classic rock songs

 

Greatest Blues Albums

 

The Top 10 Best Blues Albums Ever Released

 


CURATED BY INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED ROCK JOURNALIST JIM ESPOSITO


 

The Blues: Music That Changed The World

 

The Roots of Rock 'n Roll



best blues albums ever released

 

Like – DUH! Blues

 

Top 10 Best Blues Albums in Recorded History

 

by Jim Esposito

 

There are hundreds of excellent blues albums out there. They feature one or two great songs, two or three good tracks, a couple others you can listen to, one or two you don’t especially wanna sit through – but you do because you really like those two great songs.

In this article we’re not talking about the most significant, the most influential. We’re talking about the best. The most listenable. Robert Johnson was perhaps the single most influential person on Rock and Blues music in the last century. That doesn’t mean I play his records. It’s like archeology.

The Blues are elemental. Growing out of cotton fields down South, the genus was confined at first to the (quote, unquote) “Negro population.” Founding Blues pioneers like Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson playing “The Devil’s Music” in weekend Juke Joints around plantations in the Mississippi Delta inspired the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, who eked out a meager living in relative obscurity while white kids did the Mashed Potato at Sock Hops in High School Gyms to Ricky Nelson and The Four Freshmen.

A different story in England where a whole generation of budding guitar virtuosos freaked over American Blues. A big component of the fabled British Invasion was The London Blues Boom. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards all cite one gig by Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe at an abandoned train station in Manchester, England in 1964 as the seminal moment this started. These guys, Jimmy Page and Peter Green passed around Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf albums like the Holy Grail.

Besides the Rolling Stones, this begat Clapton, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, a host of second tier artists like John Mayall, Savoy Brown, Foghat and the Climax Blues Band. These musicians whitened up Black Blues, got record deals, American teenagers went nuts for it. Made a fortune. Became stars. People called it “The English Sound.” Actually, kind of a sad story. But whatta you expect? It’s The Blues. Like DUH! You got a musical art form, evolves from socio-economically depressed descendants of ex-slaves picking cotton (for peanuts) in the oppressive heat of the Deep South. You’re not getting Bubblegum hits outa that. Literally, you ain’t just whistling Dixie.

Still, we can’t ignore what those white musicians did once they got the Blues. There is a reason whitened up Blues appealed to a wider audience. (i.e. - white people) Those old black guys – they HAD The Blues. In their heart, their soul, it was their life. Songs they wrote, the genus they invented changed the world. To white musicians The Blues was an art form. They enjoyed it, reveled in it, experimented with it, refined it. With access to better technology, they developed an expertise in the studio. Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Roads” and “Dust My Broom” in a hotel room in San Antonio in 1936. Now playing Les Pauls and Strats, you had the chops of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Green standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps in Decca Studios.

Writing this list we are not concerned with who influenced who, who deserves credit for what. Feel like hearing some Blues? What’cha gonna play?

“If I have seen farther than others,” said Sir Isaac Newton, “it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

 

1. Freddie King
My Feeling For The Blues

 

B.B. King said this was his favorite Blues album. That’s a pretty good recommendation. (Remember, B.B. was a disc jockey at legendary WDIA out of Memphis.) Released in 1970 this record virtually defines a number of Blues standards. Everybody and his brother has done “Stormy Monday,” but Freddie’s is simply one of the bluesiest best. His reworking of Jimmy Witherspoon’s 1947 reworking of 1922’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (ditching Billie Holiday’s domestic violence) turned it into the Blues standard it soon became. The album opens with a smoldering rendition of “Yonder Wall,” then kicks in with Freddie’s high wattage redux of his own classic “The Stumble,” includes a great instrumental of Ray Charles “What’d I Say,” and an excellent take on “The Things I Used to Do.” One of the original hard core Texas bluesmen (via the South Side of Chicago) Freddie was a major influence on a then budding generation of artists who succeeded him, and it was those guys – Clapton, Page, Peter Green, Keith Richard, John Mayall – who first brought The Blues to popular attention.

 

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Freddie King, My Feeling For The Blues

2. Howlin’ Wolf
London Sessions

 

Many people consider Muddy Waters the pre-eminent Founding Father of Modern Electric Blues. I cannot fault them if they do. But for me it was always Howlin’ Wolf. In the early 70s Chess Records sent their biggest artists over to England to record Session albums with British stars. The Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins albums which resulted are okay. The Chuck Berry London Sessions is very good; one side live, apart from his Adults Only rendition of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” it also features the only Top 10 Hit Chuck himself ever had – “My Ding A Ling” (a true travesty of rock ’n roll).

The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions, however, is a monster. Wanna know how significant an artist the Wolf was? Look at who showed up: Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Not a bad backing band. They recorded timeless, spontaneous and spirited renditions of “Built For Comfort,” “Highway 49,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and “Wang-Dang-Doodle.” The album also includes a great snippet of dialogue where Wolf explains how to follow him through “Little Red Rooster.”

