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Blues Starter Kit

By Published: August 16, 2005
If you're just beginning to explore the blues, here's a list of 70 suggested artists and recordings, some old and some new. These picks should get anybody's mojo workin' overtime, but purists will note some flagrant omissions. Unfortunately, many deserving artists had to be excluded for brevity's sake. For a more thorough guide to blues artists and recordings, check out the All Music Guide to the Blues. As to the dates listed after each recording, the CD release date appears first, followed by the year or period when the music was actually recorded.

KOPP'S TOPS: FIFTEEN PERSONAL FAVORITES

  1. Bobby Blue Bland (I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, Vol. 1, MCA, 1992; Period - 1952-1960) - In his prime, Bland was a versatile velvet-voiced singer who could croon or roar to suit the mood of any song. His Duke output features some terrifically soulful brass arrangements. (Signature song: "Turn On Your Love Light")

  2. Etta James (The Essential Etta James, MCA/Chess, 1994; Period - 1960s & '70s) The young Etta possessed one of the most magical voices in blues and R&B. Her voice is not quite as limber today, but she still makes exceptional music. (Signature song: "At Last")

  3. Big Joe Turner (Boss of the Blues, Atlantic, 1990; Year - 1956) - Besides helping to invent rock 'n roll with his hit "Shake, Rattle and Roll," Big Joe Turner was the most soulful of the blues shouters. His best albums married the boogie-woogie piano stylings of the great Pete Johnson with a jazzy jumpin' horn section. (Signature song: "I Want a Little Girl")



  4. Snooks Eaglin (Teasin' You, Black Top, 1992; Year - 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. Teasin' You is a recent New Orleans classic. (Signature song: "Dizzy Miss Lizzy")

  5. Smokin' Joe Kubek Band with Bnois King (Texas Cadillac, Bullseye, 1993; Year - 1993) -Smokin' Joe is an aptly named blues guitar wizard and Bnois is his soulful sidekick. Modern Texas blues doesn't get any more electrifying than Texas Cadillac. (Signature song: "Mellow Down Easy")



  6. Terry Evans - (Puttin' It Down, JVC, 1995; Year - 1995) For my money Evans is the most soulful blues singer alive. He's a Mississippi native strongly influenced by gospel music. (Signature song: "Down in Mississippi")

  7. Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters (Language of the Soul, Bullseye, 1994; Year - 1994) - A highly spiritual guitarist, Earl made the bold switch to all-instrumental blues with Language of the Soul. The now defunct Broadcasters also had mucho soul, particularly Bruce Katz on keys. Fusion fans might dig Earl's recent music. (Signature song: "Eddie's Gospel Groove")

  8. Magic Slim and the Teardrops (Black Tornado, Blind Pig, 1998; Year - 1998) - This CD delivers stinging electric blues from a gritty Chicago bluesman and his hard-rocking band. (Signature song: "Early Every Morning")



  9. Little Willie John (Fever: The Best of Little Willie John, Rhino, 1997; Period - '50s & '60s) - A troubled young man who died in prison at age 30, Little Willie John was an extraordinary tenor vocalist. His music walked the line between blues and R&B, and this Rhino collection contains some of the most infectious soul-blues ever recorded. (Signature song: "All Around the World")

  10. Professor Longhair ('Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology, Rhino, 1993; Period - '40s to '80s) - This self-taught New Orleans piano wizard combined rumba stylings with old-time whorehouse piano to forge an elaborate, inspired amalgam. (Signature song: "Tipitina")



  11. Greg Piccolo (Heavy Juice,, Black Top, 1990; Year - 1990) - Tenor saxman and former member of Roomful of Blues spawned a swinging jump classic with Heavy Juice, his first solo release. (Signature song: "Hammer")

  12. Clarence Gatemouth Brown (Okie Dokie Stomp, Bullseye,1999; Period - 1981 to '85) - Top-flight Texas guitarman and vocalist capable of playing country blues, big band swing, jump blues, swamp blues and Cajun. Gatemouth's a fine fiddler to boot. (Signature song: "Gate Walks to Board")

  13. Taj Mahal (In Progress and In Motion, Columbia/Legacy, 1998; Period - 1960s to '90s) While Mahal is regarded as a country blues revivalist, he often uses traditional blues as a springboard to other musical forms, including R&B, reggae, jazz and Hawaiian music. (Signature song: "She Caught the Katy")



  14. Earl Hooker (Simply the Best, MCA, 1999; Period - 1950s to '70s) - Hooker is by far my favorite Chicago blues guitarist. Finally someone has compiled a decent retrospective of his work. (Signature song: "Hookin'")

  15. Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers (Deluxe Edition, Alligator, 1999; Period - '70s) - If you're throwin' a wang dang doodle and looking for some rockin' Chicago blues to liven things up, this CD is guaranteed to move those feet. Taylor was a slide guitar wildman, and his band was righteously raucous. (Signature song: "Give Me Back My Wig.")


