Greatest Blues Songs
As with any list of songs as I’ve mentioned before there is always a lot of subjectivity. However I do take some time and do some research so most of my choices are influenced by others with much more expertise than myself. I have also taken liberties with my categories as well, but hey it’s my blog 😉. I already got a start on this list in a previous post with these first two songs;
Greatest Traditional Blues vocal performance “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.
But here are many more songs to add to the list. Traditional American ‘Blues’ began as regional music, and I explored some of the most significant of those in my two part series of posts on The Delta Blues. I won’t go into that as you can go back and read for yourself but I will give you some of the songs that to me are representative of the early days of recorded Blues. From here on out I’ve decided to drop the categories and just give you some of the greatest blues music ever recorded.
“Dust My Broom” by Robert Johnson. Again I’ve talked about this song but it is pivotal in American recorded music. The above Carl Rafferty song was a major inspiration in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” as it was titled when written by Robert Johnson and recorded at the famed Gunter Hotel sessions in San Antonio, Texas on November 23, 1936. The best cover version of this song is by Elmore James (credited as Elmo James in 1951).
“Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker. John Lee was born the son of a sharecropper in Tutwiler Mississippi on August 22. 1917. He died at age 83 on June 21, 2001. He combined his Delta Blues upbringing with Hill Country Blues which had a more rhythmic groove to the music, the end result being “Boogie Blues”. Listen to “Boogie Chillen'” his first recording which he wrote and was released in 1948 and it will give you a good idea where a song like “Boom, Boom” came from. A four time Grammy winner, plus a LifeTime Achievement Grammy among many other accolades. He is one of greatest guitarist of all time as well as an inductee into the Blues and R&R Hall of Fame. A true original talent and one of the coolest people ever, just watch this clip from the greatest Blues movie ever, ‘The Blues Brothers’.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James. As I have said many times, there is a story behind that song, and indeed there is. Songwriting credits name Billy Foster and Ellington Jordan. A credible story from Etta herself is that she came up with the song while visiting Jordan in jail. For income tax reasons (aka avoidance) she gave the credit to then lover and partner Billy Foster, but her name never was placed on the official credits. Known for other great songs like the cover I’ve mentioned before of “At Last”, this one was an original. Her powerhouse vocals give this song such a depth it truly is one of the greatest of Blues songs ever. Covers by Beyoncé and Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa.
“I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Muddy Waters. This song was written by one of the best in the business, Willie Dixon, who provided stand-up bass on this record. Giving additional gravitas to this session were other legendary players such as Otis Spann on piano, Fred Below on drums, Jimmie Rogers on guitar and Little Walter on harmonica. Recorded April 12, 1954 at Chess Records. I’ve touched briefly on Waters before but there is more to say about this six time Grammy winner. Like John Lee Hooker he is a member of the Blues and R&R Halls and a Lifetime Grammy recipient as well as many more achievements. While his talents are undeniable and his influence on music has been tremendous, the “Father of Chicago Blues” was not beyond borrowing from others. We know many musicians of any era and genre have taken bits and pieces from other artists, and Waters talent and determination was similar to that of his R&R counterpart and fellow Chess recording artist Chuck Berry. They unabashedly used guitar stylings and music from both their contemporaries and forebears. Here is a a great example and an opportunity to discuss more of the blues legends.
First Willie Dixon wrote “Hoochie Coochie Man” which was recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954 on the Chess Records label. Then Bo Diddley was inspired by that song to write and record “I’m a Man” (March 2, 1955) on Checker Records, which was not in his typical style and how he avoided giving Willie Dixon writing credit I don’t know. Now Diddley’s real name was Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel (Dec. 30, 1928-June 2, 2008) and his contributions to not only Blues but the roots of R&R were immense. His songs, in particular “Bo Diddley” (March 1955) were so distinctive he has his own sound dubbed “the Diddley beat”. So, back to the other songs, the third and most successful in the series was the powerful “Mannish Boy” recorded by Muddy Waters (May 24, 1955) who wrote it with Mel London and a credit to Bo Diddley as it sounds more than a lot like “I’m a Man”. Listen to the three songs in order and you will see what I mean about the ‘borrowing’ and for that matter some legitimate sharing as they were all under the Chess/Checker Records family at the time.
“Strollin With Bones” (1950) by T-Bone Walker and written with Eddie Davis Jr. I briefly referred to this Blues Guitar legend in my first post, so it is long overdue that I got back to him. Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker was born in Linden, Texas on May 28, 1910. He passed on March 16, 1975 in Los Angeles at age 64. He grew up in a musical family and they were friends with the “Father of the Texas Blues” Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Walker became his protege. After starting in Dallas, he played the blues circuit and ended up in L.A. for awhile. Where he really hit is stride was in Chicago starting around 1942. Walker is cited as an influence to Chuck Berry, Steve Miller (a family friend of the Millers), Jimi Hendrix and he inspired B.B. King to buy an electric guitar. What Walker was doing on the guitar was not only masterful but hugely influential on the genesis of Rock & Roll. Walker was inducted to both the Blues and R&R Hall of Fame and he won a Grammy in 1971 for his 1969 album release, Good Feelin’. He is best known for this original piece “Call It Stormy Monday but Tuesday Is Just as Bad“(1947). Check this one last clip out where he is playing with an All-Star Band in London, England (1966) “Goin’ to Chicago“, the man was gold.
“Rude Mood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (1983). Vaughn (October 3, 1954 to August 27, 1990) was one of the most gifted guitar players of all time. Just so happens he loved the Blues. I will have more to say in the future about this world class artist.
Bessie Smith is another artist I have talked about and will no doubt do so again, her song “Do Your Duty” was written by Wesley Wilson (who wrote three of her songs). Smith’s strong voice and remarkable stage presence (in part thanks to Ma Rainey) had her dubbed by the press as the “Queen of the Blues” but later elevated to “The Empress of the Blues” during her heyday in the 1920’s and 30’s. A cover by Billie Holiday (1951).
So as you know as in the above example there are a lot of artists with labels like the “father of” this or the “mother of” that and for the most part they are well deserved monikers that were bestowed upon them by others. Well B.B. King could not be more aptly named as he is the true “King of the Blues”. Born on the Berclair cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, Sept. 16, 1925 it appears with the name Riley (named after his father’s deceased brother) and just the middle initial of B. The B.B. is actually shortened from “Blues Boy” which was originally from his longer radio DJ and performing moniker of “Beale Street Blues Boy”. Stemming from his time on WDIA in Memphis. He came to national prominence with his cover of the 1948 West Coast blues legend Lowell Fulson song “3 O’Clock Blues” in 1951. King combined his singular guitar talents with charismatic vocal delivery to give us one of the most important musicians of not only the Blues but any genre. A future blog post has his name on it so for now just one more of the many great songs from B.B. King. “Why I Sing the Blues” written by King with Dave Clark (1969).
References; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com,
https://www.americanbluesscene.com/b-b-king-called-b-b/, Timeline-C.-Sawyer.pdf, http://www.bbking.com/content/about,
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