Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Top 25 Blues Musicians of All Time

This post is what it sounds like. I believe that many great blues musicians of the past, men and women who suffered through trial and tragedy and who are largely responsible for most of the music we have today, are tragically unknown and under-appreciated by the general public. If you listen to any branch of blues, rock, metal, pop, or rap then your favorite songs would probably never have existed without the people I'm discussing. To a lesser but still notable extent, the same is true in country, folk, and jazz. Basically, 90% of the music in the world today owes these ladies and gentlemen a debt of gratitude, yet many of them died penniless and have never received their due recognition even in death.

To that end, I've put together this little list. Of course this won't make a big impact, but if even a few people are inspired to look into some of these wonderful, passionate artists as a result of this post, then I'll consider it a success.

Oh, and because I hate to leave him off (even though I tend to see him as a rock'n'roll musician more than a blues musician) I just wanted to give honorable mention to my #26 pick, Bo Diddley.

So without further ado, here are, in my opinion:

The Top 25 Blues Musicians of All Time

#25. Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011)

Sumlin's name will be familiar to many blues fans, and his name belongs high on any list of great guitarists. Sumlin is an oddity on this list, as he is best known for playing a supporting role. He spent years playing in Howlin' Wolf's band, and as a result he seldom received the degree of individual racognition he deserved. To pioneering rock guitar gods like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Sumlin was a hero and idol. While he is sadly no longer with us, he lived to the ripe old age of 80: long enough to appear prominently in the Crossroads Guitar Festival. Thus, even though it took far too long and was only a fraction of what he deserved, at least he didn't spend his final years languishing in total obscurity.

#24. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)

With her strong gospel roots, the good sister managed to make a decent dent in the blues world. She was something of a successful crossover artist in the Depression years, spreading her style across the worlds of pop, blues, jazz, and gospel. She was something of a rarity amongst female blues artists of the time because she played lead guitar in addition to singing. She was known for her lively, enthusiastic performances and her forceful singing voice. The impact she made can be felt in such well-deserved accolades as "The Original Soul Sister" and "The Godmother of Rock'n'Roll."

#23. Albert Collins (1932-1993)

Recognized for his cold, sharp Telecaster sound, Albert Collins was known to fans as The Ice Man. This image is perhaps a little ironic, given his role as one of the most prominent figures in the Texas blues tradition. His cutting style of guitar play, his unusual singing voice, and his penchant for decidedly quirky song choices make him a very distinctive figure in the world of electric blues. He is also, for those of you who don't listen to a lot of blues, a pretty accessible place to start correcting that deficiency. The only real reason I don't have him higher on this list is that his best work came from the late '70s to the early '90s, shortly before his too-early death, so while influential, his impact was not as ubiquitous as that of many of the other names on this list. As an aside, he learned guitar from his cousin, the Texas blues titan Lightnin' Hopkins.

#22. Big Joe Turner (1911-1985)

Anybody with even a passing interest in American music history knows that rock'n'roll grew out of the blues. They hear that Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and all the rest were just white guys copying black artists, but then they hear somebody play an old acoustic blues record and they say "I don't get it, that may be inspiration but it's certainly not copying." Well, perched right on the cusp between rock and blues, it was men like Big Joe Turner who were the ones being copied. His 1954 recording of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" is part of the discussion on the nebulous question of what was the first rock'n'roll song ever recorded (my personal pick is 1950's Hot Rod Race by Arkie Shibley, but that's a discussion for another time). In any case, Turner was a lively blues singer with a long career and a direct impact on one of the most important periods in music history.

#21. Freddie King (1934-1976)

In his tragically short life, Freddie King managed to carry the mantle of Texas blues guitar and hand down his direct influence to a list of budding blues-rock guitar greats that would make your head spin. Youngest and least prolific of the "three Kings of the blues," Freddie is nonetheless one of the most influential electric guitarists of all time. Further, like other electric bluesmen, he's imminently accessible to a degree that many of his predecessors were not. If you're only willing to try one song I link as test for your blues appetite, you might want to make it this one.