Aside from how good it is, this album will always hold a special place in my heart because I wrote a great hang-out piece on Wolf in early fall, 1974, a little more than a year before he died. Playing a music hall in Gainesville, Florida, a converted cinema, a couple hundred seats, Wolf and his band arrived in a used station wagon towing a trailer with plywood sides on which, in hand painted letters, were the words: “Howlin’ Wolf Blues Revue.”

Wolf was 64, but looked much older. Over six hulking feet tall, in a striped sport coat, black trousers and shoes, he walked slowly, stooped over. People kept offering him a beer, but he was on dialysis, had to decline. “Ain’t got no kidneys,” he explained, time after time. “Wish I could. Gotta go on one of those kidney machines every two weeks.”

Sitting in a canvas backed director’s chair backstage, a constant stream of young longhairs and lovely ladies stop to say hello, shake his hand, introduce themselves. Wolf always introduces himself as “Wolf.”

“Jim.”

“Wolf.”

“Bruce.”

“Wolf.”

Holding court, Wolf talked about Muddy Waters, farming, what kind of guitar he prefers.

I asked about the London Sessions. “How long did it take to record that album?”

“Three hours.” he replied.

“THREE HOURS?” I gasped in incredulity.

The Wolf told me: “We weren’t in no hurry.”

 

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Howlin' Wolf London Sessions

3. Otis Rush
Right Place, Wrong Time

 

People talk about Great Blues Artists, few mention Otis Rush. But few of the artists they might mention have ever produced an album of this magnitude. This is a serious Blues document by a great artist who deserves a lot more recognition than he receives.

Born in Mississippi in 1934, Otis Rush taught himself to play guitar, starting at the age of eight. He moved to Chicago in 1948 or ’49, playing clubs as a teenager under the nom de plume Little Otis. He was left handed, played upside down (with the low E as the bottom string, like Jimi Hendrix), became known for playing a cherry red Gibson ES-335 (the Chuck Berry guitar).

Though he might be known best for writing “All Your Loving (I Miss Loving)” which would later become the opening track of John Mayall’s “Beano” album (i.e. Clue #1) Rush was first to record “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.” Written for him in 1956 by Willie Dixon, reportedly based on a relationship Otis was involved in at the time, it hit Number 6 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

Unfortunately for aficionados of the genre, the recording career of Otis Rush was plagued by contractual entanglements and record company failures. Though managed by legendary Albert Grossman, the body of work Otis left behind falls well below his rightful stature in the Blues pantheon.

Know that old saying – you can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps? Otis Rush’s first album, Mourning In The Morning, was recorded in 1969 at fabled Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Produced by Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites, not only was Otis backed by the world famous Muscle Shoals Swampers, but Duane Allman as well.

Right Place, Wrong Time was recorded in 1971, which would have made it Rush’s second studio effort, however, Capitol Records decided not to release it. (They also passed on a band called The Doors because their lead singer lacked charisma.) Ultimately, Otis bought the master and Right Place, Wrong Time was released by independent label Bulldog in 1975.

A Classic – great songs, great vocals, great guitar. Otis wrote four of the 10 tracks, two of them instrumentals. No widely known Blues standards. The first side of the record opens with “Tore Up,” written by Ike Turner and Ralph Bass, the second with Albert King’s “Natural Ball.” The most recognizable cut is Rush’s bluesy take of “Rainy Night In Georgia,” written by (“Polk Salad Annie”) Tony Joe White, a chart-topping hit for Brook Benton in 1970.

Still, it’s not the songs which make this record, but the performance. Upbeat numbers (“Tore Up,” “Natural Ball” and “Lonely Man”) are hot, highlighting Rush’s heartfelt vocals, searing lead guitar fills and flowing, well-constructed solos. Slow blues tunes like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” “Your Turn To Cry” and “Take A Look Behind” smolder and spark. Of the two instrumentals, “Easy Go” is a masterpiece, right up there with “The Stumble,” and “I Wonder Why,” a dreamy shuffle, carries you along.

I don’t know if you can find another album which features such consistently excellent guitar work. I might mention a few, but they’d be all time Classics: Layla, Machine Head, etc… His licks may not be flashy, but they fit so perfectly, ringing out with joy and spontaneity. Comparing Otis Rush to his contemporaries perhaps only Freddie King can hold a candle to him. So, while we may bemoan the body of work Otis Rush left behind, you gotta give him his props for Right Place, Wrong Time.

 

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Otis Rush, Right Place, Wrong Time

4. Freddy King
Freddy King Sings

 

TWO albums by Freddy King in my Top Four? Many may think that means I’m simply a big Freddy King fan. Well, what Blues afficionado isn’t? This guy actually worked in a fricking steel mill, playing guitar at night in Blues Clubs on the south side of Chicago. (Think about that the next time you listen to him do “Five Long Years.”)

Anybody who might object to placing two of his records in my Top Four is probably not too familiar with these albums. Pretty much a toss-up which one’s better. Gave Number One to My Feeling For The Blues since it was specifically singled out by B.B. King, a little more polished, a little more electric.

