As blues is a wider category than non-blues fans appreciate, here are some categories and artists to check out:
Country Blues and Ragtime Guitarists:
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.)
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Actually I have been informed (Thanks David) that Kenny is actually from Shreveport Louisiana which is about 20 miles from the Texas border so he is a near-Texan. As such he has taken on the SRV mantle and does it rather well as you can hear on this CD Leadbetter Heights
Also check out Jonny Lang.. His first CD, was recorded when he was only 14 and his second CD, Lie to Me 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". The bass riff on this track is also exceptionally good.
T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Robben Ford, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Freddie King.
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 protegé 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
As a harp player (see R&B Jones and How to Play the Blues Harp ), 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
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 one that came out on Topic in the 60s called simply "Harmonica Blues" which featured Sonny playing solo. On this LP you can 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 is that Sonny uses a B Flat harp right the way through so beginners can start on a low budget. I am sure that this will have been re-issued on CD - have a look on Google.
This CD Wizard of the Harmonica will give you a good selection of Sonny's numbers including one of his famous fox chases.
Chicago From the forties and fifties:
Sonny Boy Williamson No 1, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), Little Walter, Walter Horton, James Cotton.
Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson is now known as Sonny Boy #1 owing to the fact that he was somewhat eclipsed by Rice Miller, who took on the "Sonny Boy Williamson mantle after his death. (See below). His harp style was just right for the time in which he recorded - nimble enough to keep peoples' interest when he played unamplified at 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 is in "Sloppy Drunk Blues" 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. 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."
If you really get the taste why not Bring Another Half Pint
....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 - another gem from Indigo for as little as £4.94 - if you followed the "concert appearance" link, above, you will be amazed at how faithful Joe Filisko's playing is to the original - he must have spent a lot of time in his woodshed - the fact that the woodshed is in Chicago may have helped him to absorb the blues.
Which brings me to:
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" and still listen to hi on a regular basis.
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 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 Blues with a Feelin' 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, he 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 about his gigs and recordings.
Coming more up to date, 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 Mississippi Muddy 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. 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 overblowing 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 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.
Alive and seeable: In the UK
Top of my UK list has got to be Paul Lamb who is a great harp player who's new band I caught recently at Nordens Farm in Maidenhead. Two of the highlights of his show are his walkabout around the audience with a radio mike and his tribute to Sonny Terry who was his inspiration. (He told us this when he gave a talk at the NHL 2006 Spring meeting at Knowle.)
This is a very good collection of his work Harmonica Man: The Paul Lamb Anthology
Another must-see harp player is Eddie Martin who not only plays excellent rack-harp (for the uninitiated, that's like Bob Dylan plays only good) but can move from accoustic to full-on electric guitar modes at the change of a capo. He stood in for Brendan Power (See below) at the NHL Concert at the Folk House in Bristol in 2006 and he was excellent in all departments. Try Play the Blues with Eddie Martin.
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 produces some deeply organ like tones on his 16 hole Hering Harp which I personally never tire of listening to.
In the UK catch The Paul Jones Blues Show on Radio 2 at 7 PM on Mondays - Paul plays every style of blues there is so you should find something that you really like. Paul is a great harp player as well as a fount of blues knowledge - check out the Blues Band which he fronts with Gary Fletcher, Dave Kelly (brother of the late and great Jo Anne Kelly), Tom McGuinness and Rob Townsend. I turned round one day and discovered that I had all their CDs. Try this one The Best of the Blues Band.
They cover a huge range of material including a really moving Death Letter Blues which they did as an encore at a concert at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester a couple of years ago.
Paul also plays with Dave Kelly as a duo. I sat next to a couple at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester who reckoned that they had gone to every concert that Paul went to whether it was with Dave Kelly, the Blues Band or with Manfred Mann. That sort of dedication is rather scary! (I'm only jealous)
Alive and on CD (and sometimes in the UK)
These are mainly artists (all harp players) who are US-based but occasionally appear in the UK. One of these is Charlie Musselwhite who is another of Muddy Waters alumni and was also best man to the late great John Lee Hooker.
I was lucky enough to catch him a few years ago at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, where he was playing with Dave Peabody. His harp playing is excellent, particularly at the top end. His latest CD is Delta Hardware.
One harp player who I have yet to see in person but rate extremely highly is Kim Wilson. Listen to "JR's Jump on his latest CD Looking for Trouble and see his YouTube performance of "You're Going to Miss Me When I'm Gone"- absolutely outstanding!
Follow this link for a more comprehensive list of players
Here's a selection of 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. Al All his best-known tracks are here: "Make me a Pallet on the Floor", Candy Man", "I'm Satisfied" and another 38 tracks besides.
Get Yer Yas-Yas Out Subtitled "The Essential Recordings of Blind Boy Fuller". This is one of the Indigo label's best offerings at £7.99 and includes the wonderful "What's that smells like fish". Go to Them dirty blues done got me for more on Blind Boy Fuller, Bo Carter and other blues singers who had seamier catalogues.
I spent about five years trying to learn the guitar like Blind Blake and finally decided to stick with the harp. This CD will demonstrate what the size of the hill I was trying to climb. Blake really was a band in a box. The Best of Arthur "Blind" Blake
If you like bottleneck guitar, Blind Willie McTell is a real master. Here as usual is a compilation with the original title of The Best of Blind Willie McTell. If you enjoy this, then you should try and see Perry Foster at the Upton Blues festival this year. He captures Blind Willie's guitar sound exceptionally well.
Blind Lemon Jefferson's best-known song "Matchbox Blues" has been covered and quoted by practically everybody. How clever of you to guess that his CD is called The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson !
Since I last wrote this page in 2002, I have listended 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 idiosyncraic 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 (link on the left) 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.
If you live in Worcester, try and catch Abie Budgen who often plays at the monthly Blues Night at the Cellar Bar on the third Monday of each month. She has really got to grips with the guitar styles of Skip James as well as Missississpi John Hurt and Blind Blake and has recently issued an excellent CD recorded with Johnny Mars and Michael Roach called "Weeping Willow" on Stella Records.
Bummer Road. This CD is marked "Parental Advisory" because it records a famous heated exchange between Sonny Boy and Leonard Chess in the recording studio. Sonny Boy's outburst was rewarded by having to do about ten retakes of "Little Village"
Very much alive - Paul Lamb at the NHL Spring Festival Concert 2006
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.