Choosing five essential blues albums is a daunting task. To begin with, the blues has a long history, as long as the history of jazz, and its many forms cause a little confusion and, on occasion, some arguments. To some, most blues recorded after, say, World War II is rhythm and blues and not the purest form of the music. To me, the blues is flexible enough to take in Sam and Dave and Otis Redding.
I’ve decided to limit my suggestions to recordings done after World War II because they are the basis for so much of the music we listen to now, whether it’s sixties rock and soul or the current crop of blues musicians, such as Robert Cray of Joe Bonamassa. These are urban blues recordings. Any list of blues done before then would certainly include recordings by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, and many others.
I’ve chosen these recordings because of their influence on the development of the blues, but also their impact on other music. It’s inevitable that I’ve missed someone, or picked something other blues fans might dispute. I would have liked to include something by Albert King or Little Milton, for instance. The five records I’ve chosen, however, should open the doors for the uninitiated, and show you where the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, to name just two, got their inspiration, as well as where the blues is headed.
Muddy Waters—The Best of Muddy Waters (1958)
Keith Richards remembers that when a local newspaper called to ask what his band called itself, he, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones saw the cover of The Best of Muddy Waters on the floor of their apartment. “Muddy Waters to the rescue! First track on The Best of Muddy Waters is ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ Desperate, Brian, Mick and I take the dive. ‘The Rolling Stones.’”
“Rollin’ Stone” is actually track five on side one of The Best of Muddy Waters, but the story is otherwise true, or the kind of myth that is better than the truth. Chess Records didn’t release LPs until 1956, and The Best of Muddy Waters was the label’s third long player. It pulled together singles Waters did for them over the previous 11 years. Muddy Waters did not record a full album for Chess until 1960.
Waters had some recording under his belt and was playing electric guitar by the time he entered the studio to lay down his first single for Aristocrat, which would later become Chess Records. He was playing in clubs with a full band, but the Chess brothers at first had him in the studio with himself on guitar and Ernest “Big” Crawford on bass. “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” his first hit, used that instrumentation. Even with such a simple arrangement, the sheer force of his guitar playing comes through—you can feel the heat from the tube amplifier and see it shaking on the studio floor. By 1951 Waters was playing with a full band in the studio.
Waters wrote a lot of his own songs, but Willie Dixon wrote a number of hits for him, including “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’m Ready,” all from 1954 and included in this compilation. In a 1978 profile of Waters for Rolling Stone, blues scholar Robert Palmer wrote, “They remain the most macho songs in his repertoire; Muddy would never have composed anything so unsubtle.”
Subtle or not, the songs belong to Waters. His talent was to sound both young and old, ancient and modern, and dig deep into a lyric to give it meaning beyond what was on the page. “Hoochie Coochie Man” may be about ancient hoodoo belief and sexual braggadocio, but in Waters’ reading it’s a declaration of strength and dignity. Having only recently left the segregated South, which had itself only ended slavery through force less than 100 years before, Waters’ reading of the lyric announces he is a man who deserves respect, both for himself and his culture.
It is remarkable is how spare the arrangements are on these songs while they convey so much power and meaning. British blues musicians, such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and others would cover “Rollin’ Stone,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and many of the other tracks included in this collection. Their versions are respectful and even, the best of them, emotionally engaging, but they lack the sheer power that Muddy Waters and the other musicians on the sessions brought to the originals. Waters’ guitar playing is at the center of those recordings, and almost every blues guitarist who came to prominence in the sixties learned from him.
The tracks included on The Best of Muddy Waters can also be found on other collections, including Muddy Waters: The Anthology and The Chess Box: Muddy Waters. These are more comprehensive views of Waters’ time with Chess. But it was the songs on this record, which features a terrific photo of the singer on the cover, that inspired a generation of British musicians. Those musicians reintroduced America to the blues and went on, in their way, to transform modern music. They never improved upon the artistry of Muddy Waters.
Sonny boy Williamson—Down and Out Blues (1959)
There were two Sonny Boy Williamson’s. The first, whose name was John Lee Williamson, was killed in 1948 during a robbery. He established the harmonica as a lead instrument in the blues on recordings for Bluebird Records, both as a leader and with other artists.
While Williamson was still alive, Aleck “Rice” Miller began appearing on a radio show sponsored by King Biscuit Flour. Max Moore, who ran the company that made the flour, wanted a more famous name on the show, so Miller became Sonny Boy Williamson. The confusion didn’t end there. Miller, now Williamson, went by other names and his birth date is unclear.
What is clear is that beginning in the mid-fifties, he made a series of recordings for Chess Records that are notable for his skillful blues harp playing, pointed and at times surreal lyrics, and uniquely phrased singing. As was the case with Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson’s first long player for Chess was a compilation of singles he had recorded for the label over recent years.
