Country Blues (Piedmont Blues) and Ragtime Guitarists:
(Piedmont blues was a name given to a particular style of blues playing originating in and around North Carolina and was typified by a "piano"style of guitar playing where the thumb played the bass line and the fingers played the melody line. Apart from Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Gary Davis and Buddy Moss were the best known exponents)
Robert Johnson, Mississipi John Hurt, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson (a pattern is emerging here)
Alas, these are all dead as well as blind (Well allright, Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt weren't blind but there's no doubting their deadness even though their music lives on as you will hear if you listen to any of the following CDs.
The Complete recordings of Robert Johnson. 41 of them - some repeats but nothing escapes - a must-have for any serious blues collector!
Mississippi John Hurt The Complete Studio Recordings: Remastered
All his best-known tracks are here: "Make me a Pallet on the Floor", Candy Man", "I'm Satisfied" and another 38 tracks besides.
Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) had a very lively ragtime style and was one of the most popular Piedmont Blues artists attracting crowds of thousands who marvelled at his guitar playing skills. He also had an uncertain temper and developed an unfortunate habit of pulling out a pistol and discharging it in the direction of heckler's voices. Being blind he almost always missed but he did do jail time for shooting his wife in the leg. A year before that, in 1937, he recorded with Sonny Terry but his incarceration brought that artnership to an ealy close and Sonny Terry teamed up with Brownie McGhee.
Get Yer Yas-Yas Out Subtitled "The Essential Recordings of Blind Boy Fuller". is one of the Indigo label's best offerings at £5.68 and includes the wonderful "What's that smells like fish". as well as "Rattlesnaking Daddy" Go to Them dirty blues done got me for more on Blind Boy Fuller, Bo Carter and other blues singers who had seamier catalogues.
Blind Blake. Not very much is known about Blind Blake other than the fact that he was not a very nice person but he was a real ragtime guitar virtuoso whose all too brief career was cut short by drink. In fact there is some debate about how he died but the most common opinion is that he fell down in a snowdrift and was too drunk and fat to get up. I spent about five years trying to learn to play the guitar like him and finally decided to stick with the harp.
This CD The Best Of Blind Blake will demonstrate what the size of the hill I was trying to climb. Blake really was a band in a box.
If you like bottleneck guitar, Blind Willie McTell was a real master. Here is a monster 4 disk compilation which should give you a thorough grounding in his work The Classic Years 1927-1940
If you enjoy this, and you live in the West Midlands then you should try and catch Perry Foster who is a frequent performer at the Upton and Gloucester Blues Festivals as well as further afield. He captures Blind Willie's guitar sound exceptionally well.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson's best-known song "Matchbox Blues" (see link on the left) has been covered and quoted by practically everybody.
Since I last wrote this page in 2002, I have listened to a lot more country blues musicians from the twenties and thirties and one of the most interesting is Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James whose song "I'm so glad" was recorded by Cream. His idiosyncratic style stands out from the rest of the blues musicians of his time and his life story is full of sudden twists with good fortune interspersed with bad luck. After an audition by a talent scout called H C Spier, James travelled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record a rumoured 26 sides for Paramount. He opted for a royalty rather than an up-front payment and never received any subsequent payment. He was rediscovered in the 60s after a career which embraced bootlegging, preaching and teaching music and, just as he was taken ill with cancer, Cream ensured that he received his due royalties for "I'm So Glad" - an act which helped him to live for a further three years before his death on October 3rd 1969.
The Complete Early Recordings includes all 18 of the Grafton recordings that have been found (although 26 were supposed to have been recorded). It includes the original "I'm so glad" but my personal favourite is "If You Haven't any Hay" with a very strange bouncy piano accompaniment.