Freddy King Sings, released in 1961, may be one of the best debut albums ever. Certainly one of the most significant, specifically in the Blues genre, containing two all-time classics: Freddie’s original rendition of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “I’m Tore Down.” The former, of course, was a major influence on Eric Clapton. He covered it on Layla, and something like five or six live albums. It became a signature fixture in his concerts, perhaps because how it dovetailed into the story of Layla itself, that Patti (Boyd) Harrison thing. Released as a single “I’m Tore Down” hit Number Five on the Billboard R&B Charts, would probably rank high on anybody’s list of the world’s best Blues songs. Three other cuts off this album also charted: opening track “See See Baby,” “Lonesome Whistle Blues” and “You’ve Got to Love Her with a Feeling.”

A major creative contributor on this record was Sonny Thompson, a pianist, producer and A&R man for King Records, who played piano on the recording and gets shared writing credits for three songs, sole credit for two, one of those being “I’m Tore Down.”

From the opening notes of “See See Baby” Freddy King Sings is a well-produced collection of effortless, easy-going Blues featuring Freddy’s smokey, honey-dripping vocals, interwoven with his scintillating lead guitar. Freddy considered himself a Blues singer, but soon came to notoriety for his guitar. Relaxed and unhurried, but still exhilarating, the riffs, fills and solos flowed out his Cherry 335, tingled down your spine. T-Bone Walker might’ve invented electric Blues, but it was the exquisite guitar work of Freddy King which inspired many young English musicians that blossomed into the London Blues Boom of the ’60s.

Though not included on the record, it was during this session King cut his signature instrumental “Hide Away.” First released as the B-side of “I Love the Woman” it eventually hit Number Five on the R&B Charts, and Number 29 on Billboard’s Pop Chart, quite an accomplishment for a blues instrumental at a time when the genre was still largely ignored by mainstream America.

 

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Freddy King Sings

5. John Mayall
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (a.k.a. The Beano Album)

 

It is fitting we follow the preceding Freddie King with a record by his most famous proponent. In 1965 Guitar God Eric Clapton shocked the rock world by leaving the commercially successful Yardbirds because he wanted to play The Blues. This was the next album on which he appeared. Released in 1966, entitled Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, in historical significance it is impossible to rank any other Blues record by white musicians higher.

John Mayall does not get the respect he deserves. Though never a major artist back in the day he is perhaps the pre-eminent white pioneer of the genre. He may not have had chart hits, and he didn’t play Classic Blues, had a relatively eclectic repertoire, however, his constant touring as a supporting act first exposed Blues to a wide audience of kids, most of whom who had not yet made the connection from whence Rock had sprung. Along the way artists who later rose to prominence in their own right served their apprenticeship in Mayall’s band. Aside from Eric Clapton the list includes Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce, Keef Hartley, Aynsley Dunbar and Harvey Mandel.

If you are not familiar with Mayall, not only check out this album, but 1967’s Hard Road (featuring Peter Green on guitar), and one of my favorites – Blues from Laurel Canyon – from 1968, with Mick Taylor playing lead.

As far as Clapton is concerned, no other Caucasian musician has done more to whiten up the Blues, enable its appeal to a wider audience. Leaving The Yardbirds, Clapton teamed up with John Mayall (accompanied by John McVie on bass) to record this truly seminal document. Critically well received and commercially successful at the time, in hindsight this record is epically HUGE, a cornerstone of the fabled London Blues Boom. Early Beatles and Stones recorded Blues and R&B tunes, and The Animals, the bluesiest band of the British Invasion, had broken big, but Beano was the first significant release of a pure Blues album by a white musician of Eric Clapton’s stature. And people took notice.

From the searing little slash accenting the main riff of Otis Rush’s “All Your Loving (I Miss Loving)” – the album’s opening track – you can tell Clapton is unleashed, playing with the joy and spontaneity of the blossoming virtuoso he was at that time. The second cut is a dazzling rendition of “Hideaway,” Freddie King’s signature instrumental. The record also features Clapton’s first vocal in his timeless rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind.” His guitar searing hot, prominent in the mix, Eric rips through album cuts like “Little Girl,” “Double Crossing Time,” “Have You Heard,” and his first recording of a second instrumental, Memphis Slim’s “Steppin Out.”

Reflecting the eclectic nature of his repertoire, Mayall throws in a couple of simple vocal and harmonica arrangements of two traditional Folk Blues standards: “Another Man Done Gone” and “Parchman Farm.” Revolutionary at the time, probably the first time many heard those tunes, they now sound dated, though listenable nonetheless. And the final track of the first side is a decent rendition of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” until they revert to one of the most enigmatic manifestations of the 60s – the drum solo. These cuts have not aged well in retrospection.

Even so, these artistic blemishes do not and cannot diminish the historical significance of this record. No album released by white musicians can be ranked higher.

 

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John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton

6. Gary Moore
Blues for Greeny

 

Peter Green deserves to be somewhere on this list. In the late 60s, as a Blues guitarist, he was considered almost equal to Eric Clapton. Unfortunately, Green had issues. Some progress, some fall by the wayside. Clapton himself had his own demons, if you remember, but managed to re-emerge. Still it is impossible to overlook what a pioneer Peter Green was through that seminal era.