Released in 1959, Down and Out includes twelve tracks that helped establish Williamson, who had already been playing since the 30s when he joined Chess in 1955. Williamson’s harp announces “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” but it’s his sly, knowing voice that makes the track so compelling. He relates several tales of brutality and deception, and he is at once gossip, newsman, and conscience:
Don’t start me to talkin,
I’ll tell everything I know.
I’m gonna break up this signifyin,
Somebody’s got to go.
Williamson could turn a phrase to express tenderness, admiration, and anger in the same verse. He offers sage advice on “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” telling his listeners not to do work others can take credit for, and advises his wife to behave or it will be “Your Funeral and My Trial.”
The session musicians on Williamson’s recordings included Otis Spann, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Willie Dixon, and even Muddy Waters. His own harp playing was lithe, quick and melodic, lacking the lungpower of label mate Little Walter, but carrying the same emotional depth. Brian Jones and Mick Jagger pattern their blues harp playing on Williamson’s and Jagger used his example when singing a song like “Good Times, Bad Times.” Led Zeppelin copied Williamson directly on the opening and closing to “Bring it On Home.”
The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson, a two disc anthology, offers a wider overview of Williamson’s work and includes most of the tracks from Down and Out, but his first album is concentrated and powerful and includes insightful liner notes from Studs Terkel. Don Brunstein’s cover photo of a homeless man is a disturbing reminder of how little things change over time. The same can be said of many of Sonny Boy Williamson’s songs.
BB King—Live at the Regal (1965)
When B. B. King stepped onstage at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1964, he already had an extensive discography behind him. He was there to record his first live album, which would appear the following year on ABC Paramount Records. His stage patter reflected his ease and comfort with an audience, and the warm cadences of his speaking voice grew out of his time as a radio announcer on WDIA in Memphis.
Johnny Pate’s atmospheric production captured the dimensions of the Regal Theater and the excited interplay of the band and the paying customers. King’s sound was perhaps more polished than that of Waters of Williamson, but he retained the grittiness of the blues. He injected a hint of jazz into “Every Day I have the Blues,” singing just behind the beat at times, but bringing his voice to a growl, when needed, to emphasize the meaning of the song.
While Muddy Waters became the basis for the rhythm guitar sound many of the guitarists who came to prominence in the sixties, B. B. King’s single note solo style was an enormous influence on Eric Clapton, Peter Green and many others. When Gregg and Duane Allman went into Fame Studios with the Hourglass to record the kind of music they really wanted to play, one of the tracks was a B. B. King medley. King’s tone and attack were wholly his own, but his note bends and vibrato are a part of every rock and blues guitarist who has picked up the instrument in the last 50 years.
As great as King was on guitar, he was a master blues singer who could caress a song or, when needed, shout it. He goes into a falsetto at points on “Sweet Little Angel,” but his voice becomes grittier when he sings of the confidence she gives him. He swings like Sinatra on “You Upset Me Baby,” but he reaches into a deep well of emotion and pain on “Worry, Worry.” Like all great blues singers, King is a natural storyteller, and his voice gave his tales their color and narrative flow.
Throughout Live at the Regal, King introduces songs, praises his band, and offers romantic advice in an avuncular tone. He’s a master showman who gives his stage performances an air of class and it was his demeanor that helped move the blues from juke joints and into concert halls. He was also an impressive band leader, and he uses dynamics and pacing to create excitement and anticipation. Drummer Sonny Freeman holds the band together, and the two horn players, Bobby Forte and Johnny Board keep the band swinging, but it’s King at the front, directing the band, prodding it, and keeping it on track.
Live at the Regal has appeared on CD several times, including as a Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Ultradisc. It’s also been reissued on LP. I think the LP conveys a better feel of the ambiance of the Regal and lets the music spread out more. In any format, it is a key musical document. King plays and sings with passion and he brings the blues uptown without sacrificing its essence. HH
Bobby Bland—Two Steps from the blues (1961)
It’s hard to believe, but Bobby “Blue” Bland spent two years in the US Army performing in a band that also featured crooner Eddie Fisher. Then again, if the blues ever had a singer who embodied the smoothness and cool of Sinatra or Billy Eckstine, it was Bobby Bland.
Bland had recorded “Further on up the Road” and a slew of other singles for Duke Records by the time he entered Universal Studios in Chicago in 1960 to record Two Steps from the Blues. Any anthology of Bobby Bland that includes “Further on up the Road” and “Turn on Your Love Light” is essential, but Two Steps from the Blues was Bland’s first full LP and it is perfect.
The muted guitar arpeggio that runs through the title track is not a typical blues feature—it’s more likely something that might have appeared on a Motown single at the time. Yet Bland’s singing, for all its finesse and ease, is filled with emotion and longing. With its muted piano lines and dark horns, the track is filled with late night regret and pain.
