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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sunday Morning Playlist: Covering the Blues

Muddy Waters [Poster]

As the basic equation goes, blues + country, and a shot of rhythm and blues = rock 'n' roll. Ever since the very first days, rock has mined the work of blues masters from the first half of the century, sometimes giving them credit, sometimes not. The debt rock owes to blues is enormous, and many of the bluesmen (and women) who created these sounds had died before they got their due. Here's a random sampling of blues originals that have become popularized through their rock cover versions. All of these tracks are worth hearing; not just because the originals are often much greater than the cover versions, but also because hearing a favorite band's choice in covers often illuminates the band, as well. A list like this could run into the thousands; I'll cut it at twenty with a promise of part two when time permits.

1. Muddy Waters: I Just Want To Make Love To You iTunes
Muddy Waters: Best of Muddy Waters (1957)
Of all blues artists, Muddy Waters probably has had the most influence on rock. Perhaps the greatest of all the post-war Chicago Blues musicians, Waters (McKinley Morganfield) is the author of many oft-covered tunes familiar to rock listeners; "Trouble No More" and "Rollin' And Tumblin'" are a couple of originals. He was also an inspired covers artist; "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is a Willie Dixon original written specifically for Waters. Born in Mississippi, steeped in delta blues tradition, he migrated to Chicago in 1943; his first recording was in 1947. His greatest era was in the 1950's at Chess when he cut classic after classic; he experienced a vigorous "re-discovery" in the 1960's. "I Just Want To Make Love To You" was from 1956; Waters' version is slow, menacing, cocky, fierce, intense. It also has one of the most bone chilling harmonica solos in history. Rock artists covering this tune include The Rolling Stones, Shadows of Knight, and Foghat. Etta James also has a classic version. Waters died in 1983.

2. Howlin' Wolf: Smokestack Lightning iTunes
Howlin' Wolf: Moanin' In The Moonlight (1959)
Howlin' Wolf was another Mississippian, born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910. A big man, at 6 foot 3 and 300 lbs., he cut an imposing figure, and his voice was deep and resonant. His musical career didn't get started until the late 1930's, and it wasn't until he relocated to West Memphis, AR, in 1948 that he really began leaving a mark, after putting together a band. He came to the attention of Sam Phillips in 1951, who helped him get a deal with Chicago's Chess label; Wolf then relocated to Chicago where he recorded his best work in the 1950's. Already in his 40's, Wolf brought some of the old-style pre-war Delta Blues influence to the electric music he recorded in Chicago. His greatest moment among many was "Smokestack Lightning" in 1956, a disarmingly simple-sounding bent riff with Wolf growling the vocals and hitting high falsettos on his crying chorus, all with a jaunty swagger. Vocalists from Captain Beefheart to Tom Waits have adopted elements of his vocal style; whenever you hear the term "growl" attributed to a singer, it owes some props here. "Smokestack Lightning" has been frequently covered by many bands, including the Yardbirds and Soundgarden. Howlin' Wolf died in 1976.

3. Roy Brown: Good Rockin' Tonight
Roy Brown: Good Rockin' Tonight (1994)
Brown grew up throughout the South, primarily in Louisiana and Texas, before finding his was to Los Angeles at the age of 17 in 1943. Adept at blues and r&b, his greatest contribution to rock history was the 1947 single on DeLuxe reocrds, "Good Rockin' Tonight", a blues/rockabilly hybrid that is inches removed from early rock 'n' roll; it features some wailing distorted guitar. One of 15 r&b hits he had in a remarkably fruitful period from 1948-1951, it was covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, who had one of his biggest hits with it, as well as Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Brown's vocal style was steeped in gospel tradition and had a pleading quality that was borrowed by Little Richard and B.B. King. It also had a throaty quality that may have been mimicked to a degree by Elvis Presley. Brown briefly attempted a rock 'n' roll career of his own, and had a couple of hits, but he spent most of the 60's in obscurity before a re-discovery in 1970 reversed his fortunes. He died in 1981.

