Posts Tagged ‘Bo Diddley’

Weekend Playlist

15 November 2010

“I wanted to be the first woman to burn her bra, but it would have taken the fire department four days to put it out.” ~ Dolly Parton

Ray Charles | The Genius Of Ray Charles

Bo Diddley | Where It All Began

Various Artists | The Bristol Sessions

Cowboy Junkies | The Trinity Sessions

David Bromberg | Wanted Dead Or Alive

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson | From South Africa To South Carolina

Bad Company | Bad Co.

John Fahey | The Yellow Princess

Dolly Parton | Coat Of Many Colors

Robert Plant | Now And Zen

Elvis Presley | His Hand In Mine

Joe Henderson | Page One

Horace Silver | The Stylings Of Silver

Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster | Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster

Roland Kirk | We Free Kings

Ike Quebec | It Might As Well Be Spring

Lee Morgan | The Rumproller

Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine | Prayer Meetin’

Brother Jack McDuff | Down Home Style

Ben Webster | Saturday Night At The Montmartre

Doubleshot Tuesday: I Wanna Get Funky/Big Bad Bo

8 June 2010

[Today: The blues get funky…]

1974 was unofficially the year the blues got funky. That was the year that three blues legends – Albert King, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker – released funked up records that bore little resemblance to the albums that made them famous. Those albums, King’s I Wanna Get Funky, Diddley’s Big Bad Bo, and Hooker’s Free Beer And Chicken have since been politely ignored by a teeming mass of music critics. “Another very solid, early-’70s outing” is the entire 2.5 star review that saw fit to put together for I Wanna Get Funky, and that kind of amiable indifference is almost more damning than fiery rebukes and clever putdowns.

The critical reaction to these albums is along the lines of a crowd at a wedding watching grandpa do the Electric Slide – nobody’s going to come right out and say that he’s making a fool of himself, even if that’s what everyone is thinking. The real problem with these albums, in part, was that the bluesmen of the 50s and 60s were held up as pillars of pure musical wisdom from another era – for them to dabble in funk was akin to Jesus coming back as a punk rocker. Bo Diddley simply lacked credibility as a funkateer at that time, even if it wasn’t a big stretch from his core sound. Funk was much more stratified in 1974 than it’s commonly viewed now – artists like James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Sly Stone had serious funk cred, while others (both black and white) paled in comparison.

But one funny thing about music genres is how the intense distinctions fussed over at the time of their inception eventually flattens out. Think about the once-important line in the sand between the first and second wave of UK punk rockers – given a few years they were all just punks. A friend once described the intricate levels of metal music in the 80s, and what it meant if you liked Skid Row or Dio or listened to Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood. I’m not kidding when I say that it sounded exactly like a bunch of old ladies, nit-picking about social mores over their canasta. And of course, for most people, all those bands are now just 80s hair metal bands.

That flattening of perception over time works to the favor of funk albums released by former bluesmen. “I wanna get funky” is probably the perfect mindset to approach these in, because it leaves the bluesman’s baggage behind, while setting a reasonable expectation of what a funk album can achieve. These records won’t make you toss your Parliament or Ohio Players in the waste bin, but they might make you throw your hands in the air and do the Electric Slide…

Listen: I Wanna Get Funky [Albert King]

Listen: Bite You [Bo Diddley]

Listen: Hit Or Miss [Bo Diddley]

Listen: Make It Funky [John Lee Hooker]

A Dozen Great Album Covers

5 October 2009

Here are a dozen (or so) LP covers that hang in frames in our music room. Where possible, click on the images to see them at a larger size…

Sweet | Off The Record
Sweet | Off The Record

Kiss | Kiss
Kiss | Kiss

Fela Kuti | Army Arrangement
Fela Kuti | Army Arrangement

Sex Pistols | God Save The Queen 12"
Sex Pistols | God Save The Queen 12″

The Jimi Hendrix Experience | Are You Experienced?
Jimi Hendrix Experience | Are You Experienced?

Dick Dale | Surfer's Choice | Alternate Cover by Blaine Siegel
Dick Dale | Surfer’s Choice | Alternate Cover by Blaine Siegel

Bo Diddley | Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger
Bo Diddley | Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger

Miles Davis | Volume One
Miles Davis | Volume 1

Ray Charles | What'd I Say
Ray Charles | What’d I Say

Various Artists | The Guitars That Destroyed The World
Various Artists | The Guitars That Destroyed The World

Reverend Gary Davis | Harlem Street Singer
Reverend Gary Davis | Harlem Street Singer

New Order | Power, Corruption & Lies
New Order | Power, Corruption & Lies

Heat Wave | Too Hot To Handle
Heat Wave | Too Hot To Handle

Weekend Playlist

3 August 2009

You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” ~ Hank Williams

Hank Williams | 40 Greatest Hits
Hank Williams | 40 Greatest Hits

Duke Ellington | Ellington At Newport
Duke Ellington | At Newport

J.J. Johnson | J.J. Inc.
The J.J. Johnson Sextet | J.J. Inc.

