The blues are a unique—and indigenous—American music and the foundation of most contemporary popular styles including soul, funk, R&B, most rock styles (yes, including prog), metal, country, and hip-hop.
But if you don’t know much about the blues, where do you begin?
Believe it or not, that’s a loaded question—because blues fans are opinionated and loyal—and it depends who you ask. It also doesn’t help that the blues have been around as a distinct, recognizable form for about 100 years and that thousands (upon thousands) of musicians have performed, recorded, and considered themselves “blues artists.”
Needless to say, crafting a definitive—let alone comprehensive—list of important blues musicians and recordings is almost impossible.
But that said, here is your introduction to the blues. Since I can’t present you with a comprehensive introduction, my approach here is to focus on my favorites. My list is subjective, obviously, and incomplete, but it does represent a cross-section of what I think is some of the greatest electric, acoustic, traditional, and raw blues music available.
Will you like everything here? I doubt it. Will you like some of it? Probably.
Open your ears, open your mind, and take some time to explore this list of amazing and innovative artists.
Few people’s lives are as steeped in legend as Johnson’s, the most famous being the Faustian bargain he made with the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi. Johnson, the legend goes, exchanged his soul for his ability to play the guitar. Is it true? People say it is.
Johnson was born in 1911, and by the 1930s was traveling throughout the South playing music in small towns, on street corners, and in local establishments. He sat for two recording sessions, the first in 1936 and the second a year later. Both were in Texas.
Johnson’s entire recorded output is only 29 songs—although alternate takes are extant—but if his influence is any indication, those 29 songs are more than enough. Titles include “Cross Road Blues,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Stop Breaking Down,” and many others. His songs have been covered by everyone including the Allman Brothers, [Cream](https://lp.reverb.com/artists/cream-2/listings, the Rolling Stones, [Peter Green](https://lp.reverb.com/artists/peter-green-2/listings, the Cowboy Junkies, Widespread Panic, Led Zeppelin, and countless others. His songs have been covered so often, and by so many artists, that younger musicians may not even realize the songs they’re playing were written by Johnson.
Johnson’s death, like most aspects of his life, is shrouded in mystery. He may have been poisoned. He may not have been. But regardless, he likely died in 1938 at the age of 27.
Another important acoustic artist from that same period as Johnson is Mississippi native, Son House.
House—born Eddie James House, Jr—was an influential guitarist and singer. The legendary archivist, Alan Lomax, recorded him for the Library of Congress in 1941 and ’42 and those recordings were reissued in 1964. However, following those sessions, House moved to Rochester, New York, and for the most part, gave up performing.
But House’s story doesn’t end there. He had a second career as a musician starting in the mid-‘60s as a part of the folk revival. He returned to music, toured, and recorded until health issues forced him into a final retirement in the mid-1970s.
The first blues artist I listened to—and one of the first artists to go electric—is Muddy Waters.
Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915. He grew up in rural Mississippi and bought his first guitar when he was 17. His first recordings were made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1941.
Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 to launch his career as a professional musician. He drove a truck during the day and played in clubs at night. It was in those clubs, which were loud, that he swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric and—along with a few other artists—pioneered the genre’s electric style.
Waters signed with Aristocrat Records—a label founded by Leonard and Phillip Chess, which soon morphed into the pioneering blues label, Chess Records—in the late 1940s. He released his first significant single, “(I Feel Like) Going Home” backed with “I Can't Be Satisfied,” in 1948. Other hits followed including, “Rollin’ Stone,” in 1950—both the band and the magazine took their names from that song—“Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954), “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (1954), “Mannish Boy” (1955), and many others. His music from this period was originally released as seven-inch 45s and was later repackaged, in 1958, as the collection, The Best of Muddy Waters.
It is difficult to underestimate Waters’ influence. Many of his innovations—from how he played, to his feel, to how he tuned his guitars—formed the foundation of rock music. Everyone, it seems, has covered his songs, and that list includes the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Humble Pie, Foghat, Motörhead, Cyndi Lauper, and many others.
Waters continued to tour and record throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, although he wasn’t as commercially successful as with his earlier work (a notable, and controversial, exception is his 1968 release, Electric Mud), but he staged a comeback at the end of his life with a string of outstanding—and Grammy Award-winning—collaborations with musician and producer Johnny Winter.
Howlin’ Wolf—real name, Chester Arthur Burnett—is the massive-voiced singer Jim Morrison attempts to emulate on The Doors’ cover of “Back Door Man,” off their first album (that’s not a dis, Doors fans, Morrison sounds great, it’s just that he’s not Howlin’ Wolf).
Similar to Muddy Waters, Wolf’s singles from the ‘50s were re-released on a self-titled compilation, Howlin’ Wolf (also known as the Rocking Chair album) in 1962. Titles include “Spoonful” (you probably know the Cream cover), “The Red Rooster” (also known as “Little Red Rooster”), and “Back Door Man.” Many of Wolf’s best known songs were written by bassist Willie Dixon—that’s true for Waters and many others as well—and Dixon was a fixture on many Chess sessions. Another band member was Wolf’s long-time guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who—due to his prodigious output and inventive playing—is an influential figure in his own right.