Revd Blind Gary Davis If you are learning to play acoustic blues guitar, you will probably have come across Gary Davis if you have used any of Stefan Grossman's Vestapol tuition videos since Grossman was tought to play by Gary Davis and uses a lot of footage of his erstwhile mentor on them as well as many country blues players of the '50s and '60s such as Big Bill Broonzy. Gary Davis was a virtuoso guitar player with a distinctive shouting gospel style.
Here is a good selection of his work Vintage Recordings (1935-1949)
...Enter the Blues Who's Who
To help people wishing to expand their blues repertoire or simply wishing to hear more of the most important popular music genre of the 20th century, here is a list of the more important styles of blues and their exponents together with a selection of CDs to help them to get a better picture of what blues is all about.
Blues Who's Who
Over the years I have produced a large number of thumbnail portraits of celebs.
- not surprisingly, the portfolio incudes a sprinkling of blues heroes.
L-R Sonny Boy Williamson #2, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker
News Flash: Eric Clapton may be God but he is not the father of the blues.
There is a kind of blues jam where everyone thinks that blues is really easy to play because its only a 12 bar structure based on three chords and the words probably begin with "Woke up this morning" so you don't need to know any actual numbers.
After playing a long and disjointed version of "Stormy Monday", people start saying "I don't know that one" and everyone either goes home or someone starts playing "Smoke on the Water".
As a harp player (see R&B Jones ), I make no apologies for listing so many harp players here. When I first started playing, there was a great dearth of recorded material available in local record shops. Now you have Amazon, Document, Red Lick and YouTube as sources of material.
Here's a selection:
Blues Harp Greats on Record
Country Blues (1929 up to the 60s):
DeFord Bailey, Sonny Terry, Hammie Nixon (with Sleepy John Estes), Gwen Foster (a bloke)
There are a lot of records of Sonny Terry playing with Brownie McGhee, his partner (who he hated for the last 20 years of his career) but the best record of all time was an LP that came out on Topic in the 60s called simply "Harmonica Blues" which featured Sonny playing solo. On this LP you could hear Sonny's unique tricky "chucky-chuck-chuck" rhythms as well as one of his famous train impressions. Most harp players do a train and Sonny Terry's rendering on Locomotive Blues will continue to be an inspiration to up and coming harp players for generations to come. The great thing about this record was that Sonny used a B Flat harp right the way through so beginners could start on a low budget. I have looked on Google for this and found this site offering downloads of the individual tracks. Alternaively check the panel on the left on this page for a link to a complete chronological compilation.
....and now you can hear all the 1920 and 1930 country harp greats in one man - Joe Filisko Well known in the harmonica community as a builder and customiser of harps, Joe Filisko specialises in playing all the old country harp classics and he plays them absolutely note-for-note.He is also an absolute master of Sonny Terry whooping and hollering. (I used to try this at home when I was in my teens but my mother got very stressed about what the neighbours think.
(Bob Jones, my partner in R&B Jones has no such qualms when we practice at his house - it keeps the cats off his petunias - a blues image to treasure.... )
Joe was a star performer at at the NHL 2006 Autumn Festival at Bristol and blew everyone away with his playing as well as his modesty. His workshop was a real eye-opener and his concert appearance on the Saturday night stole the show. By the Sunday morning, he had lost his voice completely. He has teamed up with Eric Noden and they have put out a great CD Filisko and Noden Live . Listen in particular to the sample of Bay Rum blues on his site - I have had the original in my collection for years and have never even got close to playing it the way that Joe does, although, having attended his workshop and paid very close attention, I am now a lot nearer... If you want to get back to the source, try Harmonica Masters or Devil in the Woodpile: The Essential Recordings of Blues Harmonica - see the link on the right - another gem from Indigo for as little as £1.62 - if you followed the "concert appearance" link, above, you will be amazed at how faithful Joe Filisko's playing is to the original.