A pure Blues group, the first two Fleetwood Mac records were significant, though raw and inconsistent. When those English white boys first got hold of the Blues, it was so new, so cool, so exciting and revolutionary, they were having so much fun playing it, getting high, ripping through that opening riff from “Dust My Broom,” getting paid for it (getting laid for it) they weren’t too concerned with any underlying art form.

The first two Fleetwood Mac albums featured great stuff, but too much of it was repetitious 12-bar Blues at different tempos with different words. Peter Green was known for his sweet tone, but LOVED that Elmore James “Dust My Broom” intro. Of 12 cuts on Mr. Wonderful he uses it four times. And THREE songs in a row? Gimme a break, man.

Still, you can take the better tracks from the first three or four Fleetwood Mac albums, put together one hell of a record. Fortunately for us this thought occurred to Gary Moore in the mid-90s, resulting in Blues For Greeny, a tribute Moore released in 1995, recorded using the 1959 Les Paul Standard Sunburst which Peter Green sold him when times got tough.

Me and a couple friends literally wore this CD out. (I’m on my third disc.) Sweet as Peter Green’s guitar was known to be, Gary Moore’s licks on this album are close in tone, but just the teensiest bit hotter. What’s nice, because it is an homage to Green, Moore stays a little more in control.

Song selection is right on. Only one missing is “Stop Messin’ Round,” which he recorded in 1990 during the Still Got The Blues sessions. Moore’s rendition of Green’s rendition of Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” is positively sublime. Another highlight is “The Supernatural,” but there’s really not a bad note on this record.

About Beano above I said no Blues record by white musicians could be more significant. Blues For Greeny might be overall the best Blues album ever recorded by a white musician. That it is a tribute by a true virtuosos to one of the Founding Fathers of Blues guitar makes it especially endearing.

And while I’m on the subject, if you haven’t heard him and B.B. King doing “The Thrill Is Gone” off Moore's compilation Best of The Blues you are missing one of the best live Blues tracks ever performed. The guitar duel between these guys is frickin’ amazing.

 

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Gary Moore Blues for Greeny

 

Gary Moore & B.B. King "The Thrill Is Gone"

 

Best Of The Blues, Gary Moore

7. Johnny Winter
Johnny Winter (First Columbia Release)

 

Hello, world, my name is Johnny Winter. Another white musician doing the Blues. Only Johnny was REAL white – an albino from Texas. Released in 1969, a musical era where something monumental and earth-shattering came out almost every other week (especially from Columbia – “Clive Davis was always there first, with flowers”) this album caused a lot of draws to drop. Nobody’d heard the Blues like this, so raw and powerful. Johnny was the first of the “Loud” Blues Players.

My good buddy Kent considers Still Alive and Well a desert island album, and it certainly merited consideration for this list, but I don’t know how you could possibly rank it over Winter’s first Columbia release.

The record opens with “I’m Yours & I’m Hers,” written by Johnny. It certainly grabs your attention, a bit discordant, you wonder if you like it, the raw power in your face, but you can’t ignore that fricking double-tracked guitar, those growling vocals, that throbbing bass. You actually feel a bit drained when the song ends. And that’s Track One.

Then Johnny launches into the intro of B.B. King’s “Be Careful with a Fool.” This has to be one of the best Blues cuts in recorded history. A perfect song for Johnny’s gritty vocals, the guitar work is absolutely staggering – the fills, the solo. A truly monumental track, even after hearing to it for over 50 years, I still sit listening with mouth agape. Music is a mercurial creature, and few have ever climbed the mountain, touched the sun like Johnny Winter in this performance.

Not surprising, this was the song that got Johnny a record deal. Mike Bloomfield had invited Winter to play a tune during a gig he was doing at the Fillmore East with Al Kooper in 1968. Reps from Columbia were in the audience since they’d released the Super Session. They heard Johnny do “Be Careful with a Fool,” signed him to Columbia for what was at the time the largest advance in history – $600,000.

Also pay attention to bassist Tommy Shannon. A few years later he wound up in Double Trouble, backing another Texas Bluesman named Stevie Ray Vaughn.

I’m not going through this record track by track, but I would be remiss if I did not continue the string to the third cut, “Dallas.” An acoustic slide blues a la Robert Johnson it was a style not many white guitarists would even attempt. Listening to the lyrics you have to wonder what life must’ve been like for he and his brother Edgar, albino musicians growing up in the fabled Lone Star State. “There’s so much shit in Texas, you’re bound to step in some.”

The other standout on this album is Johnny’s initial recording of (John Lee) Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl.” A blues standard recorded by a number of artists, including the Yardbirds, it would become a staple in Winter’s live repertoire.