SEMINAL BLUES ARTISTS

  1. Son House (Delta Blues, The Original Library of Congress Sessions from Field Recordings 1941-1942 , Biograph, 1991; Period - 1941 and'42) - House was the most spiritual of the original Delta bluesmen. (Signature song: "Preachin' the Blues")

  2. Charley Patton (Founder of the Delta Blues, Yazoo, 1969; Period - 1929 to '34) - Patton was a pioneering Delta guitarist and the original gravelly voiced blues singer. (Signature song: "Pony Blues")

  3. Blind Lemon Jefferson (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Milestone, 1992; Period - 1920s) - First in a long line of Texas guitar greats, Jefferson was an extremely creative musician with an adventurous rhythmic approach. (Signature song: "Match Box Blues")



  4. Leadbelly (Leadbelly, Vol. 1: Midnight Special, Rounder, 1991; Year - 1934) - The composer of "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line" and other ageless tunes, Leadbelly was strongly influenced by the folk roots of the blues. (Signature song: "Goodnight Irene")

  5. Blind Willie McTell (The Definitive Blind Willie McTell , Columbia, 1994; Period - 1930s) - Talented Georgia guitarist/harpist/accordianist/singer and principal practitioner of the Piedmont Blues, which were more syncopated and ragtime-influenced than Delta blues. (Signature song: "Statesboro Blues")

  6. Robert Johnson (King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volumes 1 and 2, Columbia, 1961 and 1970; Period - 1930s) - 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. (Signature song: "Crossroads")



  7. Ma Rainey: (Ma Rainey, Milestone, 1992; Period - 1920s & '30s) - Known as the "Mother of the Blues," Rainey was a master entertainer and a popular singer on the minstrel circuit. By adding the blues to her repertoire, she exposed the form to a much wider audience. (Signature song: "See See Rider")

  8. Bessie Smith (The Complete Recordings, Vol. 3, Columbia/Legacy; Period recorded - 1920s) - "The Empress of the Blues" was an enormously passionate singer who imparted emotions from hurt to ecstasy as effectively as any vocalist of the 20th Century, blues or otherwise. Smith recorded with the finest jazz musicians of her time, including Louis Armstrong. Her music still sounds tremendously vital today. (Signature song: "St. Louis Blues")

  9. Cannon's Jug Stompers (The Complete Works, Yazoo, 1992; Period - 1928 to '30) - Good-time troupe that was arguably the best of the Memphis jug bands. Along with black sacred music, jug band music was an important precursor to group-based blues. (Signature song: "Walk Right In")




THE ELECTRIC BLUES PANTHEON

  1. Muddy Waters (His Best, 1956-1964, MCA, 1997) - A masterful songwriter, a passionate vocalist, a trailblazing slide guitarist, and a true innovator, Muddy Waters was largely responsible for turning the Delta blues into the Chicago blues. (Signature song: "Mojo Working")

  2. Elmore James (The Sky is Crying: The History James, Rhino, 1993; Period recorded - '60s) - One of the first and, in my opinion, the best of the electric slide players, James played the blues with intense passion. (Signature song: "Dust My Broom")



  3. Howlin' Wolf: (His Best, Chess 50th Anniversary Collection, MCA, 1997; Period - 1960s) - A bearish bundle of primal blues energy whose growling vocals influenced people as diverse as Wolfman Jack, Mick Jagger and John Hiatt. (Signature song: "I Ain't Superstitious")

  4. John Lee Hooker (The Very Best of John Lee Hooker, Rhino, 1995; Period - 1940s - '90s) - An unconventional singer and master blues improviser, the Chicago boogie king remains an extremely vital artist as he approaches age 80. (Signature song: "Boom Boom")

  5. T-Bone Walker (T-Bone Blues, Atlantic, 1959; Year - 1959) - Adept at an astonishing variety of blues styles, this Texan practically invented the guitar-based electric blues. (Signature song: "Call It Stormy Monday")



  6. B.B. King (Live at the Regal, ABC/MCA, 1965; Year - 1965) - The most influential bluesman of the last 50 years, King's trademark tremulo guitar and impassioned singing distinguish him as the true King of the Blues. (Signature song: "The Thrill is Gone")

  7. Freddie King (Hide Away: The Best of Freddie King, Rhino, 1993; Period - 1960s & '70s) - A virtuoso guitarist who recorded many classic blues instrumentals, Freddie was a giant of a man and a giant of an artist. (Signature song: "Hide Away")

  8. Albert Collins (Deluxe Edition, Alligator, 1997; Period - 1970s & '80s) - Another incredible Texas guitarist, Albert Collins was heavily influenced by his cousin Lightnin' Hopkins. Collins could make his trebly guitar whisper, weep or wail, often within the same song. (Signature song: "Frosty")



