In the second and final part of the series, we look at American blues as it fanned out into several sub-genres and had notable influence on rock n roll in the second half of the 20th century. This is done in conjunction with the below video, which is part 2 of a 2-part 2013 BBC Documentary called Blues America: Woke Up This Morning, with commentary by Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Blind Boy Paxton, Buddy Guy and Billy Boy Arnold among others.
With the industrialization of cotton picking and the post-war boom of northern American cities, there was a mass migration from rural to urban areas, especially among the African American population. With this, the style and meaning of blues music continued to change as attitudes about the music evolved within the younger members of the African American community.
In 1950, the new electric blues was “every black person’s party music” as the acoustic, agrawal sound of the recent past was quickly left behind. Founded and run by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess who also handled most of the music production, Chicago’s Chess Records became the epicenter of this new sound. Mississippi migrant Muddy Waters was the first real “star” of Chess, with a perfectly framed voice and harmonica played above sparse but potent musical arrangements. Waters’ first hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948, was the perfect bridge between the country and city sound as one of the earliest examples of an electrified take on down-home blues.
The Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips and his Memphis-based Sun Records in 1951, closing the talent circuit between the Delta and Chicago blues talent pools. Phillips discovered Howlin Wolf (born Chester Aurthur) and referred to Chess, resulting in the 1951 hit “How Many More Years”, an original song delivered with a powerful voice and strong commercial sensibility. Phillips also released early music by the legendary B.B. King, launching an incredibly long and fruitful career.
Of course, it was Phillips’ discovery of Elvis Presley, starting with a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama” where the young white performer “sounded black”. From here, rock n’ roll became the great melting pot of musical genres, sneaking across an invisible racial barrier and acting as a tectonic shift in American culture. In a reversal of the Elvis model, guitarist Chuck Berry went to Chess Records and converted a country/hillbilly song into the hit “Maybelline”, where the young black performer “sounded white”.
By the end of the 1950s, young black Americans had begun to move towards the sound of Motown/soul and away from the blues that they deemed “slave music”, “plantation music” and/or “old folks music”. But just as the hits dried up for even the most famous blues artists, a new white audience began to celebrate the traditional blues and re-frame this music as an art of “struggle and strife”. With this, the careers of older artists such as John Estes, Son House and Skip James found new life up north as these old masters performed to new white audiences. Adding to the appeal and curiosity, the “crossroads legend” combined with the 1961 compilation album, King of the Delta Blues Artists added to the legend and mystery of Robert Johnson and increased his influenced on the coming wave of (mostly) British classic rock bands such as the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin.
In the coming decades, artists like BB King, who played uptown, electric blues with class and dignity, kept the blues tradition alive in mainstream music with a fresh wave of blues-based rock artists, such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Thorogood and Robert Cray coming in the 1980s. In 1990, a 72-year-old John Lee Hooker, who had migrated to Detroit from Mississippi, to perform his famed boogie chillin’ style, had an incredible career revival with the album The Healer, proving that the blues style would live on into the future.