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Blues Album For Beginners


 The enormous width and depth of blues music can prove to be somewhat daunting for the new fan. Ranging from early Chicago blues to Texas blues-rock, from British blues-rock to acoustic Piedmont blues, these are the albums that you should start your blues collection with. If this list is a little light on Mississippi Delta blues, it’s not for lack of artistic merit – many surviving Delta blues recordings would sound harsh to ears unaccustomed to primitive recording techniques. Instead, this is a list of blues albums for beginners, those artists and records that will introduce a newcomer to the charms of the blues.

1. Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry – ‘Sing’ (Smithsonian Folkways, 1958)

Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry' SingPhoto courtesy Smithsonian Folkways

The most popular duo to perform in the Piedmont blues style, both individually and together, guitarist Brownie McGhee and harp playerSonny Terry would popularize folk blues with a young, white audience that would go on to innovate the mid-1960s folk-rock sound. Originally released in 1958 by Moses Asch’s legendary Folkways label, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry Sing features a baker’s dozen of the Piedmont styles’ most inspired performances, from traditional songs like “John Henry” to original material like “Better Day” and “Dark Road.”

2. Buddy Guy – ‘I Was Walking Through The Woods’ (Chess Records, 1970)

Buddy Guy's I Was Walking Through The WoodsPhoto courtesy Geffen Records

Blues guitar legend Buddy Guy recorded for Chess Records from 1960 to 1967, but it was primarily his role as a session player – adding his talents to recordings by artists like Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor – that the Chess Brothers were interested in exploiting. While Guy never had much chart success while at Chess, this collection of ten singles he recorded for the label during the 1960s perfectly frame Guy’s gospel-tinged vocal style and scorching fretwork. Guy would go on to bigger and better things, but this is where it all began….

3. The Fabulous Thunderbirds – ‘The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ (Takoma Records, 1979)

The Fabulous Thunderbirds' The Fabulous Thunderbirds albumPhoto courtesy Price Grabber

Although it would take until their fifth album, 1986’s Tuff Enuff, beforethe Fabulous Thunderbirds would enjoy a modicum of mainstream commercial success, the band’s self-titled debut album (also known as Girls Gone Wild) is a better representation of the T-Bird’s early Texas roadhouse sound. Hitting your ears like a shot from a blunderbuss, nobody could have predicted the heady mix of Jimmie Vaughan’s inspired fretwork (which combined the rawness of Albert King with the smooth-as-silk elegance of Freddie King) and frontman Kim Wilson’s soulful vocals and blistering harpwork. Along withRoomful of Blues, the Thunderbirds laid the groundwork for the contemporary blues band. 

4. Howlin’ Wolf – ‘Howlin’ Wolf / Moanin’ In The Midnight’ (Chess Records, 1962)

Howlin’ Wolf's Howlin’ Wolf / Moanin’ In The MidnightPhoto courtesy Geffen Records

Howlin’ Wolf‘s first album, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, was released in 1959 and gathers singles that he cut for Chess between 1951 and ’59, while his self-titled 1962 album (often known as the “Rocking Chair” album for its cover), featured songs recorded in 1961 and ’62. Put together on a single CD, the songs from Wolf’s first two albums represent some of the artist’s finest work. Backed by the talents of songwriter and studio bass player Willie Dixon and the phenomenal six-string talents of guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers, songs like “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful,” and “Smokestack Lightning” have long since become blues and blues-rock standards.

John Lee Hooker's The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954Photo courtesy Ace Records

The great John Lee Hooker’s discography is a minefield of ill-conceived studio albums, cheapie cash grabs, dashed-off pseudonymous recordings, and “hits” collections of dubious merit.The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954 is the real deal, two dozen of Hooker’s earliest sides and the powerful performances on which much of his legacy is based. This is where you’ll find the roots of boogie in Hooker’s primitive, Delta-influenced rhythmic drone, and songs like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” and “I’m In The Mood” would influence everybody from the Rolling Stones and the Animals to Canned Heat and Bonnie Raitt (as well as dozens of fellow bluesmen-and-women).

6. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – ‘Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton’ (Polydor, 1966)

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers' Bluesbreakers with Eric ClaptonPhoto courtesy Polydor Records/Universal Music

Although he would initially make a name for himself with the Yardbirds, it was only when guitarist Eric Clapton defected to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers that the British blues-rock explosion would be launched. Although he only made one album with Mayall,Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton was more than enough to influence a generation of English youth to follow in the footsteps of “Slowhand.” Mayall allows his guitar prodigy to explore covers like Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” while Clapton’s contributions to originals like “Double Crossing Time” bring the flavor of traditional Chicago blues to a uniquely British performance.  

7. Junior Wells – ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ (Delmark Records, 1965)

Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man BluesPhoto courtesy Delmark Records

The first true Chicago blues album cut in the studio (others were collections of singles or recorded live) was also Junior Wells‘ first full-fledged album, and the young harpist pulled out all the stops to make it rock. Hard. Backed by friend and musical foil Buddy Guy (the guitarist is listed as “Friendly Chap” on the original vinyl due to contractual legalities), Wells attempted to capture the sound and feel of a performance at a West Side blues club. The general consensus is that Wells accomplished what he set out to do; the harpist would return to Delmark for the equally raucous South Side Blues Jam album in 1970.

8. Muddy Waters – ‘Hard Again’ (Blue Sky Records, 1977)

Muddy Waters' Hard AgainPhoto courtesy Geffen Records

Although you can’t beat Muddy Waters’ late-1950s/early-1960s Chess label recordings, this 1977 “comeback” album, produced by blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter, may serve as a better introduction to the blues legend’s enormous talents. Fronting a top-notch band that included guitarist “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin, the great blues harpist James Cotton, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Waters roars and rocks with the energy and vigor of a bluesman half his edge. For ears accustomed to a more rock ‘n’ roll oriented style of blues, Hard Again will provide a gateway to Waters’ albums like Live At Newport 1960.

9. Paul Butterfield Blues Band – ‘The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’ (Elektra, 1965)

Paul Butterfield Blues Band's The Paul Butterfield Blues BandPhoto courtesy Elektra Records

Harp wizard Paul Butterfield‘s racially-mixed band revolutionized the Chicago blues, popularizing the music with young rock fans and introducing the talents of guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop to the world. This self-titled debut would mix inspired covers of classic Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James songs (“I Got My Mojo Working,” “Blues With A Feeling,” “Shake Your Moneymaker”) with newer material, like Nick Gravenites’ “Born In Chicago,” infusing each performance with Butterfield’s soulful vocals and growling harp playing, incendiary guitarwork, and a rock-solid rhythm provided by Chicago blues veterans Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay.

10. Robert Johnson – ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ (Columbia Records/Sony, 1961)

Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues SingersPhoto courtesy Sony Recordings

In many ways, this is the one that put Delta blues on the map. Pushed into release by the legendary Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond (in spite of the label’s misgivings), this collection ofRobert Johnson’s 1930s recordings provided a blueprint for 1960s blues-rock. A single-CD set includes penultimate versions of blues classics like “Terraplane Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” and “Hellhound On My Trail,” among others, while a deluxe two-disc set includes alternate versions of these essential early blues records. If you’re looking for just one blues record for your collection, this is the one.  

11. Sonny Boy Williamson – ‘The Real Folk Blues’ (Chess Records, 1965)

Sonny Boy Williamson's The Real Folk BluesPhoto courtesy Geffen Records

With “folk blues” all the rage during the mid-1960s, Chess Records attempted to present its hardcore blues stable of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson to young, white blues fans with introductory collections titled The Real Folk Blues. In most cases, this title was somewhat deceptive, but such a description was apt for Williamson. The harmonica wizard’s music always retained its Delta flavor no matter the production, and this collection features some of the best of the artist’s late-career performances from a period that he was hanging with folks like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Assisted by legends Willie Dixon, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Otis Spann, these edgy, dark juke-joint stomps perfectly capture vintage Sonny Boy.

12. Stevie Ray Vaughan – ‘Texas Flood’ (Epic Records, 1983)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas FloodPhoto courtesy Sony Recordings

Blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1983 debut would appear at a time when blues artists were struggling (more than usual) and the music was considered to be passé by all but a hardcore faithful. The popularity of Texas Flood would place it in Billboard’s Top 40, and keep the album on the charts for a year and a half. Although Vaughan would go on to make better records and develop a distinctive artistic voice, Texas Flood is a celebration of the guitarist’s influences – a raucous, reckless record that would rekindle a blues flame that still burns brightly today.


April 22, 2010 - Posted by | 1

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