Chicago Harp Players from the 1940s and 50s
Sonny Boy Williamson No 1, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (AKA Alec "Rice" Miller , Little Walter, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells
John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson is now known as Sonny Boy Williamson No 1 owing to the "theft" of his identity by Rice Miller after his death. His harp style was just right for the time in which he recorded - nimble enough to keep peoples interest when he payed unamplified in juke joints but not stuck in the country style. One of my personal favourite tracks is "Sloppy Drunk Blues".
Sonny Boy had a speech impediment which added to his appeal with audiences - the only downside of this was that there are some phrases which absolutely resist repeated replays to determine what the hell the words are. An example of this in "Sloppy Drunk Blues" is where he sings what sounds like " I'm gonna wise up'n the whole world baby, I'm gonna drink and drink until I fall". My sanity was saved by Anita Cantor, a professional transcriber of lyrics from Arizona who has told me that the line is "I'm gonna drink while's I'm up baby". See what you think. Check him out on Shotgun Blues.(See panel on the left for link)
Shotgun blues is a wonderful pre-PC song which includes the verse "I'm gonna send my baby a brand new 20 dollar bill. If that don't bring her back I'm sure my shotgun will".
Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 aka Alec "Rice" Miller (or "Boots" from his habit of slashing the sides of his shoes to provide relief for his very large feet) was one of the best harp players around. He had everything: he wrote memorable lyrics reputedly from a standing start within a few minutes of starting a recording session, the tone of his harp was just amazing - never muddy; clear tones with some amazing bends (Just listen to the opening bars of "Trust my Baby") and a sense of rhythm that allowed him to swing even when playing unaccompanied.
Paul Jones and Eric Clapton have both told stories about what a bastard he was to accompany since he would frequently turn a 12-bar blues into 11 bars or 13 bars without warning and be contemptuous of accompanying musicians who failed to follow him. However, this was the tradition in Chicago Blues - Muddy Waters was another singer who went by feel rather than by the number of bars. When these singers were playing with musicians who had the necessary sixth sense to follow changes then no-one in the audience was any the wiser and the number was frequently more powerful. This CD Down and Out Blues/In Memorium gives a particularly good sample of his work, combining as it does, two of my most played vinyl albums.
Apart from Sonny Boy, all the best Chicago harp players were alumni of Muddy Waters' band. When I first heard Little Walter's heavily amplified harp, particularly on "Blue Lights", I was amazed at the sax-like sound that he got compared with the more recognisably harplike tones of Sonny Boy Williamson. His voice suited his instrument extremely well and I played the grooves off my copy of "The Best of Little Walter". I was lucky enough to see him at Hammersmith Odeon in 1967 where he shared the bill with Son House. As an aspiring harp player with an interest in Chicago blues and no awareness of Son House's pivotal role in the history of the blues, I have to confess that I actually found Son House boring but Walter seemed to me to be on perfect form. I later read in his biography Blues with a Feeling (see panel on left) that he was actually just a shadow of his former self by the time he made it to Hammersmith. I just wish I'd seen him earlier! If you listen to him on "Flying Saucer" on the CD Blues With A Feeling; Essential Blue Archive you can get an idea of how original he was - even though his legacy has been diluted somewhat by a large number of wannabe Little Walters.
3 months after I saw him he died after being hit on the head with an iron bar in a street brawl. The fact that he simply went home and took a couple of aspirin tells you something about his lifestyle. There are a lot of other Chicago harp players that I could mention but, since this page presents a personal view and is not desiged to be a comprehensive guide, I will just give you a set of links to find out more about them. However, one that I can't omit is James Cotton. He had a profound influence on my first harp hero, the British artist Cyril Davies and listening to him today, this influence is easy to understand. Cotton ran away from home at 9 years old and hooked up with Sonny Williamson #2 who taught him to play the harp over a five year period. He eventually became a Muddy Waters sideman taking the Little Walter chair. He stayed with Muddy for 11 years but eventually told Muddy that he was not Little Walter, he was James Cotton and set out to demonstrate it by fronting his own band. If you can get it, Mighty Long Time with Cotton backed by Hubert Sumlin, Jimmie Vaughan (Brother of SRV) and Matt Murphy on guitars and Muddy Waters' Otis Spann replacement, Pinetop Perkins on piano is probably one of the the pinnacles of his career. High Compression is also a James Cotton treat.