4. Robert Johnson: Love In Vain iTunes
Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, Vol. 2 (1970)
Mississippi Delta legend Robert Johnson has had nearly as great an influence on rock as any blues musician, despite being poisoned to death in 1938 at the age of 27. As a performer, he was a tortured, haunted artist; it's hard to sort out the facts from the numerous myths that have existed around him since he first started playing. He was a gifted composer, an original and idiosyncratic guitarist, and his work bore a direct influence on a whole generation of rock musicians, including Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, and The Rolling Stones. On "Love In vain" he also gives one of his best vocal performances; his guitar is both rhythmic and ornate. "Love In Vain" was one of the Rolling Stones' best blues covers ever, a haunting rendition on Let It Bleed. Johnson's guitar style had a number of innovations to it, among them a boogie bassline he'd play on the lower strings while picking the upper strings, often giving the impression of two guitarists playing at once.

5. Elmore James: Shake Your Money Maker iTunes
Elmore James: History of Elmore James (1994)
Elmore James' lasting legacy is as master of the slide guitar, an instrument he almost single-handedly created the vocabulary for, to the extent that the mere sound of a slide guitar now almost invariably draws comparisons to James. A radio repairman by trade, he took apart amps in his spare time and retooled them to produce raw, distorted sounds that wouldn't appear in rock for nearly two decades. His first instrument was a bottleneck made with a broom handle and a lard can. He formed his first band in the late 1930's and had his first hit in 1951, following the same Mississippi-West Memphis-Chicago trajectory Howlin' Wolf did. "Shake Your Money Maker" was covered by Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Fleetwood Mac, among many others. It's a juke joint boogie stomper with ringing guitar and a tricky ascending and descending slide solo, with a rollicking vocal on top; Chuck Berry owes some debt here as well. Many of James' best known songs, including "Dust My Broom", "Blues Before Sunrise", and "The Sky Is Crying" are well known to rock audiences. Unfortunately, James died in 1963, before the blues rediscovery of the 60's could gain him a new audience.

6. Sonny Boy Williamson II: Eyesight To The Blind iTunes
Sonny Boy WIlliams II; Eyesight To The Blind (2001)
There were actually two bluesmen who used the name Sonny Boy Williamson, and both left their marks on history. Usually, they are denoted by a I or II to distinguish them. Williamson I was a harmonica player, who was murdered in 1948. Williamson II (aka Rice Miller, although his real name has never been verified) was also a harmonica player who gained notoriety in the 40's for impersonating the original on the radio, despite different styles. Born in 1899 by most accounts, his career spanned long enough that he played with both Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton. "Eyesight To The Blind" is one of many classics he penned during his 1940's-1950's heyday, and is known to rock listeners primarily via The Who's significantly altered version on Tommy, and a more recent cover by Aerosmith. It's a standard blues highlighting his harmonica playing, which plays the lead normally reserved for guitar. During the blues rediscovery of the early 60's he played with the Yardbirds and the Animals onstage, he later played with the Hawks. One of his last recordings, "I'm Trying to Make London My Home" from 1964, featured a still-wet-behind-the-ears Jimmy Page. He died in 1965.

7. Albert King: Born Under A Bad Sign iTunes
Albert King: Born Under A Bad Sign (1967)
Albert King (Albert Nelson) was one of the most influential guitarists in blues; his style can be detected in artists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray. A southpaw, he played the guitar upside-down without restringing it, giving it an altered tone, and requiring a different approach to bending notes, since he had to push up where most push down. Born in Mississippi in 1923, he gained professional work in Arkansas, and eventually wound up in Gary, IN where he joined Jimmy Reed's band (as drummer). He also cut his first sessions there in 1953, before moving once again to St. Louis. In St. Louis, he recorded and released a number of successful singles before signing with Stax in 1966, home to his greatest era, where he was usually backed on record by Booker T. & The MG's. "Born Under A Bad Sign" (written by William Bell/Booker T. Jones) was one of a string of mid 60's hits, covered by Cream, Peter Green, Rita Coolidge, MC5, and countless others. It's a slinky, soulful number with a powerful oomph lent by Booker T. and company, with horn section. King's lead is spare and eerily upper register. He remained active until his death in 1992.

