The blues has existed for a century and people still listen. They listen to the new, to the original, to the old. You don’t often see radio stations having disco or new wave hours. But every town of a certain size has a radio station with a blues hour. It’s been kept alive because people love it – and loved it more than what came after.
“If you don’t love the blues, you haven’t lived enough.”
The best example is the British Invasion. British “pop” artists came streaming across the ocean with new sounds and innovation on a weekly basis. They grew up on American rock ‘n’ roll, but were particularly shaped and influenced by the blues.
While the genre was dying in the black community at the time, after Motown began to emerge, it was revered in Britain. The children of the Blitz, born amidst the rubble of World War II and the German bombing campaigns, came into the world genetically and environmentally predisposed to an appreciation of high volume and a wanton familiarity with the hard life.
Life in post-war Liverpool may not have much in common with life in the Delta or Chicago on first glance, until you listen to the music. If you’ve lived any life at all, you lived the blues. Kids in Britain, born in the ’40s, lived a lot of it. As someone once said, “If you don’t love the blues, you haven’t lived enough.”
The building blocks of any blues museum would be these 10 songs or combinations.
“Crossroads Blues”/”Crossroads” by Robert Johnson/Cream and Eric Clapton:
Robert Johnson couldn’t play a lick and he couldn’t sing. He disappeared for a few months and, according to legend, came back with talent that was the result of a deal he made with the devil, at the intersection of two highways in Mississippi – the legendary Crossroads (Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale to some, Highways 8 and 1 in Rosedale). The mythology and the song are as American as GM, the Marine Corps and John Wayne. It’s the most important story in the blues and in American music, next to the night Francis Scott Key frantically pieced together the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
In a world where fashion, TV, music, digital companies and $1,000 cell phones are disposable within weeks, Johnson and his music endure in a way that can only be described as spiritual.
Johnson’s few recordings inspired musicians for years, including Eric Clapton, who performed the song live with Cream on the band’s “Wheel’s of Fire” album. It’s considered one of the great guitar songs of any era, from the ferocious fusion between three elite musicians, to Clapton’s chops, which bridged old-school blues and Chuck Berry with the psychedelic and hard rock virtuosity that would soon follow.
“The Thrill Is Gone,” B.B. King:
Albert King may have influenced more guitarists, Freddie King may have sung better and spit licks faster than lightning, but B.B. King’s pure stage presence, heart and originality put him at the top of the three blues kings.
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King covered “The Thrill is Gone” in 1970, nearly 20 years after it was first released. King’s emotional ride through every lick and lyric is unequaled. This acceptance of the melancholy of life, of depression, of nothing left stings today. It was never better expressed than by King, who recorded a fiery version of the song in 2006 with Kenny Wayne Shepherd for Shepherd’s “10 Days Out” album featuring a smoking guitar duel.
Any number of King’s songs could have filled this slot – “Rock Me Baby,” “You’ve Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” “How Blue Can You Get” … but “The Thrill Is Gone” has become, over the years, King’s linchpin.
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“Born Under a Bad Sign,” Albert King:
King recorded the song, co-written by Booker T Jones of Booker T and The MGs, with much of the Stax house band that included Steve Cropper, guitarist for The Blues Brothers Band and the greatest session guitarist of all time.
King’s unique style of playing is showcased throughout, as is the myriad of original licks he invented. He played left-handed, but used a right-handed guitar (which would inspire Jimi Hendrix to do the same years later). It was still strung for a right-handed player, meaning he was playing upside down and in a different key.
“You Shook Me,” Muddy Waters:
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You’re doing something right if your song was covered by Led Zeppelin and inspired AC/DC’s biggest hit. Waters’ catalog is immense, and this groove-heavy, in-your-face declaration to his woman could easily be represented by something else. Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were the two musicians most identified as influences of the early British Invaders, and it’s easy to see why. Waters’ voice was powerful and impossible to forget.