Unfortunately, Cotton has been battling with throat cancer since 1994 and, in some of his later recordings, the weakening of his voice is all too evident. It grieves me to say this but "Deep in the Blues" is one to avoid as there is clear evidence of this weakening although his harp playing appears to be unaffected. He is still playing and his harp playing still attracts rave reviews from his peers. Visit his website for more information.
This is a great 3-DVD set featuring Rod Piazza, Billy Branch, James Harman, and Studebaker John on harps. Singer guitarist George Baze also impresses but the sad news is that he is no longer with us.
I can't really omit Jerry Portnoy from my list of Chicago harp players. Jerry played with Muddy Waters for six years and has played with Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughan to name but a few. Any aspiring harp player would do well to listen his playing on Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live
If you really want to learn how to play like that then you could do worse than get a copy of his Blues Harmonica Masterclass (See above).
Charlie Musselwhite bought a copy for his son - that's some endorsement!
The Swamps of Louisiana.
The best known exponent of the Louisiana swamp blues sound was probably Jimmy Reed. As a harp player, he differed from most other harp players in that he seldom played crossed harp but Invariably played in first position, which means that his sound was produced by playing his instrument in the same key as the band and playing blow bends at the top end of the harp to produce a piercing accompaniment to his voice. His adherence to this style has meant that, enjoyable as his songs are, small doses will usually suffice for many listeners.
However, despite this sameness (real fans will call it "consistency") and the fact that he had enormous drink problems, Reed enjoyed a long career and produced a seemingly effortless string of fourteen hits, 11 of which found their way onto the Billboard Hot 100 - something which few other bluesmen equalled.
Check out The Very Best of Jimmy Reed for a good double album selection.
Jay Miller's Excello Studio in Crowley, Louisiana was responsible for recording some of the best harmonica blues to come out in the '50s.
Of the numerous artists that he recorded, the best known was Slim Harpo, who's hit, "King Bee" was covered so successfully by the Rolling Stones. In fact, anyone who listens to Harpo's laid back Southern drawl with half an ear will know exactly who the model was for Mick Jagger's vocal style in the early '60s. This is somewhat ironic since Jay Miller under-used Slim Harpo because he was convinced that his voice was too weak for him to really make it in the blues genre and insisted that he sing through his nose. He had his biggest hit in 1966 with "Baby Scratch My Back" which has a wonderful lazy Southern sound. The shimmery guitar sound is particularly good as is Harpo's lazy harp soloing. You can hear it together with "King Bee" on The Best of Slim Harpo
Other Excello artists include Harpo's brother-in-law, Lightnin' Slim whose "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter" was a stand-out track. Laziness was the key characteristic of the Louisiana sound and this was typified by Lazy Lester, another fine harp player. Both Lazy Lester and Lightnin' Slim can be found, together with Silas Hogan, Whisperin' Smith and Lonesome Sundown on Authentic Excello R+B This is an outstanding collection which I bought on vinyl in the '60s and was extremely popular at parties.
West Coast Harp Players
These were a relatively new discovery for me.
The "founder" of the West Coast harp sound was Little George Smith whose playing on the chromatic harmonica inspired William Clarke and Rod Piazza (It inspired me as well and I am now the proud owner of a 16-hole Hering as played by William Clarke and a Hohner CX12 which was christened by Paul Lamb at the NHL Spring meeting in 2006) Listen to "Telephone Blues" on Harmonica Ace . The deep bends on the opening riff are particularly inspiring to harp players.