Donald Byrd | Long Green
Donald Byrd | Long Green: The Savoy Sessions

Arnett Cobb | Smooth Sailing
Arnett Cobb | Smooth Sailing

Lee 'Scratch Perry | Chicken Scratch
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry | Chicken Scratch

Eugene McDaniels | Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse
Eugene McDaniels | Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse

Moby Grape | The Place And The Time
Moby Grape | The Place And The Time

John Mayall | Blues From Laurel Canyon
John Mayall | Blues From Laurel Canyon

The Modern Lovers | The Modern Lovers
The Modern Lovers | The Modern Lovers

Black Uhuru | Black Sounds Of Freedom
Black Uhuru | Black Sounds Of Freedom

Freddie King | Texas Cannonball
Freddie King | Texas Cannonball

Bonniwell Music Machine | Ignition
Bonniwell Music Machine | Ignition

Gilles Peterson @ Dingwalls
Gilles Peterson & Patrick Force | Sunday Afternoon At Dingwalls
[Album cover not pictured]

Lyrics Born | Everywhere At Once
Lyrics Born | Everywhere At Once

Fania All Stars | Live At Yankee Stadium, Vol. 1
Fania All-Stars | Live At Yankee Stadium, Vol. 1

The Art Farmer Quintet | Blame It On My Youth
The Art Farmer Quintet | Blame It On My Youth

Miles Davis | Nefertiti
Miles Davis | Nefertiti

Dave Alvin | Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land
Dave Alvin | Public Domain

Bo Diddley | The Chess Box
Bo Diddley | The Chess Box

De La Soul | 3 Feet High And Rising
De La Soul | 3 Feet High And Rising

Kris Kristofferson | The Silver Tongued Devil And I
Kris Kristofferson | The Silver Tongued Devil And I

The Meters | Look-Ka Py Py
The Meters | Look-Ka Py Py

Iron & Wine | The Shepherd's Dog
Iron & Wine | The Shepherd’s Dog

Guitar Gods – The Cover Art

19 November 2008

Here’s the cover art for one of my latest mixes – a four disc box-set called Guitar Gods. A compilation like this invites furrowed brows, lists of corrections, and plenty of harrumphing from all corners. Strike up the chorus: “But what about ____________?” There were dozens more guitarists that ideally would have been included, but four discs seemed like enough, and the line had to be drawn somewhere.

World B. Furr (sometime commenter on this blog) was kind enough to collaborate on this mix with me, and help me figure out where to draw that line, and it was a clear case of two brains being better than one. We had a lot of back and forth about who to include and who to leave out, and inevitably there were compromises to be made.

From the liner notes to this mix, here’s a six-pack of guitarists who just missed the cut:

Ace Frehley – When I was a kid I thought every guitarist should sound like The Spaceman. But then somewhere along the way I grew up. Still, I have a strange desire to shout “ACE FREHLEY! SHOCK ME!!!” and put him in the mix. Didn’t happen… [dk]

Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman – Scott Ian of Anthrax once said that if he goes to Hell, there’s no doubt Slayer will playing on the loudspeaker. These two guys have spent the better part of the last 25 years kicking out some of the heaviest and most sinister riffs of all-time — never once losing the fire that first got things started. [Furr]

George Brigman – Brigman is a Guitar God for me because he represents the dreams of the everyman player. As a 17 year-old kid, Brigman self-released his debut album Jungle Rot in 1975 and then watched it disappear. Time has proven it a fuzzed out, lo-fi classic. [dk]

Mick Taylor – Although we ultimately chose ‘Satisfaction’ and the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, I feel it’s imperative to point out the genius of Mick Taylor. Few could argue that the Taylor years were the Stones finest, and that’s largely due to the “other” Mick. [Furr]

Peter Green – The driving force of the original, bluesy Fleetwood Mac, Green was one of the best guitarists of his generation. Unfortunately, he lost his sanity in a worm hole of drugs, and disappeared from the music scene for decades. But his is a brilliant, if truncated, body of work. [dk]

Alex Lifeson – There are a lot of excuses people will give for hating Rush. Alex Lifeson’s guitar work is never one of them. This guy is one of the greatest players ever and he’s one-third of the reason why I absolutely LOVE Rush. [Furr]

Without further ado…

[Here’s the front cover…]
Guitar Gods | Front

[Here’s the inside front cover…]
Guitar Gods | Front Inside

[Here’s the inside booklet cover…]
Guitar Gods | Booklet Cover
[Guitar pick photos courtesy of Umlaut!]

