The 50 Greatest Blues Artists

by TW on November 3, 2008

The roots of the blues extend deep, deep into the soil of the Mississippi Delta, Texas, the Piedmont and up to Chicago. The influence of the blues on American music is inestimable, and the greatest blues artists and their classic recordings are as timeless as the blues itself.

Here are 50 of the most influential blues artists (in no particular order) and songs featuring some of their greatest performances.

Albert King: southpaw blues slinger who played a right-handed Flying V guitar upside down. His sweet tone was hugely influential on a new crop of blues guitarists, appearing on albums with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. Recommended: “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw” and “Laundromat Blues.”

Duane Allman: could have been the greatest player of his generation. In his short 24 years, Allman mastered the bottleneck slide and helped rewrite the book of Southern blues with The Allman Brothers Band. Recommended: “Loan Me A Dime,” “Whipping Post,” “Layla,” “Dreams” and “Statesboro Blues.”

Roy Buchanan: one of many tragic figures in the blues world. Buchanan coaxed notes from his Telecaster like pleas for better days. His gorgeous solos, creativity and speed had a huge impact on Jeff Beck. Recommended: “Roy’s Bluz,” “The Messiah Will Come Again,” “Story Of Isaac,” “After Hours” and “Thank You Lord.”

B.B. King: The master of using one note to say it all, King is the most important blues guitarist of the last half of the 20th century and the most durable. A tireless performer who managed to ride every musical tide of the past five decades and stay on top. Recommended: “The Thrill Is Gone,” “How Blue Can You Get,” “Five Long Years” and “Everyday I Have The Blues.”

Mike Bloomfield first found fame with Paul Butterfield’s band and helped turn a generation of white musicians onto the blues. Bloomfield could play circles around nearly everyone, on slide or otherwise, and his education came directly from blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. Recommended: “East-West,” “Albert’s Shuffle,” “Screamin’” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.”

Blind Blake’s pianistic guitar approach mixes ragtime with blues for a “raggin’” romp across the strings. Blake was a tremendously skilled guitarist — a master of alternating bass and treble picking. Recommended: “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “Blind Blake’s Breakdown” and “West Coast Blues.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan resurrected the blues in the 1980s with his soulful playing and tremendous guitar chops. The blues world is still awaiting his successor. Recommended: “Pride And Joy,” “The Sky Is Crying,” “Texas Flood,” “Rude Mood” and “Scuttle Buttin’.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Texas songster who struck it big in the 1920s. His moaning vocals, tricky rhythms and lead picking made him perhaps the most influential of the early Lone Star bluesmen. His “Matchbox Blues” was covered by The Beatles and Carl Perkins, among others. Recommended: “Hot Dogs,” “Rabbit Foot’s Blues,” “Matchbox Blues” and “Black Snake Moan.”

Blind Willie Johnson possessed a voice of raw emotion and frightening intensity that could shake a tree from its roots. Johnson’s music is a mix of heartfelt gospel and guttural blues played on the guitar with a bottleneck slide. “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” was reworked by Led Zeppelin into “In My Time Of Dying.” Recommended: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” and “God Moves On The Water.”

Charlie Patton: one of the great country/blues voices to emerge from the Delta. Patton’s guitar work often blends blues and Hawaiian guitar sounds using a metal “slide” to create a steely, whining drone. The song would become a blues staple, covered by Howlin’ Wolf and Cream, among others. Recommended: “Spoonful Blues,” “Pony Blues,” “Shake It And Break It” and “Down The Dirt Road Blues.”

Peter Green: For a time in the late ’60s, Green and Fleetwood Mac were on top of the British blues scene, and Green was touted by some as the greatest white blues guitarist of all. His playing is soulful and lyrical with a savage edge. Recommended: “Black Magic Woman,” “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “Oh Well” and “Albatross.”

T-Bone Walker: one of the early masters of electric guitar. Walker worked with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Dallas and developed into a first-rate player and soloist. His playing was a major influence on Freddie King and others. “Stormy Monday,” “Mean Old World,” “Strollin’ With Bones” and “I’m Still In Love With You.”

Robert Johnson: Arguably the most influential blues guitarist in history, Johnson lived to be only 27, but his stature is as large as the tales surrounding his life and mysterious death. Recommended: “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “Cross Road Blues” and “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”

Buddy Guy: The most recognizable proponent of Chicago blues alive, Guy has been lauded commercially and by his peers. Eric Clapton has called him the greatest guitar player alive. He’s also one of the greatest performers. Recommended: “Rememberin’ Stevie,” “Just Playing My Axe” and “Stone Crazy.”