8. Koko Taylor: Wang Dang Doodle iTunes
Koko Taylor: Koko taylor (1969)
Called the Queen of the Chicago Blues, Koko Taylor was a belter in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Memphis Minnie. Rock listeners may know her best for her cameo in the 1990 David Lynch film Wild At Heart, but her career dates back to the late 1950's. Willie Dixon took an active interest in her career in 1963, and produced her debut single, as well as wrote some songs for her; "Wang Dang Doodle" was a Dixon penned tune Taylor took to #4 on the r&b charts in 1964. Her vocals are ferocious and frightening; her band is intense and stormy. One of the most firey records ever made, it remains her signature tune. Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Savoy Brown, The Pointer Sisters, and Ted Nugent are among the artists who have covered it. Taylor has kept very busy ever since, recording innumerable albums, receiving accolades and awards. Her most recent album, Royal Blue, was released in 2000, when she was 65.

9. Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog iTunes
Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings (1992)
Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's primary contribution to rock history was a single massive hit in 1953; "Hound Dog", immortalized three years later by Elvis Presley. Thornton's own version was a massive hit itself, spending seven weeks at #1 on the r&b charts. To this day, there is argument about the song's author; some claim it was written by Johnny Otis, others claim it was a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller compostion. Her version is a scorcher, helped along by Pete Lewis' mean sounding guitar backing. It's conceivable that Elvis hadn't heard her version when he did his; he was given Freddie Bell's lounge version as a demo to work from. Thornton's string of hits dried up by 1957, and while she continued to record, emphasising her harmonica skills as well, she never regained the spotlight. She died in 1984.

10. Skip James: I'm So Glad iTunes
Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (1994)
Skip James was one of the earliest Delta bluesmen to record, and is instantly recognizable for his odd tuning and falsetto vocals. Another bluesman who lived long enough to span the early days through the blues rediscovery, his "Devil Got My Woman" was the basis for Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail" in the 1930's, and when he was sought out in the 1960's by the new generation of rock stars paying homage, he was still capable of playing (unlike many bluesmen who were re-discovered too late). Yet another influence on Eric Clapton, Cream covered his "I'm So Glad" on their debut album. James' version dates from 1931; it's hypnotic and spellbinding, even with the poor sound quality the recording invariably has. Upon his rediscovery, he cut five albums in the 1960's before he died in 1969.

11. Slim Harpo: I'm A King Bee iTunes
Slim Harpo: Slim Harpo Sings Raining In My Heart (1961)
One of the few bluesmen who enjoyed what can be considered mainstream success, Slim Harpo (James Moore) specialized in a laid-back blues that borrowed country & western inflection and sometimes rock 'n' roll rhythms. "I'm A King Bee" was his 1961 debut single and a stunning classic; menacing and deliberate, with its aggressive guitar buzz and confident snarl, it became a big favorite among the young rock listeners of the day, many of whom covered it, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and countless garage bands. He scored a number of big hits in the 1960's, including "Baby, Scratch My Back", which made top-20 on the pop charts in 1966. Sadly, his career ended abruptly with a fatal heart attack in 1970.

12. Wilbert Harrison: Kansas City iTunes
Wilbert Harrison: Kansas City: His Legendary Golden Classics (1994)
From North Carolina, Wilbert Harrison's music blended gospel and blues and often touched upon country, but he was never able to amass a large body of hits; few know his work beyond his lone smash, "Kansas City" a Lieber-Stoller compostition originally recorded in 1952 by Little Willie Littlefield. He began his recording career in 1951, and moved to Newark NJ in 1954. "Kansas City" was recorded in 1959 for Fury records (on a $40 budget), and became an r&b and pop smash. Unfortunately, Harrison recorded the disc while he was still under legal contract to his earlier label, Savoy, which led to a drawn-out legal battle. While Harrison and Fury ultimately prevailed, it sapped his career of much momentum. He did have a comeback semi-hit in 1969 with "Let's Work Together", but never achieved the stardom his better known contemporaries did. "Kansas City" was also covered by Little Richard (who altered the lyrics and added his own compostition "Hey Hey Hey Hey" as a coda); the Beatles' 1964 version covers Little Richard's version.