#20. Sonny Boy Williamson II (1912-1965)

When blues harmonica is played right, it can be the most soulful, mournful instrument known to mankind. Never is this more true than in the hands of Sonny Boy Williamson II, who could pour the passion of a dying man into every breath. Outside of music, weirdness surrounded many aspects of Williamson's life. Most notably, records and accounts of his birth year vary from the often accepted 1912 to as far back as 1899. Additionally, he borrowed his stage name from Sonny Boy Williamson I, after the latter's untimely death, even though they were not related and Williamson I was in fact younger than Williamson II. It all adds to the man's intrigue, but none of it mattered a lick when he started blowing that harp.

#19. Willie Dixon (1915-1992)

One of the most influential blues figures of the 1950s and 1960s, Dixon is actually primarily notable as a songwriter. While he did play and record music of his own, he was vastly more prominent in his behind-the-scenes capacity. He produced and provided backing instrumentation on numerous records, in addition to the over 500 songs he wrote. His career peaked during his tenure with the legendary Chess Records, where he became a central pillar of the Chicago blues. Several of the other artists on this list spent their careers recording songs Dixon wrote.

#18. Big Walter Horton (1918-1981)

I know I was just extolling the virtues of Sonny Boy Williamson II's harmonica playing, and it is indeed the most passionate example I can think of in recorded music. That said, my choice for the king of blues harmonica is and always has been Big Walter Horton. Little Walter may have been more famous, but I think Big Walter had more spirit in his play. Horton was notoriously reticent, often preferring to step into the background rather take the spotlight. For this reason, there are relatively few recordings where he is the feature player. When he did step up, though, he was the best at what he did.

#17. Son House (1902-1988)

Speaking of passion, Son House was one of the most notoriously fervent bluesmen in history. He took his early life experience as a southern preacher and he put it to use in his delivery, belting out lines with equal parts authority and zeal. When knowledgeable people talk about the greats of the delta blues, Son House is invariably one of the first handful of names they say. As a guitarist, as a singer, and as a songwriter he stands out above all but a select few names. If I'm being honest, I've listened to far less of his music over the years than I should have, but as I've grown older and wiser I've found myself drawn increasingly to his simple, honest, powerful songs.

#16. Ruth Brown (1928-2006)

Wikipedia doesn't agree with me classifying her as blues, but what do they know? Like many notable black female singers of the time, she took to a mixture of blues, gospel, R&B, jazz, and soul with equal skill and conviction. No matter what she style she perfomed, Ruth Brown was a bold, soulful singer with a powerful voice. Like Hubert Sumlin, she was part of the generation of blues greats who lived long enough to see the blues revival of the 2000s, but who is now departed from our mortal ranks. Very few blues figures of her stature remain with us now, but we'll always have the music.

#15. T-Bone Walker (1910-1975)

Father of the electric blues guitar, T-Bone Walker was one of the first musicians to embrace the new technology and usher blues music into a new age of amplified guitar and polished big band arrangements. Naturally this leaves room for him to be a somewhat divisive figure, as some listeners prefer the stripped-down simplicity and roughness of the delta blues to what came after, but one way or the other his impact is difficult to overstate. Drawing on the jazzier side of blues, T-Bone Walker's guitar style and vocals are smooth and satiny. His records had much higher production values than those of his predecessors, which marks him as a kind of cutoff point. Additionally, he was a major cog in the lineage of Texas Blues guitarists, having learned the instrument from the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson, yet he contributed to the emergence of Chicago blues. Standing at the center of so many crossroads, T-Bone Walker was one of the most influential musicians on the 20th century.

#14. John Lee Hooker (1917-2001)

The first paid concert I ever went to was when my dad and I went to see John Lee Hooker. As such, the bluesman has always held a special place for me. Stylistically, Hooker is a curiously unique figure. His formative recordings have the stripped down simplicity of the delta blues, but his delivery is more rhythmic speech than it is singing. Besides, his roots were in the right place, but time in history wasn't: he emerged playing the acoustic blues just as that style was dying off in favor of going electric. Despite this odd situation, he had a surprisingly successful career with several hit songs. Anyhow, his "talking blues" style, together with the heavy stomp of his foot keeping off-kilter time, created an oddly paced and utterly individual delivery that made his music immediately recognizable. It also made him notoriously difficult for other musicians to play with live. In the 1960s he would re-record many of his early songs with a full band, as well as producing some of his best known material with the aid of a backing group. Much later in life, he got one last shot of recognition when he appeared in The Blues Brothers.