Otis Rush: one of the great voices in the blues. His impassioned vocals and falsetto delivery match his singing guitar sound. Recommended: “My Love Will Never Die,” “Double Trouble,” “Three Times A Fool” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”

Johnny Winter: high-energy blues with rock ’n’ roll attitude. Winter is also a stinging slide guitar player. His later work with Muddy Waters earned the musicians two Grammy® Awards. Recommended: “Dallas,” “Leland Mississippi Blues,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Rock & Roll.”

Elmore James: the man on slide guitar. James took Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and made it his own and the signature song of the slide guitar. He was also a gifted singer. His songs have been covered so many times it’s easy to forget who wrote them. Recommended: “Dust My Broom,” “Sky Is Crying,” “Done Somebody Wrong” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.”

Son House: a master of the bottleneck whose influence extends from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters. Was friends and traveled with fellow blues aces Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. Recommended: “Preachin’ Blues,” “Levee Camp Moan,” “John The Revelator,” “Death Letter” and “Downhearted Blues.”

John Lee Hooker: Making do with the very minimum, Hooker could take one or two chords and hypnotize listeners with his repetitive vamping on a theme. Recommended: “Boom Boom,” “Boogie Chillun’,” “I’m In The Mood,” “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “Burning Hell.”

Muddy Waters: the sound of Chicago blues filtered through Clarksdale, Miss., and Robert Johnson. The raw stomp of “Mannish Boy” is the blues. Recommended: “Mannish Boy,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Howlin’ Wolf: The term blues giant describes Howlin’ Wolf to a tee. A monster in the Chicago blues scene, Wolf combined an imposing physical presence with a deep, gravelly growl that could sound lonely one moment and scare the hell out of you the next. Recommended: “Moanin’ At Midnight,” “Smokestack Lightning” and “How Many More Years.”

Lonnie Johnson: highly regarded guitarist whose skills transcended genres. Johnson played the blues but also recorded with the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. At home on the six-, nine- and 12-string guitar. Recommended: “Man Killing Broad,” “Got The Blues For The West End” and “Tomorrow The Night.”

Lightnin’ Hopkins: Texas bluesman who spent his youth helping Blind Lemon Jefferson travel from town to town and learning the blues by watching Jefferson play. Hopkins’ career took off when he was rediscovered in the 1950s. Recommended: “Big Mama Jump,” “Penitentiary Blues,” “Airplane Blues,” “Cryin’ Shame” and “You Treat Po’ Lightnin’ Wrong.”

Albert Collins: A proponent of the T-Bone Walker–guitar style, Collins created his own guitar sound by adding echo for a cool ringing effect and played in a minor tuning. (Cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins). Recommended: “Ice Pick,” “Frosty,” “Jawing” and “If Trouble Was Money.”

Mance Lipscomb: played in relative obscurity until being “discovered” in the 1960s. A fine rhythmic player carrying on the Texas blues tradition of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Recommended: “Blues In G,” “Mance’s Blues,” “Sugar Babe” and “What You Gonna Do When Death Comes Creepin’ At Your Room?”

Freddie King: A double dose of blues and soul, King used thumb and fingerpicks and a magic touch to play his brand of urban blues. His phrasing and energy were big influences on Eric Clapton. Recommended: “Hideaway,” “I Love The Woman,” “King-A-Ling” and “Tore Down.”

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown first came to attention when he took the stage at a Houston nightclub when T-Bone Walker got sick during a performance. Brown grabbed Walker’s guitar and began playing his own tune — “Gatemouth Boogie.” The rest is history. Recommended: “Swingin’ The Gate,” “Depression Blues,” “Chicken Shift” and “Okie Dokie Stomp.”

Eric Clapton: In The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and as a solo artist, Clapton blazed his way across the music world with searing blues-based guitar. The only triple-inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Recommended: “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Motherless Children,” “Crossroads,” “White Room,” “Blues Power” and “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.”

Jimi Hendrix: As if turning the guitar world on its head with his wild blend of rock and psych playing wasn’t enough, Hendrix was also an awesome blues guitarist. Recommended: “Red House,” “Once I Had A Woman,” “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Voodoo Child.”

Bukka White relied on a chugging rhythmic guitar style and improvisatory lyrics — lyrics that White said fell out of the sky. Also a highly skilled slide player who taught his cousin, B.B. King, the finer points of playing blues guitar. Recommended: “Shake ’Em On Down” (compare to Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off To Roy Harper”), “Parchman Farm Blues” and “Fixin’ To Die Blues.”

Blind Willie McTell was an accomplished guitarist at a young age and on the 12-string had few peers. McTell could even read and write music in braille. He combined the blues with ragtime and gospel to etch his own sound. Recommended: “Boll Weevil,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Georgia Rag” and “Brokedown Engine.”