13. Leadbelly: Goodnight Irene iTunes
Leadbelly: Absolutely The Best (2000)
Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) is one of the singularly most important American singers and songwriters of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in discovering old traditional songs and reinterpreting others. He can't truly be classified as a blues musician, although blues was one style in which he expressed himself. He was more of a folk singer who was among the last in the tradition of handing folk songs down orally to younger generations; many of the songs he sang or recorded had their roots in the work songs of the slave days, as well as Appalachian and other rural folk music. Born in 1888, he lived long enough to become a direct influence on Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the 1940's, who in turn influenced the 1960's folk revival. He first started playing in Texas in 1912, with Blind Lemon Jefferson, and switched from a 6-string to 12-string guitar. He quickly ran afoul of the law on dubious charges, culminating in his imprisonment for murder in 1917; he earned his nickname in prison. Pardoned by the governor of Texas in 1925, reportedly because the governor liked his singing; he was freed, only to return to prison again in 1930 following a stabbing incident. In 1933, while in prison, he was visited by American folk historian John Lomax and his son Alan, who were looking for traditional folk songs to record as part of a preservation effort that became both Lomaxes lifetime missions. Leadbelly sang them "Goodnight Irene" a heavily altered version of "Irene, Good Night", which dates back to 1886. Freed again in 1934 because of Lomax' interest (creating rumors that the he sung his way to a pardon a second time), Leadbelly went to work for John Lomax as a chauffeur, recording many more records on the side, many covered by rock musicians. "Goodnight Irene" has been done by Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Little Richard, Meat Puppets, The Weavers, Brian Wilson, and countless others.

14. Rev. Gary Davis: Samson & Delilah iTunes
Rev. Gary Davis: Rev. Gary Davis at Newport (1959)
Reverend Gary Davis was the master of the East Coast ragtime guitar, creating a unique and distinctive guitar style that not only influenced many rock-era musicians, but also had a big influence an many of the blues players who came along after Davis recorded his greatest work in the 1930's. His influences were a mix of gospel, ragtime, jazz, minstrel, and blues. He recorded a number of extremely sophisticated records in the 30's before abruptly stopping when he became an ordained minister. He played sporadically after that, in between preching, but generally avoided blues, sticking mainly to gospel. His rediscovery came in the mid-1950's, and he was coaxed into appearing at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, where he sang sermons; most notably "Samson and Delilah", a roof raising shouter, later recorded by the Grateful Dead. In his later years, he taught younger guitarists, among his notable pupils were Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, who covered Davis on his solo albums and with Hot Tuna, Ry Cooder, and David Bromberg.

15. John Lee Hooker: One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer iTunes
John Lee Hooker: The Real Folk Blues (1966)
John Lee Hooker, from Mississippi, had something of a nomadic musical career before finding a niche on the Detroit blues circuit in 1943. He had a maverick approach to playing; known for a mournful guitar sound that could also erupt into heated boogie, often relying on a rhythmic single chord, his career took off in 1948 when "Boogie Chillin'", the B-side of his debut single "Sally Mae" reached the top of the r&b charts. Several more boogie-themed hits followed, all unaccompanied, and then Hooker branched out, recording for anyone offering a microphone, regardless of who he was signed to at the time. His early 50's output is spread across at least a dozen labels, if not two, before Vee Jay reeled him in and got him to record with a band. "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", written by Rudy Toombs, is one of Hooker's most covered recordings, including George Thorogood's popular version. Many Hooker compositions have also become rock standards, including "Boom Boom" and "Baby Please Don't Go". Hooker kept busy recording and making appearances right until his death in 2001.

16. Memphis Minnie: Me and My Chauffeur Blues iTunes
Memphis Minnie: Bumble Bee (1995)
Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) was not only a great belter of blues songs, she was also an accomplished guitarist. In a career spanning from the 1920's through the 1950's, she routinely earned the sometimes grudging respect of male blues guitarists in a nearly all-male field with her singing and playing, which was largely in the Chicago tradition. Born in Louisiana in 1897, her recording career began in 1924; considering the cards stacked against her, her four decade career is not only a miracle but an inspiration. "Me and My Chauffeur Blues", from 1941, is full of double entendre and given a spirited performance; it may be her most enduring song. Jefferson Airplane covered it in 1966, and Maria Muldaur gave it a sexy workout in 1970. Memphis Minnie died in 1973.