  9. Albert King (The Ultimate Collection, Rhino, 1993; Period - 1960s to '80s) - A left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar upside-down, King's unorthodox style could singe or soothe. (Signature song: "Born Under a Bad Sign")

  10. Stevie Ray Vaughn (Greatest Hits, Epic, 1995; Period - 1980s & '90s) - A dazzling guitarist who died too young, but not before turning millions of rock fans on to the blues. (Signature song: "Couldn't Stand the Weather")




HARMONICATS

  1. Little Walter (The Essential, MCA, 1993; Period - 1950s & '60s) - 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. (Signature song: "My Babe")

  2. James Cotton (High Compression Alligator, 1983; Year - 1983) - Protégé of Sonny Boy Williamson II, James Cotton is a master Chicago harpist. He also gained his fame with Muddy Waters. (Signature song: "Rocket 88")



  3. Big Walter Horton (Memphis Recordings 1951, Kent, 1991; Year - 1951) Best known as a sideman for Chicago blues legends Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Otis Rush, Big Walter generated a lowdown, amplified sound marked by incredible single note licks. Horton has influenced countless present-day harpists. (Signature song: "Hard Hearted Woman")

  4. Jimmy Reed (Speak the Lyrics to Me, Mama Reed, Vee-Jay, 1993; Period - 1950s to '70s) - Known less for his harp playing than his simple, unencumbered tunes, Jimmy Reed sold more records than any other Chicago bluesman. His brand of blues is more upbeat and accessible than most, and his songs have been covered by thousands of artists. (Signature song: "Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby")

  5. Junior Wells (Hoodoo Man Blues, Delmark, 1999; Year - 1965) - Another former Muddy Waters sideman who went on to adopt a tough-guy persona as a solo artist. Often called the James Brown of the blues, Wells favored funky tunes driven by his nasty harp blowing. (Signature song: "Messin' With the Kid")



  6. William Clarke (Blowin' Like Hell, Alligator, 1990; Year - 1990) - Those in the know will tell you that the late William Clarke was the most technically proficient harpist of the last decade. Average Joes and Jills will siimply appreciate that his music really swings.

  7. Paul Butterfield Blues Band (An Anthology: The Elektra Years, Wea/Elektra, 1998; Period - 1960s) - Butterfield was a tremendously talented harmonica man, but more importantly, he fronted the first really cool white blues band, and one that had tremendous influence on rock music in the '60.




BLUES LADIES



  1. Etta James - See entry under Kopp's Tops.

  2. Ruth Brown ( The Best of Ruth Brown, Rhino, 1996; Period - 1949 to 1959) - R&B pioneer and belter supreme who's still going strong in her 70s. (Signature song: "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean")

  3. Big Maybelle (The Complete Okeh Sessions 1952-'55, Epic/Legacy, 1994; Period - 1952 - '55) - Big of body and even bigger of voice, Maybelle Smith belted out some of the grittiest jump blues and soul of the '50s. (Signature song: "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On")



  4. Lavern Baker (Soul on Fire: The Best of Lavern Baker, Rhino, 1991; Period - 1950s & '60s) - Baker was a comely R&B vocalist who recorded many classic tunes for Atlantic. (Signature song: "Jim Dandy")

  5. Bonnie Raitt (The Bonnie Raitt Collection, Warner Bros., 1990; Period - 1970s & '80s) - A fine bottleneck guitarist, an affecting singer, and a classy person fully deserving of her recent success. (Signature song: "Thing Called Love")



  6. Koko Taylor (What It Takes: The Chess Years, Chess, 1991; Period - 1964 to '71) - The reigning queen of the Chicago blues, Koko Taylor is a rough-hewn vocalist who fronts a hard-rocking guitar band. (Signature song: "Wang Dang Doodle")

  7. Angela Strehli (Soul Shake, Antone's., 1987; Year - 1987) - Though this Texas lass has only recorded three albums, Miss Angela has such a soulful voice that I had to mention her name here. (Signature song: "Two Bit Texas Town")

  8. Tracy Nelson (In the Here and Now, Rounder, 1993; Year - 1993) - An underrated vocalist with an extremely powerful delivery, Nelson is a child of the '60s who fronted the excellent San Francisco rock band Mother Earth. (Signature song: "Down So Low")






PIANO BLUES

  1. Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons (Giants of Boogie Woogie, Wolf, 1998; Period - 1930s & '40s) - This CD is a fine introduction to the three kings of boogie-woogie.