Skip James: Using strange, open guitar tunings, dark lyrical themes and a falsetto voice, James produced some of the scariest blues numbers in the repertoire. His less bleak “I’m So Glad” has been covered by many. Recommended: “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”

Mississippi Fred McDowell: A Tennessee-born slide guitar wizard, McDowell’s intensity in his playing and singing was a major influence on Bonnie Raitt. Recommended: “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “Kokomo Blues.”

Reverend Gary Davis: incredible ragtime-style picker who influenced a slew of new white blues players in the ’60s including the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, Ry Cooder, and Dave Van Ronk. Recommended: “Cincinnati Flow Rag,” “Twelve Gates To The City,” “Samson And Delilah” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”

Big Bill Broonzy: another Mississippi guitarist who ventured north to Chicago. A tremendously facile player who picked with clarity and whose timing was flawless. Recommended: “Key To The Highway” and “Shuffle Rag.”

Mississippi John Hurt: a smooth fingerpicker whose gentle approach belies his skill with the six-string. His songs are like a warm breeze on a summer night. Recommended: “Candy Man,” “I’m Satisfied,” “Avalon Blues,” “Nobody’s Dirty Business” and “Spanish Fandango.”

Tommy Johnson: Delta bluesman whose style has been dubbed the “Jacksonville Sound” (Johnson was from Jacksonville, Miss.). Johnson is one of the greatest blues singers to come from Mississippi, with a voice that can wander to the edges of yodeling. Recommended: “Cool Drink Of Water Blues,” “Maggie Campbell Blues,” “Big Road Blues” and “Canned Heat Blues.”

Lead Belly: The stuff of legend, this Southern bluesman was found in prison, claiming a repertoire of 500 songs, then was recorded by John and Alan Lomax. It would be Lead Belly’s post-clink days when he found his richly deserved audience. Recommended: “Alberta,” “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Cottonfields.”

Willie Dixon: What blues warhorse didn’t Dixon write? One of the greatest composers in the blues genre. His songs have been covered by everyone. Recommended: “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Bring It On Home,” “Built For Comfort,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “I (Just) Want To Make Love To You” and “You Shook Me.”

John Mayall: the most important figure in British blues. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor all came through Mayall’s blues camp and went on to bigger things. Recommended: “Have You Heard,” “Double Crossing Time,” “Blues City Shake Down” and “Sitting In The Rain.”

Robert Nighthawk: Arkansas bluesman whose vocals and guitar playing could send a chill up your spine. Worked with John Lee Hooker and Jimmie Rodgers in the 1930s. Recommended: “Feel So Bad,” “Sweet Black Angel,” “Nighthawk Boogie” and “Bricks In My Pillow.”

Janis Joplin: The greatest white female blues singer. Armed with a 200-horsepower voice filtered though 100-proof alchohol and teetering at the edge of oblivion. Recommended: “Down On Me” and “Kozmic Blues.”

Woody Guthrie’s songs mirrored the plight of all Americans — the very essence of the blues. His talking-style blues would be refined and taken to new heights by Bob Dylan. Recommended: “Deportee,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Ballad Of Harriet Tubman.”

Ma Rainey: tremendously influential singer whose repertoire extended from the blues to jazz and folk. Recommended: “Blues Oh Blues,” “Yonder Come The Blues” and “See See Rider.”

Jimmie Rodgers: Established the blues as a base for country music and helped kick a new genre into gear. Recommended: “Blue Yodel,” “Brakeman’s Blues,” “Mississippi Moon” and “Waiting For A Train.”

Earl Hooker: Overshadowed by cousin John Lee Hooker, Earl was a highly skilled guitarist playing in the Chicago style. Hooker used a wah-wah pedal to make his own slide guitar sound. This underappreciated musician is today championed by Ronnie Earl. Recommended: “Blues Guitar,” “Country & Western,” “Guitar Rag” and “Off The Hook.”

Bessie Smith: perhaps the greatest blues singer of them all. Smith was influenced by Ma Rainey but carved her own path with a surety of rhythm and phrasing that still carries weight today. Recommended: “Blue Blues,” “Don’t Fish In My Sea,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”

Sonny Boy Williamson: the King of the harmonica and also skilled on guitar and drums. His mouth harp playing influenced everyone from Snooky Pryor to Paul Butterfield. Recommended: “One Way Out,” “Bring It On Home,” “All My Love In Vain” and “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’.”

W.C. Handy: Often touted as the Father of the Blues, Handy’s compositions “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” were the earliest “hits” in what would become the blues genre. Recommended: “Joe Turner Blues,” “Harlem Blues” and “Ole Miss.”

Otis Spann: Spann made his name as keyboardist for Muddy Waters during Waters’ great run in the 1950s, but he also recorded with other greats including Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and early Fleetwood Mac. Recommended: “Marie” and “Cryin’ Time.”

From Goldmine Magazine, April 24, 2006

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