[Here’s the guts of the inside booklet…]
Guitar Gods | Inside Booklet

[Here’s the back inside…]
Guitar Gods | Back Inside

[Here’s the back…]
Guitar Gods | Back

[Here’s the track listing…]

Disc 1ne
Chuck Berry * Johnny B. Goode
The Rolling Stones * Satisfaction [Keith Richards]
The White Stripes * Seven Nation Army [Jack White]
Link Wray * Rumble
Dick Dale & The Del-Tones * Let’s Go Trippin’
Cream * Sunshine Of Your Love [Eric Clapton]
Quicksilver Messenger Service * Mona [John Cipollina and Gary Duncan]
Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia etc * Keepers (Live)
The Allman Brothers Band * In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed (Live) [Duane Allman]
The Faces * Around The Plynth [Ron Wood]
Santana * Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen [Carlos Santana]
The Who * Won’t Get Fooled Again [Pete Townshend]
ZZ Top * La Grange [Billy Gibbons]
U2 * Bullet The Blue Sky [The Edge]

Disc 2wo
John Fahey * St. Louis Blues
Robert Johnson * Sweet Home Chicago
Mississippi John Hurt * Frankie
Muddy Waters * Baby Please Don’t Go
Bo Diddley * Who Do You Love?
Howlin’ Wolf * Smokestack Lightnin’
Albert King * Born Under A Bad Sign
Otis Rush * I Can’t Quit You Baby
Freddie King * Key To The Highway
Buddy Guy * A Man and The Blues
Johnny Winter * Dallas
B.B. King * Everyday I Have The Blues
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble * The Sky Is Crying
Albert Collins * Frosty
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band * East-West [Mike Bloomfield]
Roy Buchanan * Sweet Dreams

Disc 3hree
Nirvana * Come As You Are [Kurt Cobain]
Deep Purple * Smoke On The Water [Ritchie Blackmore]
Aerosmith * Sweet Emotion [Joe Perry]
Black Sabbath * Fairies Wear Boots [Tony Iommi]
Ted Nugent * Stranglehold
Spinal Tap * Sex Farm [Nigel Tufnel]
Sex Pistols * God Save The Queen [Steve Jones]
The Ramones * Judy Is A Punk [Johnny Ramone]
The Clash * Clampdown [Joe Strummer and Mick Jones]
Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers * One Track Mind
AC/DC * Highway To Hell [Angus Young]
Van Halen * Eruption [Eddie Van Halen]
Ozzy Osbourne * Flying High Again [Randy Rhoads]
Guns N’ Roses * Mr. Brownstone [Slash]
Judas Priest * You’ve Got Another Thing Coming [Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing]
Iron Maiden * The Trooper [Dave Murray and Adrian Smith]
Metallica * The Four Horsemen [Kirk Hammett]
Rage Against The Machine * Bombtrack [Tom Morello]

Disc 4our
Andrés Segovia * Suite Compostelana: I. Preludio
Buena Vista Social Club * Chan Chan [Ry Cooder]
Jeff Beck * Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers
Led Zeppelin * White Summer/Black Mountain Side [Jimmy Page]
The Jimi Hendrix Experience * Little Wing
John McLaughlin * Peace Piece
Funkadelic * Maggot Brain [Eddie Hazel]
Neil Young * Cortez The Killer
Pink Floyd * Comfortably Numb [David Gilmore]
Buckethead * Lone Sal Bug
Dire Straits * Ride Across The River [Mark Knopfler]
The Beatles * While My Guitar Gently Weeps [George Harrison]
Les Paul * Lover


[I’ll be extremely disappointed if there are less than two dozen fired up comments about how we screwed this up. This mix couldn’t possibly cover off on everyone’s personal list of Guitar Gods, so I look forward to hearing who you think we missed, and what we got wrong. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slip into my flame retardant Kevlar suit…]

Weekend Playlist

17 November 2008

It was another gorgeous weekend in the Bay Area, with weather in the 80’s and the slightest of breezes. The P and I had the windows opened and the turntable fired up all weekend. Here’s what we played…