An extremely hot rendition of “School Girl” opens 1971’s Live Johnny Winter And. By that point Johnny was playing with Rick Derringer, and they comprised one of the hottest two guitar teams you’ll ever hear. I love this album, and I love this version of “School Girl” because you get to listen to Johnny Winter try and play rhythm. Johnny, the star of this band, did 90% of the soloing, but almost every song Rick got 12 bars, 16 bars to strut his stuff. Johnny’s supposed to play rhythm behind him, and he does chords for a couple bars before you hear him beginning to get bored, playing pieces of the chords, then single note rhythm riffs. That only lasts a couple bars before Johnny says screw it, starts wailing right along.

Live Johnny Winter And also features an unbelievable performance of “It’s My Own Fault,” perhaps one of best live Blues songs on record, and incredibly hot renditions of “Johnny B. Goode” and The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Johnny Winter ended up having a long, distinguished career, but he did have issues, hit bumps along the road. Spent time in an institution in New Orleans. I had a friend went to Tulane, right next door, used to hear him practice, electric guitar wailing from an asylum. I remember seeing him mounting his comeback, performing as a special guest behind Edgar Winter’s Road Work before getting his own group together. He was always hot, but for a while it was Johnny, a bass player and TWO drummers, which I never understood. And he went off on these bizarre solos, extremely discordant, scraping his guitar against the mike stand and stuff, maniacally strumming weird chords. All you could think was – “Johnny? Where the hell is your head at?”

By the time he passed in 2014 Johnny had released almost 20 studio albums, a half a dozen live. Always a great live show, but his earlier recordings were his best – this first Columbia release, the aforementioned Live Johnny Winter And from ’71, Still Alive and Well from 1973. After that he settled into the usual pattern – a couple great songs, a few more good ones, etc… One of his best tunes ever, though, was on Let Me In, released in 1991. If you’re not familiar with “Life Is Hard,” you should check it out immediately.

“No matter how you try, life is hard, and then you die.”

Now THAT’s The Blues.

 

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Johnny Winter

 

"Life Is Hard" off Let Me In

 

Let Me In

8. Climax Blues Band
The Climax Chicago Blues Band

 

Released in 1969, the eponymous debut album for The Climax Chicago Blues Band, subsequently shortened to the Climax Blues Band. Riding the wave of the fabled London Blues Boom, they never enjoyed the success of more notable contemporaries. Perhaps they did not tour the U.S. as heavily. John Mayall, Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac came through town once or twice a year. Also, after this debut their albums (except for 1971’s Tightly Knit) were so-so, and they never clicked with a signature song like “Tell Mama,” “Oh Well” or “Room To Move.”

Climax Chicago, however, is a great Blues LP, not a bad note on the album. Peter Haycock was a truly underrated guitarist. He wasn’t flashy, but he was always there, playing the perfect riff, a sneaky fill, a flowing solo. His chief cohort was vocalist Colin Cooper, who played a mean blues harp.

Standout tracks include several Blues standards, starting with a tasty upbeat rendition of the Little Walter version of “Mean Old World.” Like “It Hurts Me Too” there are several versions of this song, dating back originally to T-Bone Walker circa 1940. Little Walter recorded a version in the early 50s with different lyrics for the second and third verses. Interestingly enough, Climax Blues Band credits their rendition to Big Bill Broonzy, who recorded and released a song entitled “Mean Old World” in 1937, however, aside from the words “mean old world,” there isn’t another lyric from either the T-Bone Walker or Little Walter versions.

As would become typical for Climax Blues Band, after a guitar intro, they sing two verses, then Colin gets 24 bars to play harmonica, followed by another 24 bars of Pete Haycock on guitar. They may not be the flashiest solos you ever hear, but both are right on the mark.

Other good covers include Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” Howling Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and Big Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blues,” which dates back to the 1920s.

Between these Climax Chicago features some interesting originals like “Going Down this Road,” “You’ve Been Drinking” and “Looking For My Baby.”

Two of the originals are outstanding. “Twenty Past One” is a jumpin’ instrumental, an upbeat shuffle, obviously the band’s attempt at their own “Hideaway.” The album concludes with “And Lonely,” a brooding eight minute masterpiece. These are really Pete Haycock’s tunes, his extended guitar work through these songs is excellent.

Unfortunately, after such a promising debut, the Climax Blues Band never really followed up with much. Their fourth album, Tightly Knit, released in 1971 is worth checking out. The first two cuts are great: “Hey Mama” is a simple upbeat 12-bar shuffle which features great harp from Colin and great guitar from Pete; and “Into The Sun” might be the band’s best song ever, a hopping boogie tune sounds a lot like Canned Heat. This album also features excellent covers of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.”

As I mentioned, music is a mercurial creature, and the whole creative process in recording albums a capricious and unpredictable process. Sometimes the stars align, which would seem to be the case in this instance.

 

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Climax Chicago Blues Band

9. T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Blues

 

Listen to five seconds of T-Bone Walker you immediately know who is undeniably the Father of Electric Blues. T-Bone was doing electric “West Coast” Blues in the 40s. Before there were even record “albums.” Born Aaron Thibeault Walker in Linden, Texas, 1910, “T-Bone” was performing by the age of 15, guiding Blind Lemon Jefferson, legendary “Father of Texas Blues” to gigs around Dallas, passing the hat. Moving to California circa 1930 Walker was playing clubs on L.A.’s Central Avenue with big band jazz orchestras through his 20s.