17. Blind Lemon Jefferson: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
Blind Lemon Jefferson: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Vol. 2
One of the originators of the Texas school of blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson's country blues was one of the most popular in the country in the 1920's, and his influence has been profound. He played a mix of originals and unearthed traditional songs, and deserves credit for being the very first successful male blues performer. Prior to his acendency, blues of the 1910's was primarily sung by women, Bessie Smith being the most noteworthy name. In 1912, he had a fortuitous meeting with Leadbelly, which helped inform his playing and song selection. His recording career began in earnest in 1925, when a talent scout caught him playing in Dallas. The stark and sad "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is one of his best originals, covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album; Mike Bloomfield, Dream Syndicate, and others have also covered it. His star was only just taking off when he died in a snowstorm in 1929.

18. Odetta: Another Man Done Gone iTunes
Odetta: Tin Angel (1954)
Odetta (Odetta Gordon), from Alabama, has been a fixture on the folk-blues circuit since the early 1950's. A classically trained vocalist, she originally got her start in a Los Angeles production of Finnian's Rainbow in 1949, at the age of 19. Her debut album, The Tin Angel, was released in 1954. Her heyday was in the 1960's when she recorded sixteen albums and appeared at many folk festivals; she was still recording into the 00's. President Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts' Medal of the Arts in 1999. The 1952 single, "Another Man Done Gone", a classic execution song by Alabama blueswoman Vera Hall, is now included on her debut as a bonus cut and remains a chilling recording. Her rich voice is unaccompanied save for a handclap. It has been covered by Johnny Cash, Jorma Kaukonen, and Savoy Brown, among others.

19. Johnny Otis: Willie And The Hand Jive iTunes
Johnny Otis: The Capitol Years (1989)
Unlike many bluesmen, who lived their lives in relative obscurity after their careers dried up, Johnny Otis managed to have enough careers going at any one time that he always made his rent. Aside from leading his own bands, he also worked as a record producer, talent scout, TV host, disc jockey, writer, nightclub manager, and record label owner. Born in California to Greek parents as John Veliotes, he changed his name to the black-sounding "Otis" as his interest in blues developed in the 1940's. His peak era as a musician came when he signed with Savoy records of Newark, NJ; from 1949-1955 he regularly placed records in the upper reaches of the charts. He even dabbled in rock 'n' roll himself; his "Willie and the Hand Jive" was a big rock 'n' roll and r&b hit in 1958. Since his heyday he has kept busy with a variety of endeavors, most recently adding a health-food emporium to his portfolio. He was also instrumental in launching the career of his son, Shuggie Otis in the 1960's. Covering "Willie And The Hand Jive" have been Eric Clapton, Sandy Denny, The Crickets, New Riders of the Purple Sage, George Thorogood, and many others.

20. Bukka White: Parchman Farm Blues iTunes
Bukka White: Mississippi Blues Giant (2003)
Bukka White (Booker T. Washington White) was born in Mississippi in 1906 and began his musical education on fiddle. He took up the guitar as an early teen, but his grandmother forbade him from having one; fortunately his father was in his corner. He didn't seem destined for music at first; prior to committing to music, he seemed to be headed for a sporting career, first as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, and then as a boxer. In 1930, he was discovered by a talent scout and recorded a mix of gospel and blues as Washington White. The recordings didn't go anywhere, and he didn't get his next shot until 1937 when Big Bill Broonzy invited him to Chicago. White was facing trial for a non-fatal shooting he claimed was in self-defense; he jumped bail and headed for Chicago. He only got to record two songs before he was apprehended; "Shake 'Em On Down", his most well-known, became a hit while he was serving time at Parchman Farm prison. He was released in 1940, and returned to Chicago where he finally was able to record a body of work, including "Parchman Farm Blues", a melancholy sounding rhythmic blues with a soulful gravel in his voice that Richie Havens may have listened to a few times. Unfortunately, World War II broke out, and White spent most of the 1940's working in a factory; while he returned to music in the 1950's his moment had passed him by. He remained active, but never quite got the acclaim others did during the blues rediscovery. "Parchman Farm Blues" was covered by Blue Cheer and Cactus. White died in 1977.

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