923, and she left behind a prolific legacy that includes many classics.

Essential listening: "C.C. Rider," "Bo Weavil Blues," "Jelly Bean Blues," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
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Bonnie Raitt
Born: November 8, 1949

An accomplished slide guitarist and blues singer/songwriter, Bonnie Raitt incongruously dropped out of an Ivy League college to work as an itinerant blues musician. Her considerable skill made an impression on Boston's blues scene, and she quickly won the respect of her peers, later playing with blues legends Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Muddy Waters, and others. Raitt began recording to critical acclaim in the early seventies, mixing blues with R&B, pop, jazz and New Orleans influences and garnering a loyal cult following. Like her female predecessors, her music often features a gender-specific spin on the blues; her original interpretation of Chris Smither's "Love Me Like a Man" contains a clever response to Muddy Waters's "Rock Me," and her rendition of Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise" likewise offers a refreshing female perspective. In the eighties Raitt's career slowed somewhat until the release of the aptly-titled Nick of Time in 1989, at which point, in the words of blues historian Robert Santelli, she "pulled off one of the greatest career turnarounds in modern pop history."* Raitt received six Grammy awards for the album, and followed it up with another Grammy-winner in 1992. She continues to record and tour.

Essential listening: "Love Me Like a Man," "Give It Up or Let Me Go," "Women Be Wise," "Walking Blues," "Feeling of Falling"

* Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.


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"


The Rolling Stones

Original and later band members: Mick Jagger, born July 26, 1943, Dartford, England; Keith Richards, born December 18, 1943, Dartford, England; Brian Jones, born February 28, 1942, Cheltenham, England, died July 3, 1969, London, England; Charlie Watts, born June 2, 1941, Islington, London, England; Bill Wyman, born October 24, 1936, London, England; Ron Wood, born June 1, 1947, Hillingdon, London, England

The Rolling Stones melded blues and R&B with classic rock and roll, and eventually lived up to their self-proclaimed moniker "the World's Greatest Rock and Roll band." As rock and roll's quintessential bad boys, in the beginning the Stones were the antithesis of the clean-cut Beatles, and their sound was a gritty, edgy departure from the sounds of the time. The band took their name from a Muddy Waters song, a testament to the fact that they were avid fans of classic blues. As a young man, outrageously charismatic front man and songwriter Mick Jagger was a regular mail-order customer of the Chicago blues label Chess Records (the band would later record there and work for years with the co-founder's son Marshall). Guitarists Brian Jones and Keith Richards (who formed a notoriously brilliant songwriting partnership with Jagger) were both heavily influenced by Delta blues; Jones idolized legendary blues slide guitarist Elmore James and Richards's highly influential playing made considerable use of the genre's open chord tunings. Drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman were a formidable rhythm section; Watts had previously played with one of Great Britain's esteemed blues band, Blues, Inc. Jones left the band just before his death 1969 and was replaced by Mick Taylor, a veteran of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Taylor left in 1975, and in 1976 was replaced by Ron Wood, who had played with the Jeff Beck Group as well as Small Faces. Wyman left the group in 1991, and was replaced in 1994 by Daryl Jones. The Rolling Stones, who continue to tour, are commonly regarded as one of the most influential bands in the history of music.

Essential listening: "Loving Cup," "Moonlight Mile," "Love in Vain," "I Just Want to Make Love to You"


Bobby Rush Bobby Rush
Born: November 10, 1940, Homer, Louisiana

Bobby Rush began performing in Chicago as a teenager, and performed with blues greats Freddie King and Luther Allison. He saw some recording success during the 1970s, making the R&B charts with his hit "Chicken Heads," which is still one of his standards, and became a very popular performer and prolific recording artist after he moved to Mississippi in the early eighties. Rush is known for his high-energy performances, featuring lighthearted, funky, and often very suggestive blues, R&B, and soul. He has received several nominations for the prestigious W.C. Handy awards as well as other blues, R&B and soul awards.

Read an archived version of Bobby Rush's Washington Post online chat.

Essential listening: "A Man Can Give It (But He Can't Take It)," "Chicken Heads," "Mama Talk To Your Daughter," "Sue," "What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander"


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"
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Bessie Smith Bessie Smith
Born: April 15, 1894, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Died: September 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Bessie Smith's talent as a vocalist is legendary and she has influenced generations of blues singers, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin. She was enormously successful throughout the twenties as a blues and sometimes jazz singer, and beyond that she was an inspiration to the black community, as she lived her life with confidence and uncompromising self-respect, on no one's terms but her own. This self-assurance was part of the appeal of her rich, expressive vocals. Smith sometimes wrote her own material, such as "Back Water Blues." Her career was impacted by the Depression, as were the careers of many artists, but she continued to perform. She was probably on the verge of a comeback, reportedly having been scheduled to play Carnegie Hall at John Hammond's legendary concert "From Spirituals to Swing," when she was killed in a car accident in 1937.