Various Artists | Verve Remixed

AC/DC | Back In Black
AC/DC | Back In Black

Queens Of The Stone Age | Songs For The Deaf

Tropicalia | A Brazilian Revolution In Sound
Various Artists | Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution In Sound

Buena Vista Social Club | At Carnegie Hall
Buena Vista Social Club | At Carnegie Hall

Fred Neil | Bleecker & MacDougal
Fred Neil | Bleecker & MacDougal

Terry Reid
Terry Reid | Terry Reid

Kings Of Convenience | Quiet Is The New Loud
Kings Of Convenience | Quiet Is The New Loud

Bo Diddley | Big Bad Bo
Bo Diddley | Big Bad Bo

Funkadelic | Uncle Jam Wants You
Funkadelic | Uncle Jam Wants You

Hercules And Love Affair
Hercules And Love Affair | Hercules And Love Affair

Gorillaz | Demon Days
Gorillaz | Demon Days

Various Artists | Disco Hustle
Various Artists | Disco Hustle

Massive Attack | Protection

Love | Da Capo
Love | Da Capo

Nick Drake | Family Tree
Nick Drake | Family Tree

Blue Mitchell | The Thing To Do
Blue Mitchell | The Thing To Do

Sly & The Family Stone | There's A Riot Goin' On
Sly & The Family Stone | There’s A Riot Goin’ On

Talking Heads | The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
Talking Heads | The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads

Gomez | In Our Gun
Gomez | In Our Gun

The Flying Burrito Brothers | Burrito Deluxe
The Flying Burrito Brothers | Burrito Deluxe

Jurassic 5 | Quality Control
Jurassic 5 | Quality Control

John Phillips | John, The Wolfking Of L.A.
John Phillips | John, The Wolfking Of L.A.

Groove Armada | Lovebox
Groove Armada | Lovebox

Young-Holt Unlimited | Plays Superfly
Young-Holt Unlimited | Plays Superfly

The Band | Music From Big Pink
The Band | Music From Big Pink

M. Ward | Transfiguration Of Vincent
M. Ward | Transfiguration Of Vincent

Love's A Real Thing
Various Artists | World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s A Real Thing

Various Artists | Ghana Soundz
Various Artists | Ghana Soundz

Masterpiece: Happy Trails

23 June 2008

[Today: The sound of the late-60’s psychedelic ballroom scene…]

Quicksilver Messenger Service was the last ‘San Francisco Sound’ band of the late 60’s to sign with a major label. It wasn’t because they were lacking offers, or holding out for more money or creative control, as many then assumed – they held out because they were waiting for their presumptive lead singer, Dino Valente, to get sprung from jail on drug charges. As Valente’s legal troubles drew on, the group finally decided to press forward and record their self-titled debut without him. They included his tune ‘Dino’s Song’ as a sign of solidarity, but as fate would have it, Valente wouldn’t actually join the band until its original lineup was a distant memory.

Their second album, Happy Trails, stands as one of the finest documents of the late-60’s psychedelic ballroom scene. Portions of the album were recorded live at Fillmore West in San Francisco, and Fillmore East in New York, and the music here provides a fair idea of what an evening out must have sounded like at that time. Side One is given over to an extended jam on Bo Diddley‘s classic ‘Who Do You Love’. Divided into six parts, the song stretches Diddley’s musical theme in a remarkable number of directions without ever feeling tired or repetitive.

Much of that is down to John Cipollina – one of the most distinctive (and under-appreciated) guitarists in the annals of rock. His ringing, soaring guitar tone is as recognizable (to those in the know) as Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen. But Cipollina’s brilliance here is of a piece with the rest of the group, and his flights of fancy are a natural extension of their musical explorations.

Happy Trails was the last album to feature all four original Quicksilver members. Rhythm guitarist Gary Duncan would leave the band shortly after the album was released in March of 1969, and with him went the magic that drove the group to the frantic heights captured here. As my Uncle Henry (a huge fan of the band since back in the day) told me recently “Duncan was more than a rhythm guitarist – he was like a second lead guitar in the group. They were never the same after he left.”

This is the sound of a band at the top if its game, and an album that vividly conjures a specific time and place. However, unlike much of the pointless psychedelic noodlings of that time, Happy Trails needs no pharmacological assistance to reveal its brilliance. But by all means, smoke ’em if you got ’em…

Listen: Who Do You Love – Part 1

Listen: When You Love

Go Bo Diddley!

3 June 2008

Bo Diddley - album

The sun set yesterday on the great Bo Diddley, the musician who gave rock & roll its driving beat. The man born Otha Ellis Bates cut a distinctive figure throughout his life – from his trademark glasses and rectangular-bodied guitar to the chug-a-lug tempo of many of his classic tunes, Bo Diddley always stood out.