William Clarke was a protege of George Smith and in his all too short career produced some memorable albums. For harp players, Serious Intentions has the added value of having a companion book of tab available from Mel Bay. William Clarke produced some deeply organ like tones on his 16 hole Hering Harp which I personally never tire of listening to. Yes - you've guessed it - he is no longer with us but his memory lingers on.
When people talk about Texas Blues, most people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Freddie King and T-Bone Walker.
However, further research reveals that there are (or have been) a lot more Texas bluesmen and I have added them to this section accordingly. After all, as any Texan will tell you, Texas is a very big state indeed.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the best known exponent of what has become known as Texas Blues and one of the best of his CDs to investigate is The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble which includes his better known tracks such as "Pride and Joy", "Texas Flood", "Scuttle Buttin'" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return) " which shows his debt to Jimi Handrix.
Interestingly, he recorded a very good session with Albert King which works very well In Session
Kenny Wayne Shepherd who actually comes from Shreveport Louisiana which is about 20 miles from the Texas border and is thus a Texan by close association, has taken on the Stevie Ray Vaughan mantle and does it rather well as you can hear on this CD Trouble Is...
Also check out Jonny Lang..who may or may not be Texan but who's blues-drenched voice is quite remarkable. His first CD, was recorded when he was only 14 and his second CD, (See link on the left) was recorded a year later in 1996 and made platignum. He has since toured with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and BB King as well as playing at the White House to Bill and Hilary Clinton. Check out his latest CD Turn Around released in 2006 as well as his earlier CDs Long Time Coming and Wander this World Jonny also puts in a memorable guest appearance on Buddy Guy's CD, Heavy Love with a standout performance on "There Ain't No Midnight Train" which has been adopted by Jonathan Ross as the background theme to his chat show (in case you thought you had heard it before somewhere) He strayed from the blues path somewhat with his album "Wander This World" and although his latest album "Turn Around" features his remarkable voice and some fine guitar, he would not satisfy a hardened blues addict.
I was late latching onto Freddie King . In fact, by the time I had got my first real taste of his music in the late '90s he was long gone. What alerted me to him was that I was trying to learn to play "The Stumble" which UK visitors to this site will recognise as the theme music for the Paul Jones Blues show. Ultimate Collection features "The Stumble", "I'm Tore Down" "Hideaway" and "Woman Across the River". He had a great voice and great delivery as well as being a virtuoso guitar player.
Was he from Texas? He was only "The Texas Cannonball" 'Nuff said.
Unfortunately, his heart pegged out in 1976 when he was only 42. Among the people inspired by his playing was Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jimmy Vaughan.
T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Robben Ford, Jimi Hendrix
When you start to learn to play blues on the guitar, you will find that everyone will pay homage to T-Bone Walker (another Texan) who was the man who wrote "Stormy Monday" and pioneered the use of the electric guitar. He was also an amazing showman who's piece de resistance was to play his guitar behind his back while doing the splits. I happened to see this at first hand when he appeared on Ready Steady Go in the sixties and I was in the studio audience a long story My memory of him was of a fairly slight guy in an incredibly baggy suit who wowed the audience with his stagecraft.
However, although his antics must have boosted his reputation no end, none of this really shows through on his recordings - I have heard some recordings which sound as if he is being supported by a genteel tea dance quartet. I guess you have to be a blues historian to really appreciate his importance to the genre.
This is in stark contrast to Albert King who was memorable live and whose power has been captured perfectly on CD. I saw him in the '60s on a bill which included Otis Spann, the Soul Sisters, and Champion Jack Dupree. He was literally electrifying, his stinging guitar licks on his signature flying V guitar and his giant presence made a huge impression. Apparently, Jimi Hendrix was a protege of his since the 6ft 4 inch 250 pound King felt that the slightly-built Hendrix was in need of physical protection in the rough places where they played. Check out "Crosscut Saw" "Born under a Bad Sign" and "Laundromat Blues" on The Very Best Of Albert King
Albert Collins was another Texan, a distant relative of Lightning Hopkins(also Texan) who branded himself as the Ice Man issuing a series of CDs with ice-reated titles such as Ice Pickin' and Frostbite . His stinging guitar style attracted a lot of followers inspiring such luminaries as B B King, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Gary Moore and Frank Zappa. He died in 1993 of lung cancer.