#13. Buddy Guy (1936-present)

The first living bluesman to appear on the list, Buddy Guy was actually the star of the second paid concert I ever attended. My experience seeing him live was extremely frustrating, but I try not to hold his squirrely on-stage behavior against him. A Chicago blues artist who made his bones as a studio guitarist for Chess Records, Buddy Guy is arguably the most skillful guitar player on this list. He's also a strong singer, and these attributes have lead him to have a long and successful career that has only picked up steam over the years. In fact, 48 years after the release of his debut record, he hit #1 on the blues charts just last summer. He's also become a regular on the Crossroads Guitar Festival main stage and DVD releases, making him one of the most visible blues artists in the world today. He has that perfect combination of legitimacy, accessibility, and quality that make him a great gateway for modern potential blues listeners.

#12. Muddy Waters (1913-1983)

Muddy Waters in probably one of the two or three most famous bluesmen of all time. Given that fact, I don't feel compelled to write too extensively about him. He was the centerpiece of the 1950s Chess Records Chicago blues empire. His commercial success was, for a few years, greater than that experienced by any other blues musician. The rise of rock'n'roll was the death of Muddy Waters, though, and he never regained his place atop the music world. He did, however, find a receptive audience in the UK, and in so doing he helped inspire the wave of British rock that would sweep across the US and eradicate those acts which had displaced him. An odd sort of karmic revenge, I suppose.

#11. Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984)

Like Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton was a blues musician right on the cusp of being rock'n'roll, and like him her records were overshadowed by cover versions from white artists. She reportedly called out Janis Joplin for living a rock-star lifestyle on the backs of artists like herself, though I'm unable to substantiate that story and Joplin did openly and frequently credit Thornton as a major influence on her career. Thornton's biggest success was with "Hound Dog," which she did not write but which she was the first to record. Most listeners today will know it only as an Elvis Presley song.

#10. Charley Patton (1891?-1934)

As the progenitor of the delta blues, Charley Patton is quietly one of the single most important recording artists of the 20th century. Most modern music would be impossible without the music on this list, and most of the music on this list would be impossible without Charley Patton. Like many of the earliest recorded bluesmen, Patton lived a tragically short life, and he recorded all his existent material in just a handful of sessions with nothing but a microphone and his guitar. If you're a real purist about your music, it doesn't get any more real or pure than this.

#9. Lead Belly (1888-1949)

Many of the American folk songs from the old south survived into the modern day thanks to this man. Though he did not write many songs himself, Lead Belly knew an exhaustive collection of songs by heart and put them on record for the first time. After serving time in prison, Lead Belly made a career out of performing these songs, and he established a particular reputation for his 12-string guitar work. For this reason, while he certainly has value as a musician, his biggest contribution to music is in the area of conservation. That puts him in a unique place in music history, and it's a place from which he has influenced countless folk, rock, and blues musicians. Several hit songs have resulted from covering his versions of various folk standards. Nirvana's rendition of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" is a particularly notable example.

#8. Koko Taylor (1928-2009)

The greatest female blues singer who ever lived, in my opinion, was Koko Taylor. Her voice is incomparably gritty, powerful, and passionate. She could command a song with her confidence and power. Perhaps most importantly, though, she could be very raw and vulnerable when a song required it. Three quarters of the reason I can't take Janis Joplin seriously is that every time I listen to her I just hear a watered-down version of Koko Taylor. My parents had the great pleasure of seeing her perform before she passed away, and despite her advanced age and failing health, she utterly exhausted herself on stage delivering with everything she had in her. If that isn't the blues at its finest, I don't know what is.

#7. Albert King (1923-1992)

Last year, the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted into its ranks one of the greatest electric bluesmen who ever lived. The eldest of the "three Kings of the blues," who are incidentally not related, was at one time my single favorite blues guitarist. While that is no longer really true, the fact remains that he is one of the most important electric guitarists in history. Jimi Hendrix, commonly considered the greatest guitarist of all time, idolized him. That should tell you something. King was notable for his unusual size (variously reported between 6'4" and 6'7") and for playing his right-handed Gibson Flying V left-handed. Unlike many lefties, he did not restring the guitar to place the low-E at the top. Instead, he played it just as it would be strung normally. This oddity may have factored into his distinctive style of play. Of course he was not only a guitar player, and his vocals are just as iconic and recognizable as his playing.