Diddley’s sound was a bedrock of rock & roll, and the list of bands that borrowed directly from him could fill a phone book. It’s a roll call that includes the likes of (take a deep breath): Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Dick Dale, The Who, The Byrds, The Stooges, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, U2, The Smiths, and White Stripes. The Rolling Stones were perhaps most notable among his disciples, and included many Diddley covers in their mid-60’s live sets. There’s influential, and then there’s Bo Diddley.

In 1975, critic Charles Shaar Murray observed that “While Chuck Berry is lionized to hell and gone, Bo Diddley remains almost totally neglected.” It was a sore point for Diddley, who throughout his life never felt that he got the recognition or money that was his due. His name would become familiar to a new generation of ears in a strange way: a Nike commercial (“Bo Knows“) starring Bo Jackson. “I never could figure out what it had to do with shoes, but it worked,” Diddley said. “I got into a lot of new front rooms on the tube.”

Diddley didn’t appear on many TV sets during his heyday because he made the career mistake of pissing off Ed Sullivan. Seems ol’ Ed wanted Bo to play some lame cover instead of his own self-titled hit ‘Bo Diddley’, but Bo scorched his own tune and didn’t make another TV appearance for a decade. But hey, that’s what happens when you’re an iconoclast and a gunslinger, a joker and a madman, a pioneer and a lumberjack. Bo Diddley was all of that and more. He will be missed.

Listen: Gun Slinger

The 20 Greatest Blues Albums Of All-Time

29 April 2007

The Blues are the foundation of almost every important musical genre of the 20th century – from Jazz to Rock to Soul to Funk to Hip-Hop and beyond. As Willie Dixon so eloquently put it, “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits.” Here are 20 Blues albums that should be a part of any serious music collection:

Robert Johnson | King Of The Delta Blues Singers
Robert Johnson – King Of The Delta Blues Singers

#1 – It’s hard to overstate the importance of Robert Johnson’s influence on the sound of modern music. His ghostly wail and precise finger picking style, combined with tales of hellhounds and cheating women, set the bar for what a blues singer should sound like (and, since rock was born out of the blues… well, you connect the dots). And his personal background is one of the most interesting and hotly debated stories in the history of music. An oft-told tale has Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads and trading his soul for the musical skills that would make him a legend.

But the songs are the real story here: ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man’, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’, ‘Stop Breakin’ Down Blues’, ‘They’re Red Hot’ and ‘Love In Vain Blues’ – along with nearly everything else he recorded in his short life – would go on to become standards, and have been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones to The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eric Clapton. Johnson’s influence was particularly rampant during the mid-to-late 1960’s when many young rockers (including Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and Clapton) turned to him for inspiration as well as material. And while Johnson had a deep influence on the British blues, his hold on musicians continues into the 21st century in the songs of the White Stripes and others. As long as music is being made, Robert Johnson’s influence will continue to resonate.

Howlin' Wolf | The Chess Box
Howlin’ Wolf – The Chess Box

#2 – Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) is, as the Blues Hound says “a singer/persona whose ferocity has never been equaled and rarely even approached.” He stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds and his personality filled every iota of that frame. The guy just rips. “I just be in the field plowing and songs come to me you know…” he says on one of the spoken word segments here. Wolf sowed a number of blues masterpieces for Chicago’s Chess Records, including ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ ‘Back Door Man’ ‘Spoonful’ ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘300 Pounds Of Joy’. These songs – covered by early rock luminaries such as the Grateful Dead, The Doors, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix – represent just the beginning of this treasure trove. For proof that absolute musical intensity doesn’t require ear shredding decibels or quicksilver guitar work, fire up Howlin’ Wolf’s epic Chess Box.

Leadbelly | King Of The 12-String Guitar
Leadbelly – King Of The 12-String Guitar

#3 – Huddie Leadbetter, aka Leadbelly, had a voice as smooth as good liquor, and twice as dangerous. He didn’t mind telling it like it was, and his man-in-the-streets style made him something of a gangsta rapper before his time. Indeed, legendary Library Of Congress field recorder Alan Lomax discovered and first recorded Leadbelly while that latter was serving time in the notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary for attempted murder. A multi-talented instrumentalist, he specialized in 12-string guitar. All of Leadbelly’s music transcends the Blues – it is music of the highest order. The songs that Leadbelly performed in his lifetime have been covered by an incredibly wide array of performers, including Pete Seeger, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and Van Morrison.