Muddy Waters is generally reckoned to be the Father of the Chicago Blues and, given his influence on British Blues in the '60s could almost lay claim to being the father of the British Blues as well (if only he was alive to do so).
In Otis Spann and, later, Pinetop Perkins he had the best piano players and he had a whole series of top harmonica players from Little Walter, through James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells and later, Jerry Portnoy.
My personal favourite numbers are "Still a Fool"(Two Trains Running"), "I'm Ready", "Nineteen Years Old", and, as a harp player, "Hoochie Coochie Man". Most of these appear on a number of anthologies but The Anthology seems to be the most complete. Of the later Albums Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live is one of the best thanks to the meaty harp playing of Jerry Portnoy.
Howling Wolf wasn't a guitarist and so may not be expected to be included in this list but his long-time guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, really made a major contribution to his overall sound and has attracted rave reviews from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Although he has carried on playing since Howling Wolf's death, his career has lacked focus but Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party gets a thumbs-up from Musichound Blues: The Essential Album Guide
Howling Wolf's contribution to blues was immense as was his voice and his personality. If you haven't got any of his songs then The Collection gets you all his best known numbers which made such a contribution to the 1960s blues boom in Britain. "Smokestack Lightning", "Spoonful", "How Many More Years", "Evil", Wang Dang Doodle", "Killing Floor" and "Little Red Rooster" - all are there with Hubert Sumlin's stinging, slashing guitar adding extra menace to the Wolf's huge voice. His harmonica playing, although sparing, was incredibly intense. The intensity was put down to the sheer size of the man - his harps probably didn't last him very long.
Chicago was also the home ground of Elmore James whose "Dust My Blues" became almost a standard in the UK blues "revival" in the late 1960's and early '70s thanks to Blues Horizon artists like Fleetwood Mac. For an interesting insight into this period follow this link.
Apart from "Dust My Broom", my personal favourites are "The Sky is Crying" and "Anna Lee". There are a number of budget collections but this boxed set King of the Slide Guitar is the only one I could find with Anna Lee on it. Back in the sixties I would have sold my soul to have been able to sing like Elmore James on Anna Lee (being able to play the piano like Otis Spann or the harmonica like Sonny Boy Williamson came close) If you listen to some of Robert Johnson's numbers you can hear where the Dust my Broom riff originated.
Luther Allison's blues career first blossomed when Muddy Waters invited him to the stage. In this sense he was a Chicago blues man although from 1977 he actually spent many years in France and Europe, not returning to the US until the early 1990s where he became a major signing for Alligator Records and went on to win four W C Handy Awards in 1994. Unfortunately, he died not long after in August 1997, five days before his 58th birthday. This double CD album, recorded at Buddy Guy's Legends blues clubin Chicago in 1995 captures him at the peak of his guitar playing and vocal powers Live in Chicago
Ranked 30th in Rolling Stone Magazin's List of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Buddy Guy's long career started in 1953 and is still going strong although it underwent a decline in the late '60s to the late '80s. It finally lifted off and this album, Damn Right I've Got the Blues [Expanded Edition] given 3.5 stars by Rolling Stone Magazine helped to set him back on track
In a class of his own - Riley B King AKA B B King . Ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as number 3 in their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Whenever guitarists talk about playing fast, B B King's name will come up as the ultimate argument that making every note count will do it every time - a concept unheard of by Joe Sattriano and, dare I say it, Walter Trout.
When people start to list his best known numbers, the list is considerable from "The Thrill is Gone" through "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss" to "You Upset Me Baby" and " Woke up This Morning". All these and many more can be found on The Ultimate Collection