The essence of the blues is in the people who create this beloved music. The men and women who feel it in the depths of their souls. Those who channel it through the pain of living and who transform that pain into something that makes us want to cry and to laugh and to enjoy life for what it is.
In the last of this series on the blues, I want to honor some of the greats who have made this genre the great art form that has endured so long. I’ve mentioned a few of them in Parts One and Two. I won’t bring them up again because there are so many more than I could even list in this short article. Some all-time greats won’t even get a nod, but if you notice any, please take the opportunity to comment. Feel free to share the names of those you love.
Any list of the greatest blues musicians could begin with this man. Coming out of the Delta blues tradition, he moved the genre along with his fluid style and innovative songs. His delivery took the blues to a new level across generations and he influenced popular music well into the 1970s. By the way, check YouTube and see how many people are listening to him even now.
Referred to often as Father of the Chicago Blues, he brought his strong bass voice to powerful tunes that transcended his time. Here are some samples of his songs that made it big with other bands. You Shook Me/Led Zeppelin, Close to You/The Doors, I Just Want to Make Love to You/Rolling Stones and others, I Got My Mojo Workin/Elvis Presley, and Rollin’ and Tumblin’/Cindi Lauper.
Not only did he write a host of classics such as Midnight Special, Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Alberta, Leadbelly wrote songs of great social import. Mr. Hitler, Jim Crow Blues and Bourgeois Blues are a few of his courageous titles.
Although she performed songs of many kinds, she was a stellar blues singer. On her 27th studio album, which was called Blues to the Bone, Etta James recorded her favorite blues songs. She reached back to compositions by Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins and more. The album won a Grammy in 2005 for Best Traditional Blues Album.
This James was known as the King of the Slide Guitar. His lively style was unique and his full-octave slide guitar opening was his trademark. His tenor voice rang out above the accompaniment with great energy. I first heard of him long ago when George Harrison called out during John Lennon’s steel lap guitar solo on the song For You Blue, “Elmore James got nothin’ on this baby!” That one comment gave Elmore immortality in my book.
OMG! There was no one like Johnny Winter. He got the blues injected full-force into his hands and jacked it into warp speed. Highway 61 Revisited is one of the most remarkable adaptations ever done on a song. Hearing Johnny play the blues is like being lifted to the clouds and whisked along the jet stream.
If Elmore James is the King of the Slide Guitar, Bonnie Raitt is the Queen. She makes those strings sing under that slide. Her singing, playing and songwriting all elevate the blues in a very special way. Her album Nick of Time truly touched the sweet spot when it comes to balancing all the elements of musical prowess.
“Slow Hand” can play the blues with smoothness and expertise unsurpassed by anyone. He plays them with absolute love and he’s done more than anyone in our modern era to give the genre everlasting life. He was one of the first in the 1960s to merge blues and rock. Eventually, songs like Layla and Cocaine in the 1970s epitomized a new brand of blues that transcended all that had gone before.
Stevie Ray Vaughn
When it comes to the blues, no one did it quite like Stevie Ray Vaughn. He was a master player with imagination and the chops to put his ideas into motion. He could make that guitar cry, combining licks followed by rhythm chords that make you wonder. His voice was perfect for the blues and he knew how to use it. And when your songs are being covered by greats like King, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, you’re breathing rarefied air.
Let there be another century of the blues, with passion and a flight of fancy to keep it fresh. I hope you have enjoyed this taste of the blues as much as I have had bringing it to you.