“Lead Me On” uses strings and woodwinds in its arrangement, but Bland’s vocal digs deep and he wraps his voice around the notes and bends them effortlessly. His expression of loneliness even makes it past the oh-so-sweet background vocals. Wayne Bennett’s simmering guitar lines and a powerful horn arrangement give Bland a solid blues backing for “Cry, Cry, Cry” and Bland sings with just the right touch of sorrow and anger. His voice turns fierce and proud on the chorus, punctuated by the horn section.
Two Steps from the Blues has the same atmosphere of 4 AM sadness flowing from the loss of romance as Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, and Bland is as masterful in his handling of the songs. “I’ve Just Got to Forget You” shows his unique ability to use both restraint and the full power of his voice to highlight the meaning of a song.
Arranger and producer Joe Scott oversaw Two Steps from the Blues. He had been the key to Bland’s style for a long time. He coached the singer on phrasing and emphasis and he tailored arrangements to the fit Bland’s talents. “In the process,” Peter Guralnick wrote in 1979 in Lost Highway, “Scott created a style and a genre, the blues ballad, that will be marked forever as Bobby Bland’s own. “
“I Pity the Fool” and “Don’t Want No Woman” are as gutbucket as any blues fan could want and Bland’s version of “St. James Infirmary” sounds both innovative and respectful of the song’s long history. “I’ve Been Wrong for So Long” successfully blends blues tradition with uptown jazz and “I’ll Take Care of You” is tender and haunting. Scott’s arrangements always led Bland in the right direction for a song, and the singer rewarded him with honest, heartfelt performances.
Two Steps from the Blues contains elements of the blues, gospel, jazz, and even, on “Close to You,” country music. It’s the deep feeling of the blues, however, that runs strongest through it, makes it so nakedly honest, and ensures its status as a masterpiece.
Albert Collins—Cold Snap (1986)
When Albert Collins recorded Ice Pickin’ for Alligator Records in 1978, he hadn’t made a record in seven years and was working construction. In the late 70s, blues had its fans, but it wasn’t as widely popular as it had been. Punk rock, new wave, and synth heavy pop were dominant, but blues fans kept the faith. By the early 80s, young players like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan were stirring up interest. Albert Collins and other musicians on Alligator were also there to keep the fires stoked.
Collins influenced Vaughan and Cray, who booked Collins for his high school graduation party. His guitar style was bright and aggressive, with a heavy, stabbing attack. Collins put a capo on the 7th fret, which added snap and even more treble to the Fender Telecaster guitars he favored. Each note rang out with authority, and Collins knew how to use dynamics, overtones, and harmonics to create a unique guitar style that was strongly rooted in the blues but had the excitement and drive of rock and roll.
Cold Snap, from 1986, was Collins’s last album for Alligator, and his penultimate studio recording. Unlike the other singers on this list, Albert Collins didn’t have a strong or distinctive voice. He was best at expressing world weariness and humor. He sounds resigned and even puzzled on “A Good Fool is Hard to Find,” but when he begins to play, his message is clear: A woman is missing out on something by letting him go. His sustained, cutting guitar lines are his clearest statement.
Organist Jimmy McGriff helped out on Cold Snap, along with the Uptown Horns, so the album has more jazz and R & B swing than some of his previous efforts. Collins had played with McGriff in the mid-60s, and McGriff was a guest on Collins’ previous LP, Don’t Lose Your Cool (1983). Cold Snap is a bigger production than Collins’ other recordings on Alligator, but it’s still solidly blues driven, and Collins plays with fire throughout.
“I Ain’t Drunk” and “Too Many Dirty Dishes” are prime examples of how Collins can suffuse a song with humor while still keeping the blues feel. He sounds both swaggering and apologetic on the first track, and he rubs the strings to create sound effects on the latter as he mutters about the suspicious nature of the sink filling up with dishes.
A hot horn chart lights up a great version of Clarence Carter’s 1969 southern soul hit “Snatching It Back.” Carter always thought of himself as a blues singer, and Collins reaffirms the song’s blues legitimacy. Other Collins albums are perhaps more straight-ahead blues in approach than Cold Snap, but the inclusion of a southern soul song, along with Jimmy McGriff’s consistently engaging Hammond B3 playing and the great horn arrangements, add up to an entertaining recording that hints at how Albert Collins honored tradition while looking forward.
Any list of blues albums is bound to result in some disagreement and it’s true that there may be other recordings I could have listed here. As I noted at the beginning, though, these five albums represent to me where the blues came from and where it would go, at least for a while. I often think that much current blues is too influenced by sixties rock, but real blues never really goes away. It fades sometimes, but it never fails to come back. When it does, it sounds like the records I’ve described here.