“I’m A Man”/”Mannish Boy,” Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters:
The Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley versions of the song are nearly identical. Waters’ version was recorded later as an “answer” to Diddley. The song has one of the most indomitable riffs in existence, with every instrument pounding four notes into your ear drums as Diddley and Waters announce their coming of age. The Yardbirds covered it for their first hit, turning up the speed for the Mod sound, but Diddley and Waters gave it indelible marks of their own. Both songs have been featured in so many movie soundtracks, the song has almost become its own cliché.
“Sweet Home Chicago,” Robert Johnson:
“Sweet Home Chicago” is the definitive blues song. When the blues festival comes to an end after the final act and everyone comes on stage, they play “Sweet Home Chicago.” Johnson’s pining for a trip north is still a part of the modern musical zeitgeist, and it has been reformed, re-played and covered in so many different versions, it rivals the work of the great conductors.
“Hideaway” and “Goin’ Down,” Freddie King:
When instrumental surf music was a hit, King came out of Texas and blew away guitarists everywhere with his own set of instrumentals, and “Hideaway” was the most famous. It’s often the first blues song a new guitarist learns, and it has a rockin’ groove that is timeless.
“Goin’ Down” was released on the opposite end of the decade by King as a cover, one he made his own with what must have been an electric recording session. It’s the theme song for HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” and is occupying iPads, iPhones and Androids the world over thanks to its re-entrance into the pop music sphere. The recording is pure musical genius and sounds fresher today than 90 percent of current radio content.
“Killing Floor,” Howlin’ Wolf:
Wolf was near retirement age when he had a resurgence, thanks to the British Invasion paying tribute to their heroes. Wolf won over converts along the way, and much of his material became as much a part of the ’60s and ’70s, if not more so, than the contemporary bands of the era. “Killing Floor” is more than a last lament to a former love, it’s a declaration of regret, of pain and hate, of a woman driving you to the point where you want to leave the country.
“Pride and Joy,” Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble:
Vaughan seemed destined to stay in Austin or become a session guitarist. His playing electrified everyone from David Bowie (who gave Vaughan his first break and had him record on his album “Let’s Dance”) to the Rolling Stones, who immediately began hiring the band for functions. It was the early ’80s, the age of hair metal was upon us and Devo, A Flock of Seagulls and Madonna were supposed to represent the future.
In comes Vaughan, who made the blues relevant in a musical era that was more diverse and more crowded than any other. Vaughan wrote the song in the mid-’70s as an ode to a girlfriend, and it stayed in his repertoire. It then became the biggest hit off his first album “Texas Flood” and remains a radio staple. It redefined the shuffle style of blues, and showcased Vaughan’s electric style of playing that combined various influences, most prominent Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. Somehow the freshest music on the radio was coming from a three-piece blues band from Texas. His playing became so copied, so influential, he has become the most “cloned” guitarist since Eddie Van Halen.
“My Way Down,” Chris Duarte:
Duarte was the first new blues player to capture the attention of the hardcore guitar universe after Vaughan’s death in 1990. Duarte was heavily influenced by Vaughan, which was the beginning of a trend railed against by John Mayer (who actually wanted to play blues music but took a pop detour before returning, a wealthier man, to the blues), and Jack White, among others. Every guitar jam night of the last 25 years has four or five “Stevie clones,” a cliché rivaling the “No Stairway” signs that were hung from every music store in America.
But Duarte was no clone. His Vaughan influence was strong, but Duarte had a virtuostic jazz quality and punching-you-in-the-face bodily rhythm that made him all his own. In 1994 he released “Texas Strat Magic,” his first album. “My Way Down” was a masterpiece, a description of one’s descent into the dark, whether it be drugs or drink. It was also a clarion call to the world that new blues guitarists and musicians would emerge following Vaughan’s death. A year later came Kenny Wayne Shepherd; two years later, Jonny Lang. Then came Mayer, Derek Trucks, and most famously, Joe Bonamassa. “My Way Down” wasn’t just a rehash, but a signal that not only was the genre alive, it had room to grow. The next wave of great blues was coming.