At some point T-Bone picked up a Gibson ES-250. Initially produced around 1939 the ES-250 was one of the first “amplified” guitars, popularized at the time by Charlie Christian, a swing and jazz guitarist from the Benny Goodman Sextet, old friend and former band-mate of Walker, who envisioned guitar as more than a rhythm instrument, started playing single notes. It was the birth of lead guitar.

In 1942, employed as rhythm guitarist for boogie-woogie piano player Freddie Slack, T-Bone recorded two songs in the studios of fledgling Capitol Records: “Mean Old World” and “I Got A Break, Baby.” These are considered the first electric Blues songs ever recorded.

“When I heard T-Bone Walker play the electric guitar,” said B.B. King, “I had to have one.”

Walker invented the whole blues singer / lead guitarist thing. To this day you will hardly ever hear an electric Blues song which does not incorporate a riff, a run, a Ninth chord, a turnaround or technique which does not trace its roots back to T-Bone Walker.

T-Bone blossomed through the 1940s, releasing a string of notable records, including “Stormy Monday” in 1947 and “T-Bone Shuffle” in ’48. Recorded on equipment primitive by today’s standards, they were released as Singles, for there were no “albums” back then. The first LP, which stood for “long playing” record, holding a revolutionary capacity of 23 minutes of music per side playing at 33-1/3 RPMs, was introduced by Columbia in 1948.

At that point in the history and development of the music industry artists cut singles, which were released, lived and died by radio play. If you were successful, recorded enough singles, you could then compile them on an LP. Artists did not dedicate a specified period to retreat into a studio and record an album as a coherent artistic document.

In the mid-50s, Atlantic Records got a newly-signed T-Bone Walker into a studio for three sessions: the first in Chicago in ’55, produced by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler; the next two in Los Angeles in ’56 and ’57 produced by Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet’s brother. Hopefully, you are familiar with those names. In the history of the music business, the faces of these three guys are carved into Mt. Rushmore. This resulted in Walker’s first true album – T-Bone Blues. Released in 1959 it was the product of dedicated recording sessions.

The obvious standouts are the newer, more polished versions of “Stormy Monday,” “Mean Old World” and “T-Bone Shuffle.” But there are a number of Blues gems on this album. Start to finish, this is an extremely listenable record, highlighted by Walker’s distinctive melodic and easy going guitar.

T-Bone Blues is comprised of 15 tracks, five each from the three sessions, and you gotta love the fact they grouped the cuts together.

“Papa Ain’t Salty” is the opening track, a simple 12-bar Blues shuffle. I don’t know what “papa ain’t salty” means exactly, but apparently it’s not good because now he’s missing his girl, knows he was wrong, sorry he caused her pain, wonders why she had to go. Etc… A “Fill In The Blanks” Blues tune, its only purpose is giving T-Bone an opportunity to play guitar. And that’s okay. Because as Walker coasts through those sweet, tasty licks, you’re smiling, thinking – 19-frickin’-fifty-FIVE! This guy’s Patient One of the Electric Blues.

The whole album is quite listenable, features guest appearances by Junior Wells, Jimmy Rodgers and jazz legend Barney Kessel. Again, I could go through this record track by track. I could also do an entire manifesto on the Top 20 Versions of “Stormy Monday.” Want a quick thrill, look up the rendition done on the BBC by (no lie) Jethro Tull.

Beyond the simple pleasure of enjoying the music, however, it is impossible not to marvel at the influence T-Bone Walker became, the inspiration for generations of Texas Bluemen, and from there one of the Founding Father of Rock ’n Roll itself.

“All the things people see me do on the stage,” explained Chuck Berry once, “I got from T-Bone Walker.”

 

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T-Bone Walker, T-Bone Blues

10. J.J. Cale
Troubadour and/or Naturally

 

A bit of a toss-up. Naturally was J.J.’s first album, released on Shelter in 1971. It’s raw, but simple and spontaneous, featuring his version of “After Midnight” (already released by Eric Clapton) and “Call Me The Breeze,” which caught the attention of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“I heard that song,” Ronnie Van Zandt told me, “I had to do it.”

J.J. had a way of putting you into a laid back, bluesy little mood and keeping you there. His oozing low down-home vocals, the smokey feel of his songs, that tasty guitar which would become J.J.’s signature.

What makes Naturally is the strength of the songwriting. As with many debut albums the artist is drawing from years of material. Aside from the aforementioned hits this LP contains a ton of great songs: “Call The Doctor,” “Don’t Go To Strangers,” “River Runs Deep,” “Magnolia” and “Bringing It Back.”

Realize I just singled out SEVEN tracks from the album. That’s a pretty good batting average.