Billie Holiday | Songs For Distingue Lovers
Billie Holiday – Songs For Distingue Lovers

#4 – To her core, Lady Day was a blues singer. A life filled with hard living, hard relationships, and hard drugs gave her first hand insight into what constituted the blues – and ultimately led to her early grave. But none of that should overshadow her accomplishments as a singer. In terms of vocal phrasing, Holiday stands as one of the finest singers of the 20th century – along with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. Like those artists, her voice seems to come from within in the song, and any tune she put it to is instantly hers.

She sings like a woman whose heart was recently removed by way of her throat, so it wouldn’t matter if she were backed by Xavier Cugat or Carl Stalling – Billie Holiday always sang the blues. Here, she’s backed by Jimmy Rowles, Ben Webster and Barney Kessel, among other jazz musicians, but her voice epitomizes unendurable pain, endless struggle, and utter hopelessness. Songs For Distingue Lovers is as good a place as any to begin discovering the genius of Billie Holiday. Taking perversely happy songs and lending them her distinct touch, she turns tales of happiness and found love into gut wrenching takes on anguish and loss. Pure and bitter genius.

Mississippi John Hurt | 1928 Sessions
Mississippi John Hurt – 1928 Sessions

#5 – Mississippi John Hurt’s story reads like a blues fairy tale. A farm laborer from Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt recorded a number of sides in 1928 for the Okeh label. But the great depression effectively ended his recording career before it gained any traction, and he returned to Avalon to resume working as a laborer. In 1963, record collector Tom Hoskins pieced together clues from Hurt’s songs, found him in Avalon, and convinced him to resume his music career. Hurt was instantly recognized as a lost treasure, and began a healthy touring and recording schedule, releasing three albums and playing to coffeehouses across the country. Alas, his re-found fame was cut short when he passed away in 1966. 1928 Sessions captures Hurt in his young glory before he went into deep freeze. His finger picking is absolutely unparalleled in the history of Blues music – just listen to ‘Frankie’ for evidence. A mellow, soulful singer, Hurt’s laid back style makes him instantly recognizable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Bessie Smith | The Complete Recordings Vol. 1
Bessie Smith – The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1

#6 – The “Empress Of The Blues” possessed a voice powerful enough to cut through the hiss and scratch of primitive recordings and leap across the chasm of time. No other singer from the 1910’s & 20’s still sounds as fresh, vital, and imposing as Bessie Smith. She was one of the first stars of recorded music, and it wasn’t uncommon for her more popular sides to sell nearly a million copies. The majority of her songs were recorded before 1929, when the Great Depression essentially put the recording industry out of business.

The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 is the first set in a series that collects all of her recorded work on 5 two-disc sets. The music here was recorded between February 1923 and April 1924 and features her mostly just accompanied by piano. From ‘Downhearted Blues’ all the way through to ‘Hateful Blues’ Smith’s voice is equal parts iron and velvet, and she sings like a woman who would – and has – spit in the face of the devil himself.

Before she died in 1937 – at age 43, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident – she laid a foundation of blues songs that have influenced generations of female singers, including Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, & Norah Jones. But there’s only one Bessie Smith, and she’s right here, waiting to reach out across nearly 100 years’ time and tell you just how it is.

Reverend Gary Davis | Harlem Street Singer
Reverend Gary Davis – Harlem Street Singer

#7 – Davis was born partially blind and lost his sight completely before he reached adulthood. He turned to the church in part to cope with this burden, and in 1933 was ordained as a Baptist minister. In the late 50’s he found favor with the secular folk crowd, and began to have an influence on players of that era including Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and eventually, Jerry Garcia. His picking style was born out of a badly broken and poorly set left wrist that forced him to finger his notes at an odd angle. But his vocal intensity was no accident – Davis sang with a fire that matched the brimstone in his songs. Harlem Street Singer displays the eclectic mix of song styles – ragtime, marches, gospel, field songs, and more – that he brought together through his incomparable voice and singular style.

Big Bill Broonzy | Trouble In Mind
Big Bill Broonzy – Trouble In Mind

#8 – Though not as often-referenced as other blues giants, Broonzy was a pioneering artist and influence on many of the men whose shadows he would come to stand in. Trouble In Mind is an excellent collection of singles he recorded during the 30’s for labels such as Vocalion, Columbia, and ARC, and it’s an excellent place to delve into his work. Broonzy brought a well-developed sense of humor to a genre that could have used more of it. But only someone with his slick genius could consistently put a smile on your face while singing the genuine blues.

