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If you're looking to own a single blues compilation, Chicago The Blues Today! isn't a bad choice. Recorded in 1965 as three separate albums, this music introduced legions of white rock fans to the electric blues, a genre that was largely unknown outside the ghetto neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side. Vanguard has gathered the three recordings in a single low-priced collection and added some excellent remembrances by writer Ed Ward and the albums' producer Sam Charters.
Truth is, these three discs saved electric blues from possible extinction. Back in the early '60s, most people viewed the blues as a revivalist offshoot of acoustic folk music. Preconceptions even forced Muddy Waters, one of the pioneers of electric blues guitar, to often go acoustic when he played outside Chicago. Chicago The Blues Today! showed the world that blues music could be just as contemporary as R&B, pop or rock, and every bit as soulful.
With the possible exception of Waters' pianist Otis Spann, most of these performers were unknown outside Chicago when these recordings were made. The popularity of these three records helped to kick start many careers. There's so much great music here: Junior Wells' ultra-tight band (with Buddy Guy) supporting his swaggering, James Brown-like vocals and fiery harp; Otis Rush's nasty guitar on "I Can't Quit You Baby," a song that was later copped note for note by Led Zeppelin; Otis Spann's incendiary boogie piano; Johnny Young's bluesy mandolin; James (then Jimmy) Cotton's raucous harp playing; and equally great music from J.B. Hutto, Homesick James, Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton and Charlie Musselwhite.
If my endorsement isn't enough to sway you, know that Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt and many other blues-oriented rockers were heavily influenced by this collection. It's a must-have for any fan of the blues.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.