Defying the odds, the blues is still with us approximately 100 years after black plantation workers began to popularize the form. Though the music hasn't changed drastically in a century, it continues to inspire people and find new listeners. I submit two possible explanations for such endurance: First, the blues lends itself to boundless improvisational possibilities. Second, the music is as honest, infectious and life affirming as any ever created.
To really sing and play the blues, the artist must be blessed with a certain quality that harpist/singer Raful Neal calls "the special feeling." The relatively small number of musicians who have this special feeling are able to transcend the genre's limitations and communicate the complete range of human emotions like no other entertainers can. The 12 artists listed here definitely had the special feeling. You can catch it, too, simply by listening to their music.
Muddy Waters: His Best 1956-64 (Chess 1997)
A masterful songwriter, passionate vocalist, trailblazing slide guitarist, and true innovator, Muddy Waters was largely responsible for turning the Delta blues into the Chicago blues.
Elmore James: The Sky Is Crying - The History of Elmore James (Rhino 1993)
One of the first and, in my opinion, the best of the electric slide players, James played the blues with intense passion.
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Columbia 1990/1936-7)
Mystery surrounded Johnson's life and music, and his early death made him a legend. He was a tormented man but a brilliant bottleneck guitarist and songwriter, and probably the most influential bluesman of all time.
Big Joe Turner: Boss of the Blues (Atlantic 1990/1956)
Big Joe Turner was the most soulful of the blues shouters. He and boogie-woogie piano master Pete Johnson were truly a dynamic duo. Several Count Basie sidemen, including Frank Wess and Freddie Green, helped make Boss of the Blues a jump classic.
B. B. King: Live at the Regal (ABC/MCA 1965)
For my money, Live at the Regal is the best live blues album ever recorded.
T-Bone Walker: Very Best of T-Bone Walker (Koch 2000)
Adept at an astonishing variety of blues styles, T-Bone Walker practically invented the guitar-based electric blues.
Little Walter: His Best, The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess 1997)
Often called the Charlie Parker of the harp, Little Walter was an amazing Chicago-based musician who pioneered the use of amplified harmonica. Every blues collection should include some Little Walter.
Etta James: Her Best, The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess 1997)
The young Etta possessed one of the most magical voices in blues and R&B.
Otis Spann: Walking The Blues (Candid 1972)
Walking The Blues is a great album from the master of blues piano.
Snooks Eaglin: Teasin' You (Black Top 1992)
Snooks is a blind New Orleans native who seldom leaves the Crescent City. He's a ferociously rhythmic guitarist, and his singing has been likened to Ray Charles. If I had to pick a favorite blues album of the last decade, this would be it.
Magic Slim and the Teardrops: Black Tornado (Blind Pig 1998)
This CD delivers stinging electric blues from a gritty Chicago bluesman and his hard-rocking band. This is my favorite Chicago blues album of recent vintage.
Howlin' Wolf: His Best, Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (MCA 1997)
Howlin' Wolf was a bearish bundle of primal blues energy whose growling vocals influenced people as diverse as Wolfman Jack, Mick Jagger and John Hiatt.