Skip James | The Complete Early Recordings Of - 1930
Skip James – The Complete Early Recordings Of Skip James – 1930

#9 – Early Recordings is one of the scariest albums ever recorded in any genre, under any circumstances. James’ unearthly wail is the sound of a tormented spirit corkscrewing away from its earthly body. When he sings “Jesus is coming to this world again/Coming to judge the hearts of men“, he sounds like a leering devil who sees all your sins and gleefully knows how you’ll be judged. The quality of these recordings is terrible, but the sheets of hiss and scratch sound like black rain and actually add to the overall creepy effect. Refreshingly spared the digital sanitization that almost every other reissue of the compact disc era has undergone, this is a hair-raising journey down the darkest side street of the Blues.

Albert King | Born Under A Bad Sign
Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign

#10 – “He can take four notes and write a volume,” guitarist Mike Bloomfield once said of Albert King. His minimalist blues styling is in a perfect setting here, backed by the Memphis Horns, Booker T. & The MG’s, and many other Stax/Volt luminaries. More a collection of singles than a proper album, Born Under A Bad Sign influenced a who’s who of rock, including Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Green, and others. More importantly, it fused soul, R&B and the Blues into a stout mixture that would reinvigorate interest in a sagging genre and ensure that King would be forever (and rightly) known as a Blues legend and one of the most influential musicians of all-time.

Mance Lipscomb | Texas Sharecropper And Songster
Mance Lipscomb – Texas Sharecropper & Songster

#11 – Beau De Glen Lipscomb’s nickname was short for “emancipation” but he sang like a man welded permanently to the chain gang. His acoustic Texas blues style didn’t find an audience until the 1960’s – by which time Lipscomb had been performing for nearly 30 years – but he was still quite prolific, recording nearly 90 original songs before passing away in 1976. Texas Sharecropper And Songster compiles the better part of two of his early-60’s albums for the Arhoolie label, and it’s an excellent introduction to one of the most gifted and original voices to sing the Blues.

John Lee Hooker | Alternative Boogie: Early Studio Recordings 1948 – 1952
John Lee Hooker – Alternative Boogie: Early Studio Recordings 1948 – 1952

#12 – Start with the voice: a slow drawl that’s as thick and sweet as molasses. Then there’s the backbeat: driving things along at a casual but insistent rate – like a ‘57 Chevy cruising down smooth, freshly-laid blacktop. The combination would carry Hooker to a magnificent career that spanned nearly 60 years and see him cross over to rock audiences time and again in ways that must have left his contemporaries wondering and envious. This collection contains early, alternate versions of songs that Hooker would go on to re-record, and it’s an impeccable look at the formative years of a Blues genius. To hear a fine slice of the other (funk/rock) side of Hooker, be sure to check out 1974’s excellent and underrated Free Beer And Chicken.

Lonnie Johnson | The Complete Folkways Recordings
Lonnie Johnson – The Complete Folkways Recordings

#13 – Lonnie Johnson is the Velvet Underground of the blues. A bluesman’s bluesman, his wide-ranging influence sits in inverse proportion to his meager popularity. Luminaries such as Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan have cribbed from his phrasing, picking, and knife-edge vocals. After Mississippi John Hurt, Johnson is the most laid back singer on this list, but he still sounds like a man singing like his life depended on it.

Muddy Waters | At Newport 1960
Muddy Waters – At Newport 1960

#14 – At the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, Muddy Waters wasn’t yet a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductee or Chicago Blues titan – he was simply a man with a band trying to impress a whole bunch of white people. This soulful yet blistering set did the trick, and then some – igniting interest in electric blues and sending Waters on his way to all those accolades. “Put A Tiger In Your Tank” is a perfect example of the barely restrained ferocity that marks the whole set. The band featured Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harmonica, and they provide the underpinning for Waters’ smooth growl. Muddy made many exceptional albums throughout his career, but none surpass the locomotive chug of At Newport 1960.

Blind Willie McTell | The Definitive Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell – The Definitive Blind Willie McTell

#15 – “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” sang Bob Dylan in his song named and written for this blues titan. Virtually ignored in his lifetime, McTell wrote songs like ‘Three Women Blues’ – “one for the morning/one for late at night/I got one for noon time/to treat your old daddy right” that sound like a cross between Luther Campbell and Robert Johnson. That is, impeccably sung tales of love, lust and betrayal. And – like virtually every other name on this list – McTell has a long list of disciples (including Taj Mahal, Nirvana, Dylan, and White Stripes) and sings like he’s haunted by the very hounds of hell.