Hooker’s music, unlike Waters and Wolf, is dark and hypnotic. He broods. He vamps. His grooves are intense. Some of his songs are based on just one chord. Other songs ignore conventional structures. His approach is loose and improvisatory, but moody and seductive.
Hooker scored his first hit—number one on the R&B charts—with “Boogie Chillen” in 1948. Other important singles include “Crawlin’ King Snake” (1949), “I’m in the Mood” (1951), “Boom Boom” (1962), and “Dimples” (1964). His loose approach made him difficult to accompany and some of his recordings—like “Boogie Chillen” and “I’m in the Mood”—were recorded solo, with just his foot tapping as the only percussion. Similar to other artists from his era, his early singles were later released on various “best of” compilations.
Hooker toured and performed for most of his life and—depending on when you date his birth—was nearly 90 when he died in 2001. He received many awards and honors, including a National Heritage Fellowship in 1983 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
The final must-hear-first blues artist—at least if you’re asking me—is Sonny Boy Williamson (real name: Alex or Aleck Miller, also known as Rice Miller, and usually referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II).
Williamson’s background is ambiguous—as are the stories he told about himself—however, his immense talent is not. Williamson was an incredible vocalist and an absolute monster on the harmonica.
Williamson was hired to play on the radio program King Biscuit Time out of Helena, Arkansas in 1941. The program gave him a lot of exposure—and may have gotten him in trouble with John Lee Curtis Williamson, i.e. Sonny Boy Williamson I—and it was a show he played on for many years, including just before his death in 1965. (You can hear clips from the broadcast on the 1993 Arhoolie release, King Biscuit Time.) He recorded for Checker, a Chess imprint, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, toured England in ’63/’64, and worked with a number of British artists including the Yardbirds and the Animals.
Just before his death, he jammed with a young band, the Hawks, who would go on to support Bob Dylan, and eventually become the Band.
It’s impossible to discuss the blues without mentioning the three Kings: B.B., Albert, and Freddie (they weren’t related, although Albert King—born Albert Nelson—claimed to be B.B. King’s half-brother).
B.B. King is probably the most well-known of the three and he’s known for his huge voice, lyrical guitar playing, emotive vibrato, as well as his advanced harmonic sense and non-pentatonic note choices. King was prolific and released over 100 albums, although a few good ones to start with include Blues is King, Live in Cook County Jail, and Live at the Regal.
Albert King, in addition to traditional blues, also incorporated soul and funk elements into his music. He was left-handed and played his guitars upside-down (but still strung like a right-handed guitar), which enabled his massive string bends. He was commercially successful and, for about a decade, recorded for the Memphis R&B label, Stax Records. His first album for Stax was the classic, Born Under A Bad Sign, which features the Stax rhythm section, Booker T. & the MG’s (the British group, Cream, covered the title track). Also check out his 1968 live album, Live Wire/Blues Power.
The artists above are pillars of the genre—and they’re awesome—but what if you’re looking for music that’s nasty? (That’s not a pejorative, to my ears, nasty is what heaven will sound like.) Don’t misunderstand, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson weren’t wallflowers, but we’re talking about raunchy guitars, sonic grit, and minimalist grooves.
For that, your best place to start are some of the artists associated with the Chicago indie Alligator Records.
Alligator was founded in 1971 in order to record Chicago artist, Hound Dog Taylor. Taylor was a local hero but otherwise unknown, and “She’s Gone,” the first song on his first Alligator release, tells you everything you need to know about the raw, raucous energy that was Taylor and his band, the Houserockers. “She’s Gone” is a one chord vamp based on an exaggerated interpretation of a shuffle (listen carefully, the second half of each beat is delayed and overemphasized) and—like most of Taylor’s music—is played on a low-budget guitar with slide, features Brewer Phillips on second guitar (instead of bass), and drummer Ted Harvey.
But Taylor isn’t the only raw, visceral artist on Alligator. Another is Buddy Guy, who was already an established legend when Alligator released Stone Crazy!, an album he recorded for the French label, Isabel. Guy’s guitar tone, which is overdriven and treble-heavy, is matched only by his impassioned, gospel-tinged, sandpaper-and-velvet-style vocals. Guy was also crowd-surfing years before punk rock and wireless systems made it de rigueur (just watch this video.)
Another outstanding Alligator guitarist with biting, living-at-the-edge-of-feeding-back guitar tone—and there are many—is Albert Collins. Collins signed with Alligator later in his career and his releases include Ice Pickin’ (1978) and the Grammy-winning collaboration with Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland, Showdown!.
Like I said at the outset, this list is not—by any means—complete. It’s missing the many great hill country and juke joint artists, most of the Texas school, many of the revivalists, almost every contemporary artists (although Buddy Guy is still touring and bigger than ever), and on and on and on. But it’s a start. Take it for what it’s worth and enjoy exploring the blues.