Essential recordings: "Lost Your Head Blues," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "'Tain't Nobody's Business if I Do," "Back Water Blues," "Broken Hearted Blues"


Mamie Smith
Born: May 26, 1883, Cincinnati, Ohio
Died: October 30, 1946, New York, New York

Mamie Smith was primarily a cabaret and vaudeville singer, but she made blues history by being the first singer to record a blues song. "Crazy Blues," recorded in 1920, was a huge hit, selling more than one million copies within a year of its release. This success inspired the release of further blues recordings by female artists. So, although Mamie Smith technically wasn't a blues singer, she was a groundbreaking and influential artist for the genre. Her majestic stage presence and ornate costumes and jewelry also influenced other female blues singers of the twenties.

Essential listening: "Crazy Blues," "It's Right Here for You," "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," "That Thing Called Love"


Victoria Spivey
Born: October 15, 1906, Houston, Texas
Died: October 3, 1976, New York, New York

Victoria Spivey's career lasted much longer than that of most other female blues singers of the 1920s. She was a clever songwriter who unflinchingly addressed diverse topics, and as a vocalist her delivery of the blues was sincere and convincing. Spivey started out as a performer in Houston, and is rumored to have played with Blind Lemon Jefferson. For a time she worked as a songwriter for the St. Louis Music Company, and later was based in New York, where she performed constantly. Spivey was artistically influenced by blues great Ida Cox, and she may have also been influenced by her on a more practical level — both women are reputed to have had formidable business acumen. Spivey took a hiatus from music during the fifties, but managed a comeback in the early sixties, starting her own record company just in time for the mid-sixties blues revival to breathe new life into her career as a performer. She released predominantly classic blues on her record label, and continued to tour until her death in 1976.

Essential listening: "Dope Head Blues," "Black Snake Blues," TB Blues," "Organ Grinder Blues"


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"


Sonny Terry
Born: October 24, 1911, Greensboro, North Carolina
Died: March 12, 1986, New York, New York

Sonny Terry was a legendary harmonica player who hugely influenced both blues and folk music. Terry began his career playing on the streets of Raleigh Durham, North Carolina, where he met local blues guitarist and vocalist Blind Boy Fuller. The two began performing and recording as a duo. After Fuller's death Terry teamed up with guitarist Brownie McGhee, who had been heavily influenced by Fuller. The musical partnership of Terry and McGhee would last three decades. The two became an important part of New York's folk scene, playing with legends Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly. They were a versatile and enormously popular duo who always maintained their signature style, Piedmont blues, which was specific to the southeast United States. As a team they recorded prolifically and kept a busy touring schedule. The partnership ended in the mid-seventies and Terry continued to record and perform on his own. He published a book, The Harp Styles of Sonny Terry, in 1975.

Essential listening: "Mountain Blues," "One Monkey Don't Stop the Show," "Sonny's Whoopin' the Doop," "I Think I Got the Blues"
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Sister Rosetta Tharpe Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born: March 20, 1921, Cotton Plant, Arkansas
Died: October 9, 1973, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sister Rosetta Tharpe mastered the guitar by the age of 6, and grew up singing gospel with her mother. Tharpe was a riveting performer with a flair for showmanship and a definite blues influence in her phrasing and musicianship. She signed a recording contract with Decca while still a teenager and her recordings were huge hits. Tharpe's talent and appeal were so outrageous and contagious that it was inevitable her talents would one day extend beyond the gospel community. Her later career embodied the early, ongoing battle between sacred music and a more secular sound — a struggle that many black artists from the gospel tradition have had to face. Eventually Tharpe caused great controversy in the gospel community and lost much of her loyal audience when she recorded pure blues in the early 1950s (along with gospel artist Madame Marie Knight). It took about a decade before Tharpe made her way back to acceptance from the gospel community. She continued to tour until her death in 1973.

Essential listening: "Rock Me," "This Train," "Down by the Riverside," "Didn't it Rain," "Up Above My Head"


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"


Ali Farka Toure
Born: 1939, Gourmararusse, Mali

Ali Farka Toure is a multi-lingual West African vocalist, guitarist, drummer, and songwriter who, as music historian Richie Unterberger observed, has been "described as 'the African John Lee Hooker' so many times that it probably began to grate on both Toure's and Hooker's nerves."* The comparison is due to Toure's mesmerizing, stripped-down sound that features innovative rhythm and haunting, low vocals. His exceptional music is often described as uniting the sounds of the Mississippi Delta with those of West Africa, and he clearly adds more global influences, musically and instrumentally, to the mix. Toure has had an enormous influence on world music, and has worked with Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and the Chieftains, among others.