Bo Diddley | Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger

#16 – Of all the great blues artists, Bo Diddley most directly influenced the formation of rock-n-roll from the blues. His hits – including ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘Who Do You Love’ – contained a propulsive beat that foreshadowed the sound of rock, and not surprisingly, dozens of rock greats have covered his songs. His trademark square-bodied guitar (and matching glasses) makes Diddley an instantly recognizable figure. In fact, he’s been recognized by nearly every hall of fame that’s associated with music. And who could forget his classic ‘Bo Knows’ Nike commercial with Bo Jackson? Still going strong after 50 years in music, he recently headlined a concert fundraiser to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. [Editor’s note: Bo Diddley passed away in June of 2008]

R.L. Burnside | Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down
R.L. Burnside – Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down

#17 – The most recently made album on this list by 32 years (Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign was made in 1968), Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down is nonetheless the real deal. Fat Possum Records has carried the blues torch proudly into the 21st century, and R.L. Burnside was perhaps the label’s most exciting artist until his death in late 2005. He puts on a fierce display of blues virtuosity here – melding Muddy Waters electrified intensity with Howlin’ Wolf’s larger than life presence, Skip James’ deathbed dread, and a healthy dose of modern effects like scratching and sampling. ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ ‘Got Messed Up’ ‘Chain Of Fools’ and others prove that – even if Burnside is no longer with us – grimy, honest blues are alive & well.

Magic Sam | West Side Soul
Magic Sam – West Side Soul

#18 – Mississippi-Delta born Sam Maghett died in 1969 at the age of 32, and before he had a chance to establish himself as a great bluesman. Now considered the undisputed king of Chicago West Side Blues, his recorded legacy boils down to two great albums, West Side Soul and 1968’s Black Magic. Like Robert Johnson before him, Magic Sam left a towering if abbreviated take on the blues that continues to thrill listeners and influence musicians of every persuasion.

Jimmy Reed | Blues Masters: The Very Best Of Jimmy Reed
Jimmy Reed – Blues Masters: The Very Best Of

#19 – Covered by a wide range of artists including The Yardbirds, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, and the Grateful Dead, Reed is one of the most influential musicians to ever pick up a guitar. The quality and thoroughness of this compilation is as much a tribute to the excellent work of Rhino records as it is to Reed himself. Too many blues greats are undermined by shoddy and inferior ‘greatest hits’ packages that have more holes than a rack of bowling balls, but The Very Best Of Jimmy Reed hits all the high points, and there are plenty. Reed died at age 50 in 1976 from complications related to alcoholism, but his place in music history (not to mention his plaque in the Rock & Roll hall of fame) had been long ago secured.

Lightnin’ Hopkins | The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings (Box Set)
Lightnin’ Hopkins – The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings (Box Set)

#20 – Texan Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins strayed beyond the usual blues topics (bad women, tough times, hard liquor, etc) and reported on the happenings of his day, including aerospace travel, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, and natural disasters of all shapes and sizes. Worth the splurge, this seven disc box collects 12 of his albums from the 1960’s. Considering that he recorded more than 50 albums in a nearly 40-year recording career, this is a great way to start getting acquainted with a Blues legend.


Other Shades Of Blue…

Bukka White – The Complete Bukka White
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells – Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues
Tommy Johnson – Canned Heat (1928-1929)
Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – That’s All Right Mama
Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best Of The Fire Sessions
Charley Patton – Pony Blues
Otis Rush – Cobra Recordings: 1956-1958
Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown – Original Peacock Recordings
Sonny Boy Williamson [II] – One Way Out
Pink Anderson – Ballad And Folksinger – Vol. 3
Etta James – The Chess Box
Furry Lewis – Shake ‘Em On Down
Willie Dixon – I Am The Blues
Lightnin’ Slim – Rooster Blues
Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland – Showdown!
Son House – Father Of The Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Recordings
Memphis Minnie – The Essential Memphis Minnie
T-Bone Walker – The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954
Smoky Babe – Hottest Brand Goin’


6 More Greats That Didn’t Quite Fit…

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

John Fahey
John Fahey

John Mayall
John Mayall

Roy Buchanan
Roy Buchanan

Ali Farka Toure
Ali Farka Toure

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal


10 From The Next Generation(s)…

Jimi Hendrix
The Allman Brothers Band
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Steve Miller Band
JJ Cale
Terry Reid
White Stripes
Black Keys
British Blues (Bluesbreakers, Yardbirds, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Faces, Led Zeppelin, Pretty Things, Downliners Sect, Kinks, etc)


A Few Great Blues Compilations

Martin Scorcese Presents The Blues (Box Set)
Chess Blues (Box Set)
The Great Bluesmen (Vanguard)
Anthology Of American Folk Music (Box Set)