Think of a time that only the centenarians among us could have experienced firsthand: 1930s America. Imagine the rise of the record industry and, pioneered by African-American musicians, the emergence of jazz and the blues. Of the latter, Robert Johnson was the star who set the standard, but the first official blues record dates back to 1920. It was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues, which has been forgotten by all but the most enthusiastic blues heads. Johnson only began recording his own blues in 1936, introducing his signature anxious, melodic style, well after Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and dozens of others had started their own studio careers. He stopped in 1937, after just two sessions. Yet it was he who went down in history as the founding figure of what is now known as country blues - the rural blues of the South, with its solo vocals and guitar, as opposed to the more orchestrated urban blues. He was already mentioned in the English Melody Maker magazine by 1937. In 1961, his songs were compiled for a 33rpm LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, which would later influence the first stars of the rock era, from the Stones to Dylan via Led Zeppelin. In 1991, the first anthology of his songs in CD format sold one million copies. Robert Johnson’s legacy has inspired literature, comics, cinema and of course, countless hours of music. He is a modern cultural myth, whose feverish songs remain hauntingly alive.
Blues can be the music of stories, legends, mysticism, and ghosts. In this realm, Skip James is surely the absolute master. In 1931, he recorded songs of incomparable delicacy and sadness– Devil Got My Woman remains one of the world’s most poignant songs of desperation, the helpless echoes of a soul tumbling into the void. It is said that in his day, his music was so sad that people would pay him to stop playing. His eerie falsetto voice, erratic note choice, and slow tempo deliberately combined to create songs that seem to float between worlds. Skip James’ phantasmagoric blues cannot even be compared to the masculine clichés of the genre. Forgotten for over thirty years, he was rediscovered by " diggers " in 1964, whereupon he took back to performing at festivals and re-recorded a few albums. His later works were every bit as mysterious as his earlier ones. His death in 1969 did nothing to change his fame; Skip James continues to enchant generations of listeners and musicians from beyond the grave, from Jeffrey Lee Pierce to Theo Charaf and Jack White.
It’s an amusing name for an artist, but it doesn’t seem quite right for a bluesman who led such an epic career and created such a revolutionary style. Muddy Waters was anything but stagnant. Born McKinley Morganfield, he was discovered in the early 1940s in Mississippi by Alan Lomax, and a decade later was Chicago’s king of electric blues. In all honesty, he was more like an emperor: ranked alone above a stratum of lesser kings. With an imposing voice full of strength and authority, and a sexy guitar style, he turned out countless classics of modern blues. He had exceptional backing acts as well, who always heralded his arrival like groups of musketeers finding their D’Artagnan. One of his tunes even gave its name to what would become a little English band, led by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As time went on, Muddy Waters became a kind of guru to whom generations of musicians seeking wisdom turned to for advice. Blues kingpin and godfather of rock, Muddy Waters remains the genre’s most important musician of the second half of the twentieth century.
Correction: the most important blues musician of the second half of the twentieth century is not Muddy Waters, but John Lee Hooker, although it’s a tough call. The two men began their recording career the same year, in 1940. Muddy Waters quickly developed a group, whereas John Lee Hooker became the picture of the artist as an island: an idiosyncratic, inimitable stylist, free, often with great musicians around him, but even better alone. Tapping his feet and fingering his electric guitar (and occasionally an acoustic one for the folk fans), he created a kind of proto-punk by pioneering the solid, dancing, rhythmic canvas for guitar licks and solos. He followed more or less the same template throughout his career, laid down in Boogie Chillen; a snake charmer’s boogie, with one chord repeated hypnotically. His fame was immense in the 50s, surging again in the 80s thanks to the film The Blues Brothers, and then once more in the 90s with a final pair of albums that included the excellent The Healer.
It is not actually that difficult of a decision, we’ve got to admit; the second half of the twentieth century’s king of the blues is neither Muddy Waters, nor John Lee Hooker, but B. B. King. Firstly, because King is his real name, which is pure swagger. And secondly, because he managed to straddle the twenty-first century, living until 2015 with a career that spanned a good sixty years, producing albums prolifically and playing around 15,000 concerts. B.B. King wasn’t even competing with Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. A pure Mississippi boy, he passed, via Memphis, into the Midas-touched hands of producer Sam Phillips (who would later go on to found Sun Records). B. B. King had found his way onto the fast track of the blues. He stands out with his XXL, king-sized, electric style, which stands somewhere between jazz and rhythm’n’blues. It’s sophisticated, modern, orchestral, and lyrical; a long way from country blues. If B. B. King was the king, his Excalibur was Lucille, a Gibson half-body guitar whose strings he made sing with unparalleled eloquence, and the dexterity of a jazz musician. Lucille’s suggestive curves provide the iconic cover art for a very good 1968 album of his. B. B. King’s guitar playing was seminal, and in any hands other than his it became academic and predictable, by comparison. Accept no substitutes!