The reason Naturally doesn’t qualify for one of The Greatest Blues Albums Ever is “Clyde,” last cut, first side. Now I know the guy was from Oklahoma. He cut tracks on his porch, in his barn. Naturally was a “spec” album, recorded as cheaply as possible, then shopped around. J.J.’s backed by a drum machine on “The Breeze.” Still, “Clyde” is a clinker, out of character for the LP. Fortunately it is short. If you can cover your ears and hold your nose for 2:29 this is a truly great album. If you can’t, it’s still very good. Either way, it shall always hold a special place in my heart for introducing me (and the world) to J.J. Cale.

A legendary artist, J.J. was enigmatic to the Nth Degree, shunning the spotlight. As his fame increased and more people turned on to his music Cale retreated. He never wanted to be a superstar, hardly ever toured. Making big money on songwriting royalties, Cale became a rock ’n roll recluse. A big, big influence on Eric Clapton, who embraced the “Tulsa Sound,” recorded a number of J.J.’s songs. Cale put out an album every couple years, and there were always a couple killer songs, that distinctive earthy feel, the tasty guitar.

Troubadour, his fourth album, released in 1976, is without a doubt J.J.’s best. A slick production. As we like to say – not a bad note on the record. Everything comes together on Troubadour – the songwriting, the performances, the sound and feel. It is layered and textured, with intricate percussions and overlapping guitars.

One high point of Troubadour is “Travelin’ Light,” a catchy, upbeat number with an infectious main riff and interwoven vibes. Clapton tried covering it, did not come close. The other highlight is a song everyone’s heard, thanks to Clapton, is J.J.’s “Cocaine.” Not to be confused with Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues.”

An interesting back story to this tune. Clapton wrote “Lay Down Sally” as a tribute to Cale, wanted J.J. to come play on the track when he was recording Slowhand at Olympic Studios in London. J.J. did not want to make the trip.

So Clapton told him: “Then I’m doing ‘Cocaine,’ because you did nick the riff from ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’”

After those two, other standout tracks include the aptly named “Super Blue,” “The Woman That Got Away” (featuring two sweet little guitar solos), the jazzy-blues of “Hold On” and “You Got Me On So Bad,” and a beautiful ballad entitled “Cherry.”

J.J. Cale was also reknowned for his guitar. A cheap Harmony acoustic J.J. modified it. And modified it. (And modified it, and modified it…) A sound engineer who learned electronics in the Air Force, by the time he was done it had five (different) pick-ups and seven control knobs. With no back, the interior of the guitar’s body was a rat’s nest of wires.

With this guitar J.J. Cale got tones you simply cannot hear anywhere else. Cale has a lot of fun with that. Listen to the sound of his rhythm through, “Gypsy Man.” Or the lead solo between the second and third verses of “Cocaine.”

Again, we have just singled out eight of the 12 songs on the record.

J.J. Cale released 15 albums. After Naturally and Troubadour you might also check out Grasshopper from 1982 and Closer To You from ’94.

You can also check out my J.J. Cale Playlist on my YouTube channel:

 

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J.J. Cale Naturally

 

Troubadour, J.J. Cale



Notable Ommissions and Near Misses

 

The trouble with doing one of these lists (and frankly a lot of the fun) is you piss everybody off. You’re probably pissed right now. For no matter what you include you will always miss somebody’s favorite. Get nine out of ten they still consider you an idiot for missing the one. Well, that’s life. (That’s what people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.) I’m far from perfect, and I did have a lotta fun in the 70s.

Still, I feel somewhat remiss if I didn’t mention a couple fairly obvious oversights and ommissions.

 

Where's Albert? Where's B.B.?

 

Two Freddies but no Albert or B.B.? My favorite song by Albert King is “I’ll Play The Blues For You,” but the rest of that album’s only okay. His best LP is Born Under A Bad Sign, which was under serious consideration for the bottom half of my Top 10. A great, great rendition of “Kansas City” is the highlight. Still, I felt records I included were better overall. I also love In Session with Stevie Ray. Insanely hot cuts of “Pride and Joy,” “Stormy Monday” and “Blues At Sunrise.” After that, kinda so-so.

And B.B. – God bless him. A Classic. And a Class Act. One of the finest gentlemen you could ever meet. But he lived to play live. Like two hundred shows a year. If this was a list of the Best Live Blues Albums, B.B.’s Live At The Regal would be very close to the top. If this was a list of the Best Live Blues Songs Ever, his “Thrill Is Gone” with Gary Moore would have to be Top Three. B.B. King’s studio efforts were typically pretty good, extremely listenable, however, like watching him live, there were always a few tunes you sat through waiting for him to get to the good stuff.

 

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Albert King, Born Under A Bad Sign

 

B.B. King Live At The Regal

Muddy Waters
Hard Again

 

No denying Muddy Waters is arguably the second or third most significant artist in Blues History, in the mix with only T-Bone Walker and Robert Johnson. A founding cornerstone of Chicago Blues, however, Muddy’s Golden Age reigned before the “album” era. Most his Classics were recorded as Singles for Chess Records through the 1950s. He did release studio albums through the 60s and 70s. They are certainly worth a listen.

In January, 1977, at the age of either 60 or 62 (depending upon which story you believe as to his birth date), Muddy released Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter, who is credited in liner notes for guitar and “Miscellaneous Screaming.”