Essential listening: "Ali's Here," "Saukare," "Bonde," "Amandrai," "Soukora"

* www.allmusic.com


Big Joe Turner
Born: May 18, 1911, Kansas City, Missouri
Died: November 24, 1985, Inglewood, California

Big Joe Turner was an accomplished and uncommonly versatile vocalist. His career spanned half a century, during which he transitioned effortlessly from blues to R&B to rock and roll. Turner earned the nickname "Boss of the Blues" because of his powerhouse vocals and formidable stage presence. A Kansas City native, Turner started out playing in local nightclubs, mostly with pianist Pete Johnson, and sometimes with big bands, including that of Count Basie. Turner and Johnson became one of many acts noticed by legendary talent scout John Hammond. At Hammond's suggestion they moved to New York and were part of his "Spirituals to Swing" concert in 1938. The duo snared a regular gig at New York's Café Society, a prestigious jazz club, and their enormous popularity was partially responsible for the rise of "boogie woogie" music during the late thirties and early forties. Turner began to record and tour in the early forties, working with Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and others. A decade later Turner transitioned to R&B, releasing years of solid hits between 1951 and 1956, and in the process becoming known as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll. Turner continued to perform and record until his death in 1985.

Essential listening: "Roll 'Em Pete," "Honey Hush," "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Corinna Corrina," "Chains of Love"


Ike Turner
Born: November 5, 1931, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Also known as: Izear Luster Turner, Jr.

Ike Turner has been an integral part of the history of blues, rock and R&B. As a pianist and guitarist he backed visiting bluesmen and performed with his own band, the Kings of Rhythm, while still in high school. He worked as a talent scout in Memphis and throughout the south, and as such he accelerated the careers of Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton and others; as a session musician he often backed up the talent he discovered. Turner's band recorded the song "Rocket 88" in 1951 (recorded under the name Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats), which hit number 1 on the R&B charts and is often called the "first rock and roll song." The band became very popular in St. Louis, and in the late fifties Turner added vocalist Annie Mae Bullock to the mix (who later changed her name to Tina Turner and married Ike). The band became the Ike & Tina Turner Review, and made R&B and rock history, charting singles, packing black nightclubs and touring with the Rolling Stones. Tina left the band and the marriage in 1974; subsequently Ike experienced some hard times, and his career faded. He later made a comeback, and continues to record and perform.

Essential listening: "Rocket 88," "Shake a Tail Feather," "Proud Mary," "Steel Guitar Rag," "I'm Lonesome Baby," "Tore Up," "Ike's Theme," "Catfish Blues"
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Otha Turner
Born: June 2, 1907, Jackson, Mississippi
Died: February 26, 2003

Blues fife and drum musician Otha Turner grew up near the Mississippi Delta. Fife and drum music is a traditional genre that has its roots in the northern Mississippi hill country and is based on African-American work songs and spirituals. The fife is an instrument similar to the flute, often made out of bamboo. Turner worked as a farmer in Como, Mississippi, where he also led the Rising Star Fife and Drum band for sixty years. The band eventually made it to Chicago, where for years they opened the city's legendary Blues Festival. While in his nineties, Turner preserved his historically significant music with the recordings Everybody's Hollerin' Goat and Senegal to Senatobia.

Essential listening: "Shimmy She Wobble," "Granny Do Your Dog Bite," "Shake 'Em," "Boogie," "My Babe," "Senegal to Senatobia," "Sunu"


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"


Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
Born: December 18, 1917, Houston, Texas
Died: July 2, 1988, Los Angeles, California

Eddie Vinson was an R&B saxophone player, bandleader, songwriter, and vocalist with a signature voice whose long and prolific career also encompassed jazz and blues. Vinson got his nickname, "Cleanhead," after an episode with a lye-based hair straightener left him bald. He was raised in a musical family and played saxophone in high school. Vinson's career from the mid-thirties through the mid-forties included stints in legendary bands, including Chester Boone's band in Houston, which at the time included genius blues guitarist T-Bone Walker; Milt Larkin's band, which boasted a superb saxophone section; and, after Vinson relocated to New York in 1941, the Cootie Williams Orchestra. Williams's recordings of "Somebody's Got to Go," and "Cherry Red", on which Vinson also appeared as a vocalist, were huge hits. In 1945 Vinson formed his own band, which reportedly for a time included John Coltrane. Vinson played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970. For the next two decades he toured and recorded in the U.S. and Europe, where he was particularly popular.