A king of legend; a man-beast from an ancient tale. A mythical hero with a phenomenal voice and an imposing stature, picking up guitars in his great hands to make them look like thimbles. Howlin’ Wolf sang as if there were several people in this vast body, with room for a couple of wild animals too. His cavernous voice rumbled through the low registers, and didn’t hesitate to sometimes leap into a high falsetto inspired by the country music which he liked. Produced by B.B. King’s same Sam Phillips in Memphis, early on in his career, he came into his own in Chicago on Chess Records. His blues are pagan rites, and unlike those of any of his contemporaries. The arrangements and structures of the songs are out of order, the sounds distorted; often experimental and always enjoyable and moving. If blues is the father of rock’n’roll, as Muddy Waters rightly asserts, then Howlin’ Wolf’s lycanthropic progeny must be that wildest and most licentious punk-blues, from MC5 to Nick Cave to Jon Spencer. Rather than being the king of the blues, Howlin’ Wolf was its charming devil.
Like cheese or wine in France, United States blues is a matter of terroir and AOC. Mississippi blues doesn’t sound like Texan blues, which is different again from the blues of Chicago or Los Angeles. Lightnin’ Hopkins is Texas. His blues is just as hot as the Mississippi, but drier. As early as 1946, Lightnin’ Hopkins was recording refined blues sung with his distinctive nasal voice, accompanied by a guitar (and more rarely a piano) whose notes sounded like they were being scratching out, along with rumbling basses and high notes standing out like beads of sweat on his forehead. His music sounded like a saturated, slow-motion boogie, floored by the heat, forced to laze in the shade. This was more than music, it was a lifestyle. Lightnin’ Hopkins was a master acupuncturist of the blues too, with little guitar solos that exploded in treble to quicken the listener’s pulse. Whether he was playing acoustic or electric, alone or in a small group, he always stuck to his own technique and style, which was a source of inspiration for much of the Texan blues-rock that came after him.
To understand Albert King’s blues all you need to do is take a look at his guitar. His Gibson Flying V, iconic model the late 1950s, cuts a showstopping profile. It’s the guitarification of a Cadillac Eldorado: a flamboyant playboy machine, his pockets stuffed with bills and backseats stuffed with partygoers, staring out at a radiant horizon. Despite this portait of 50′s glamour par excellence, Albert King’s music was by no means tied to the period as it sank into history. His deep, sexy playing style, which influenced Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan (who he would eventually record an album together with), was a real taste of the modernity. He was a true southerner, and focused on the orchestrated jump blues. In Memphis, in the mid-60s, he had a fateful meeting with a label to be made in his image, which was instrumental in launching his career: Stax. He went on to record a handful of albums full of southern soul, overheated brass and funky guitars. In the late 60s, featuring at rock festivals and loved by all musicians, Albert King was the veritable talk of the town.
Unfortunate, but true: blues is a traditionally male musical form. Female singers and guitarists have excelled in the genre (and still do today), but none have had the career of a Muddy Waters or a B. B. King. The greatest female personalities of the blues are often to be found on the genre’s stylistic margins: Billie Holiday over towards jazz, or Mavis Staple with soul and gospel. But if we restrict ourselves strictly to the blues singer, we do find Big Mama Thornton. Her influence is not to be understated, exerting itself directly on the heart of the blues scene. She sang Hound Dog four years before Elvis did, and showed Janis Joplin the ropes. A singer, but also drummer and harmonica player, Big Mama Thornton peaked in the mid-60s with a pair of albums for the Arhoolie label. On one of these, she was accompanied by Muddy Waters’ band, and the other was recorded in a London studio during the American Folk Blues Festival tour. One these three songs, she sings and improvises, with accompaniment from the amazing guitarist Fred McDowell. Big Mama Thornton stood amongst the best.
Jimi Hendrix was the last great stylist of the blues, and not only on Red House or the tracks collected on the Blues compilation. Blues is the battery of Hendrix’s music, and the arcing electric sound that floors everything in his path. It’s no stretch to say that Muddy Waters’ influence is present in his style (in Voodoo Chile for example) if not the electric blues of the 50s more generally, the time when this sound was still new. But playing the blues isn’t necessarily a matter of repetition or revival. Like the greatest blues musicians who came before him, Jimi Hendrix was neither an imitator nor a nostalgic: he was an trailblazer, and very much a musician of his time. He belonged to the era of the Vietnam War and psychedelia, to a world where barriers (between skin colors and between musical genres) were gradually beginning to be shed. He pushed the boat out with inventive sound effects, although he unfortunately over-indulged in the drugs, as others before him had gone overboard with moonshine. He doesn’t tick all the blues’ folkloric boxes that are insisted on by scholastic gatekeepers, but that might just be his biggest strength. Despite what they say, his music has the same qualities as Robert Johnson’s thirty years before: it was dangerous, different, supernatural, old and new. Captivated listeners have been trying to understand how a single musician could do all that he did ever since. He is the great unsolved mystery of the blues.