Long before Hip-Hop & R&B there was “the blues”. Black folks invented this genre of music and it has been passed down from the slave fields to concert venues. Originating in the deep south after the Civil War, it blends gospel, spiritual, jazz, minstrel show music, and popular music. The Mississippi Delta is often acknowledged for giving birth to this genre. While enduring floods, discrimination, oppression, heartbreak, and poverty, many young black men used their voices and acoustic instruments to express their feelings.
Traditional blues is simple and usually played on a guitar. One usually builds off of it using methods like sliding, fingerpicking, and utilizing their voice. Styles like shuffling, call-and-response, and repetitiveness over 12 bars made this genre a go-to for bars and clubs all over southern America. You can hear the emotion in the music, emotion that has centuries of pain to express; voices shouting with feeling and stringed instruments playing some of the most minimal yet, impactful sounds one can hear.
Migrating north due to oppressive times and more opportunities, a lot of notable blues artists like Muddy Waters, & Buddy Guy moved to Chicago in order to grow. The migration of music introduced the genre to the rest of the country and eventually made things worldwide. Later, notable artists like Jimi Hendrix took the blues and amplified it in a way like no other.
Check out some of the most notable and impactful Blues legends down below!
1. Robert Johnson
Born in 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Robert Johnson was the eleventh sibling and was known for his guitar skills and his falsetto voice. He was a master at the acoustic guitar, recording tracks in the 1920s and 30s that you can still listen to today. He was often known as the Godfather of blues for his talent. Legend has it that he made a deal with the Devil and played the blues effortlessly ever since.
2. Muddy WatersSource:Getty
American Blues Singer/Songwriter Muddy Waters, playing at Uncle Sam’s club in Macon, Georgia June of 1976
Muddy Waters is the smooth granddad we all know. Born McKinley Morganfield in 1913 or 1915 (it’s debatable), Muddy played a key role in bringing the Delta acoustic blues to Chicago and electrifying the sound.
3. Buddy GuySource:Getty
Buddy Guy on October 5th, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images)
Buddy Guy is a Chicago legend and still is today. He has influenced generations of artists. As a kid, he would pick cotton for $2.50 per 100 pounds and also learned guitar off of a two-string diddley bow. He is an eight-time Grammy award winner, a Lifetime Achievement Award winner, a Kennedy Centers Honors award winner, and a National Medal of Arts winner.
4. Lightnin’ Hopkins
Born in Centerville TX, Lightnin Hopkins has a voice like no other with such emotion and grit. With his signature slick hair and shades, he played the acoustic guitar with ease and rawness. Rolling Stones Magazine placed him #71 on their list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
5. Bessie SmithSource:Getty
Portrait of Bessie Smith three-quarter length portrait standing facing front with left hand raised (Photo by Carl Van Vechten Collection/Getty Images)
Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith was a blues singer known most during the jazz age. She was the most popular female blues singer in the 1930s. She made a total of 160 recordings and many of them featured some of the most talented jazz and blues artists of the 1920s and 30s.
6. Howlin’ WolfSource:Getty
JANUARY 01: Photo of Howlin WOLF and Howlin’ WOLF; Posed studio portrait of Howlin’ Wolf (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
Chester Burnett, known as Howlin Wolf was born in 1910. He helped bridge the gap between Delta blues and Chicago blues. After suffering a rough childhood, Chester finally found his way and after learning under Charley Patton’s wing, decided to launch his own solo career where he became known as one of the most important figures in blues music. Howlin Wolf had a very unique voice, deep and expressive, full of feelings.
7. BB KingSource:Getty
American Blues guitarist BB King performs at Stadthalle, Erlangen, Germany, 1st April 1988. (Photo by Bernd Mueller/Redferns)
BB King is one of the “Three Kings” that many talk about when it comes to the blues genre. He introduced the fancy and complex method of soloing over the blues. He used string bending, staccato picking, and vibrato which influenced many electric guitarists today.
8. Albert KingSource:Getty
American blues singer-songwriter and guitarist Albert King (1923-1992) 1965. (Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Albert King is arguably one of the most influential blues figures to live. He grew up singing in his church with his father playing guitar. Like Buddy Guy, as a kid, Albert lived on a plantation where he and his family picked cotton. He is known for his popular album, “Born Under a Bad Sign”. Many blues and rock legends like Stevie Ray Vaughn looked up to Albert.
9. Freddie KingSource:Getty
JANUARY 01: Photo of Freddie KING; Posed portrait of Freddie King (Photo by Echoes/Redferns)
Freddie King was another one of the “Three Kings”. Mostly known for his powerful voice and unique guitar playing, Freddie had a major influence on electric blues music today. He interacted with the crowd while performing and you can still get a sense of his personality through some of his videos today.
10. Etta JamesSource:Getty
Etta James, January 21, 1963. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
Etta James was an incredible singer in the blues, jazz, gospel, and soul genres. With her deep and earthy voice, she shrank the gap between blues and rock and roll. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls her, “One of The Greatest Voices of Her Century”.
11. John Lee HookerSource:Getty
John Lee Hooker performs on UK TV show Ready Steady Go, Kingsway Studios, London, June 1964. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)
John Lee Hooker rose to fame with his unique electric guitar-style version of the Delta Blues. He often performed talk-style blues and North Mississippi hill country blues.
12. Magic Sam
Magic Sam was a Chicago blues musician who was born in Mississippi. His range in vocals and his songwriting talents made him an iconic figure. He was influenced by artists like Muddy Waters, and Little Walter.
13. Jimi Hendrix.Source:Getty
Jimi Hendrix (1942 Ð 1970) (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Last but not least there was Jimi Hendrix. Many would put Hendrix in a rock category, however, Jimi’s home is the blues. His professional career only lasted four years yet, he managed to be recognized as one of, if not, the best guitarist ever to live. Hendrix was an innovator, he used the electric guitar like no other. He was the first to flip a right-handed guitar upside down and used it as a lefty. He was the first to use distortion, feedback, and wah in his guitar playing. Hendrix was all about peace, using his guitar to mimic war sounds in protest of the Vietnam war in performances like Woodstock 1969 during the National Anthem. He was the guy that every woman wanted, and every guy wanted to be.
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