#6. Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929)

The father of the Texas Blues, it was Blind Lemon who taught T-Bone Walker how to play guitar. Additionally, he was one of the very first blues musicians to record in the solo guitar-and-a-microphone style record that would become the blues standard throughout the '30s. Like Charley Patton, Jefferson was one of the pioneering figures who made the other music on this list possible. Also like Patton, he has become tragically under-appreciated even within the blues fan community. Perhaps this is because so many blues musicians gain recognition via those who imitate them, and Jefferson's guitar work is notorious for its deceptive complexity, making it unusually difficult to copy.

#5. Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976)

At the height of the Chicago blues boom, Chess Records featured a pair of rivals vying for the spot atop the mountain. While Muddy Waters tends to get the nod from most fans, in terms of actual musical quality I heartily disagree. Howlin' Wolf, a huge, stern man who always carried a gun and kept his money with him in a briefcase because he didn't trust banks, had a degree of both intensity and gravitas that Muddy Waters could never match. The precision with which he handled his professional obligations and ran his band made for an excellent level of quality control. (It also made him one of the few bluesmen to maintain financial stability throughout his career.) Besides, Wolf's gravelly snarl was one of the coolest voices in music history.

#4. Mississippi John Hurt (1893?-1966)

Blues fans may be a bit surprised by this pick. Even amongst the fairly knowledgeable, Hurt is a criminally unknown and underrated bluesman. Though he came from the Mississippi Delta, his style is totally unlike that of the typical delta blues player. His delicate finger-picking, mellow voice, and infusion of country and folk elements into the music make for a very different type of listening experience. Everything I've ever read about him has made liberal use of the word "gentle," and that's the perfect adjective for his sound. Gentle music from a gentle man. Incidentally, he is also the man who recorded my personal favorite blues song, "Stack o' Lee Blues".

#3. BB King (1925-present)

Of those "three Kings" I keep mentioning, only one is flat out called "The King of the Blues." BB King is the most famous, commercially successful blues musician of all time. He has recorded over 40 albums, played something along the lines of 15,000 live shows (he is frequently cited as the musician with the most live performances ever) and even now at 88 years old he still tours and makes high-profile appearances. He has been called the most important electric guitarist of the past 50 years, he has influenced untold masses of musicians, and to the public at large he is the face of the blues. BB King, as the saying goes, can say more with one note than most guitarists can with a hundred. Of course some purists, given his position, will maintain that he has sold out. It's true that he lacks the raw, gritty simplicity of some of his peers on this list, but it's hard to hold that against him considering all the things I've just noted.

#2. Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

The prototypical bluesman, basically every old legend about delta blues players (crossroad soul sales, anyone?) is rooted in the life, rise, and death of Robert Johnson. His life was tragically short, only 27 years, and his cause of death remains unknown, as is his final resting place. Only 3 photographs of him are known to exist. His brief music career produced a mere 29 songs. Yet that sparse handful of material has generated more awe, inspiration, and imitation amongst fellow musicians than perhaps any other artist in the 20th century. He revolutionized blues guitar techniques, and even by modern standards he is often judged to have been phenomenally technically skilled. He was a pioneer, a visionary, a brief flash of brilliance that is still felt long after it has ceased to be. In his few short years, he did for music what Van Gogh did for painting, and in the process he became the template for the tortured bluesman.

#1. Lightnin' Hopkins (1912-1982)

If Blind Lemon Jefferson invented Texas blues, then Lightnin' Hopkins perfected it. His deeply compelling voice is almost hypnotic, and his grasp of finesse and dynamics with an acoustic guitar is unrivaled in the history of blues (and perhaps in all of music). At his best, the emotional exhaustion of a long, hard life pours from him like a faucet. A storyteller, a poet, and a master musician: he is the embodiment of everything a bluesman should be. There's really nothing more that needs to be said.


  1. The only blues artist I've ever listened to for any period of time is John Lee Hooker. I like it when he gets aggressive. Although I do appreciate that Robert Johnson track.

    You're also probably the first person to write about Robert Johnson without mentioning the meeting at the crossroads.

  2. I wish I could take that credit, but I did kind of mention it.