  2. Otis Spann (Complete Candid Recordings, Mosaic, 1992; Period - 1959 & '60) - The best of the modern blues pianists, Otis Spann had an incredible right hand, and his left hand worked pretty well, too. An original member of the immortal Muddy Waters band of the '50s, Spann later struck out on his own. Like all too many bluesmen, he died young at age 40, but left behind an impressive body of work. (Signature song: "Walking the Blues")



  3. Professor Longhair - See entry under Kopp's Tops.

  4. Pinetop Perkins (Pinetop's Boogie Woogie, Discovery, 1992; Year - 1992) - Another Muddy Waters alum and Mississippi native who moved to Chicago, Perkins is arguably the finest living blues pianist. (Signature song: Pinetop's Boogie Woogie)

  5. Johnnie Johnson (Johnnie Be Back, Music Masters, 1995; Year - 1995) - This longtime Chuck Berry sidekick finally stepped out on his own in the '90s to cook up some rollicking St. Louis blues. (Signature song: "Tanqueray")



  6. Floyd Dixon (Wake up and Live!, Alligator, 1996; Year - 1996) - A superb jump-blues pianist with a risque sense of humor. (Signature song: "Hey Bartender")

  7. Dr. John (The Very Best of Dr. John, Rhino, 1995; Period - 1970s to '90s) Is he blues, jazz, rock or R&B? Does it matter? Despite a somewhat inconsistent recorded history, the hoodoo pianist embodies the Crescent City spirit. (Signature song: "Right Place, Wrong Time")

  8. Marcia Ball (Gatorhythms, Rounder, 1989; Year - 1989) - Long, tall Marcia Ball plays piano like Dr. John and sings a bit like Bonnie Raitt. (Signature song: "That's Enough of That Stuff")




JUMP BLUES GIANTS

  1. Louis Jordan (The Best of Louis Jordan, MCA, 1977; Period - 1940s & '50s) - The father of the jump blues, Louis Jordan was a huge talent equally adept at raucous party music, hilarious novelty tunes, straight-ahead blues, and swingin' syncopated jazz. Along with Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, Jordan was one of the first black musicians to make it big in the snow-white world of '40s pop. (Signature song: "Caldonia")

  2. Big Joe Turner - See entry under Kopp's Tops



  3. Wynonie Harris (Bloodshot Eyes: The Best of Wynonie Harris, Rhino, 1994; Period - 1940s & '50s) - A raucous R&B pioneer with a powerful voice and a great sense of humor, Harris spawned some of the most sexually charged music of the '40s and '50s. (Signature song: "Good Rockin' Tonight")

  4. Roomful of Blues - (Turn It On! Turn It Up!, Bullseye Blues, 1995; Year - 1995) A nine-piece jump blues outfit from Rhode Island that's the finest and longest lasting contemporary jump band.




COOL BLUES CATS

  1. Charles Brown (Driftin' Blues: The Best of, Collectables, 1995; Period - 1940s & '50s) - Brown's after-hours blues is sublimely smooth and silky. (Signature song: "Merry Christmas, Baby")

  2. Johnny Adams (Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, 1992; Year - 1992) - Another terrifically smooth vocalist who, had he not been barred from joining the Motown label by Ric Records, might have become as famous as Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross. (Signature song: "Reconsider Me").



  3. Percy Mayfield (Poet of the Blues, Specialty, 1990; Period - 1950 to '54) - One of the most sophisticated and personal of blues songwriters, Mayfield's music is predominantly slow, soulful and sad. Mayfield was known as the "Poet Laureate of the Blues." (Signature song: "Please Send Me Someone to Love")




MODERN COUNTRY BLUES

  1. Mississippi Fred McDowell (You Gotta Move, Arhoolie, 1993; Period - 1960s) - Perhaps the most talented master of the acoustic bottleneck guitar the world has yet seen, Fred McDowell became a folk sensation in the '60s, and deservedly so. (Signature song: "You Gotta Move")



  2. Lightnin' Slim (Rooster Blues, Excello, 1987, Year - 1960) Slim pioneered the lowdown country blues from the swamps of Louisiana. (Signature song: "Rooster Blues")

  3. Ry Cooder (Paradise and Lunch, Reprise, 1974; Year - 1974) - A wonderfully earthy acoustic and electric guitarist who now devotes most of his energy to movie soundtracks. (Signature song: "It's All Over Now")

  4. Taj Mahal - See entry under Kopp's Tops.



  5. Corey Harris (Fish Ain't Bitin', Alligator, 1997; Year - 1997) - Impressive young guitarist and singer who plays the Delta blues combined with African-influenced roots music, reggae and more. Slide player extraordinaire. (Signature song: "Fish Ain't Bitin'")

  6. Alvin Youngblood Hart (Big Mama's Door, Okeh/550 Music, 1996; Year - 1996) - Another fine young singer/guitarist whose debut album breathed new life into the Delta blues. (Signature song: "Big Mama's Door")


BLUES BOOKS

White Boy Singin' the Blues: The Black Roots of White Rock by Michael Bane



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