Essential listening: "Kidney Stew," "Cherry Red," "Somebody's Got to Go," "Cleanhead Blues," "Old Maid Boogie"


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"


Bukka White Bukka White
Born: November 12, 1909, Houston, Mississippi*
Died: February 26, 1977, Memphis Tennessee
Also known as: Booker T. Washington White

Bukka White moved to the Mississippi Delta as an adolescent and was influenced by Charley Patton — as a result he played a particularly pure form of Delta blues. White's devotion to the music was considerable; after a run-in with the law in Mississippi in 1937, he jumped bail in order to record in Chicago. He was apprehended and incarcerated at Mississippi's Parchman Farm, where he was popular as an entertainer, and where his gift for songwriting wasn't hampered — like many of his originals, the song "Parchman Farm Blues" became a classic. White's real taste of fame came after Bob Dylan recorded White's original song "Fixin' to Die Blues" in the early 1960s. Curious about the song's original author, two young blues players found White by sending a general delivery letter to Aberdeen, Mississippi (tipped off by his blues song of the same title). These leaps in visibility led to White's fame in later life, as both a performer and a storyteller, as he embodied both the Delta blues and its rich history.

Essential Listening: "Shake 'Em on Down," "The Panama Limited," "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues," "Fixin' to Die Blues," "Parchman Farm Blues"
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Cassandra Wilson
Born: December 4, 1955, Jackson, Mississippi

Cassandra Wilson is primarily known as an accomplished jazz singer, although her stunning full, low voice and skill as a songwriter have encompassed other genres, and she has been heavily influenced by the musical traditions of the south, including the Delta blues. She cites the complexity of Robert Johnson's songwriting, guitar work and vocal delivery as one of her primary influences. Wilson is a prolific recording artist, and has followed up her 1985 debut with almost one album each year, and sometimes two. Her body of work includes acoustic blues, folk, jazz, and funk. Wilson's 1999 release, Traveling Miles, was a tribute to Miles Davis. She has toured with Wynton Marsalis. Her critically-acclaimed recent release, Belly of the Sun, was recorded in Mississippi with both her own band and local musicians and combines funk, pop and rock with a tribute to pure Delta blues.

Essential listening: "You Move Me," "Round Midnight," "Darkness on the Delta," "You Gotta Move," "Hot Tamales"


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"


Jimmy Witherspoon
Born: August 8, 1923, Gurdon, Arkansas
Died: September 18, 1997, Los Angeles, California

Jimmy Witherspoon was both a blues and jazz singer during the mid-forties, and hugely influential in his ability to merge the two genres with his deep, full vocals. He was originally influenced by Big Joe Turner, to whom he is often compared. Witherspoon realized he had talent after sitting in with brilliant jazz pianist Teddy Weatherford's big band while stationed overseas. Pianist and bandleader Jay McShann hired Witherspoon to take the place of lead vocalist Walter Brown in his band; during this stint Witherspoon developed his own vocal style. He began recording on his own in 1949, and had a big hit with his version of Bessie Smith's hit "Ain't Nobody's Business." The song not only reached number 1 on the R&B charts, but its stay on the charts was record-breaking. Witherspoon followed that up with a number 5 hit the same year, "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down." As rock and roll's popularity increased, Witherspoon's career took a downturn, and he focused more on jazz, always infusing it with a blues sensibility. He continued to perform until the end of his life, although he never repeated his early success.

Essential listening: "Ain't Nobody's Business," "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," "Big Fine Girl," "No Rollin' Blues"


Peetie Wheatstraw
Born: December 21, 1902, Ripley, Tennessee
Died: December 21, 1941, East St. Louis, Illinois
Also known as: William Bunch

Peetie Wheatstraw began performing in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, and enjoyed enormous popularity in spite of the devastating economic conditions and lulls in the careers of other artists. He was a talented songwriter and commonly addressed rather dark themes — the supernatural, death, sex and addiction — yet his music was uplifting due to his witty lyrics and the wide range and expressive, buoyant quality of his vocal delivery. His juxtaposition of dark themes with a message to appreciate life is perhaps partly why his music was so surprisingly successful during such trying times. Wheatstraw was primarily a piano player and worked with excellent guitarists, including Kokomo Arnold and Lonnie Johnson; he and Johnson were a recording and performing team for 10 years. He reportedly took his name from an "evil twin" character from black folk tales, and during his career he was also nicknamed "The Devil's Son-in Law" and the "High Sheriff of Hell." Wheatstraw died while celebrating his 39th birthday when, reportedly, he and his buddies tried, and failed, to beat a speeding train.

Essential listening: "Suicide Blues," "You Can't Stop Me From Drinking," "The Devil's Son-in-Law" "Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp"
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