Johnny Winter produced two more records by Waters – I’m Ready and King Bee – wound up being the last three albums Muddy ever released.

Hard Again is a raw, powerful and brutal album which leaves you physically drained. It won a Grammy, and it’s great, but it’s not a record you’re gonna listen to on a regular basis unless you’re contemplating suicide.

 

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Muddy Waters, Hard Again

Savoy Brown
Lion’s Share

 

If Kim Simmonds read this he might've gotten pissed, for I know his favorite is Street Corner Talking. The band themselves did not think much of Lion’s Share. Back in the day, talking backstage to Harry Simmonds, Kim’s brother and Savoy Brown’s Manager, told him I liked it. He shouted across the dressing room. “Hey, Kim! This guy likes Lion’s Share!”

Savoy Brown was rather popular through the late 60s, early 70s. Touring constantly they were one of the most accessible bands to emerge from the London Blues Boom. Their early albums were okay but they really emerged with Looking In. Savoy Brown, however, was Kim’s band. His brother was Manager and the other musicians were on salary. Which is why after Looking In everybody in the group except for Kim (Lonesome Dave, Roger Earl and Tony Stevens) quit, hooked up with Rod Price and formed Foghat.

Kim and Harry hired a new band with Dave Walker on vocals. Street Corner Talking from 1971 put Savoy Brown on the map for a few years, mainly thanks to that intro to “Tell Mama.” Early in 1972, the group released Hellbound Train, and later that year Lion’s Share. You gotta love the song selection on Lion’s Share. The major standout is “Denim Demon,” written by Dave Walker, but the opening track, “Shot In The Head” (an obscure Easybeats) is another great boogie tune. “Love Me Please” and “The Saddest Feeling” are excellent slow blues. And the band throws in covers of The Wolf’s “Howling For My Darling” and Little Walter’s “Hate To See You Go.”

Kim Simmonds doesn’t get the recognition he might deserve, but his guitar work on this record is excellent, as always. It was Savoy Brown’s raison d’etre.

 

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Savoy Brown, Lion's Share

 

Looking In, Savoy Brown

Passing The Butterfield

 

It kills me no Paul Butterfield on this list but I was torn between two albums, both of which have plusses and minuses. Their debut, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, is a great record. “Born In Chicago,” penned by Nick Gravenites, is one of the best opening tracks on an artist’s first album in Recorded Rock History (right up there with “Break On Through.”)

Paul Butterfield, a watershed artist, was one of the first white guys got hip to The Blues. He was from Chicago, and the subject of a great documentary which you should definitely check out, Horn From The Heart.

A gifted blues harp player Butterfield assembled a legendary band which included Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitar, a rhythm section he hired away from Howlin’ Wolf. Their debut, released in 1965, is a true testament of the Blues, but they include covers of “Shake Your Money-Maker” and “Got My Mojo Working.” Start naming Classic Blues Tunes, these are pretty far down my list.

Two of my all-time Paul Butterfield tracks are on their second LP, East-West. They open the record with a simply monster electric rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” You could devote an entire dissertation to the Top 20 versions of this song. (Listen to Muddy’s rendition off his London Sessions LP with Rory Gallagher on slide.) A couple cuts later Butterfield and his band do an incredible take on “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living.”

These tracks are so good you simply cannot assert any Butterfield album without them deserves to be ranked ahead of East-West. But the record features two lengthy instrumentals Bloomfield reportedly pushed to include: “Work Song” and the title track. The former is just under 8 minutes, “East-West” over 13. Fascinating pieces of music, rather experimental and revolutionary for the times, they but prevent the inclusion of the album in my Top 10.

Looking back the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was kinda like the original Star Trek. By the time you realized how Classic they were they were gone.

 

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Paul Butterfield Blues Band

 

East-West, Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Derek & The Dominos
Layla

 

Like – DUH! A double album, take away the rock numbers and this is a truly great Blues record. Look at what’s left: “Bell Botton Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” creation’s hottest rendition of “Key To The Highway” (the encyclopedia of Blues guitar licks), “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “It’s Too Late” (the last two Freddie King covers). Throw in out-takes and alternate tracks from Layla box sets and deluxe re-releases, you also got instrumentals “It Hurts Me Too” and “Snake Lake Blues,” and “Mean Old World” with Duane Allman on slide guitar. That’s over 40 minutes of Blues. Need some filler? Throw in “I Am Yours” and “Thorn Tree In The Garden.”

 

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Derek & The Dominos, Layla

Robin Trower
Another Blues Day

 

Hearing Robin Trower play covers of B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” is like listening to Hendrix doing “Johnny B. Goode.” Not exactly Classic Blues, or Blues Rock. Blues Metal maybe? Trower, master of time and space, went through a Blue Period through the 90s, into the early 2000s. This album is extremely hot. All but three tunes written by Trower, the production quality, guitar work and guitar tone are phenomenal.

 

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Robin Trower, Another Days Blues

John Lee Hooker
The Best of Friends

 

John Lee was great, but look up his discography. This guy’d record for you if you offered him 20 bucks and one bourbon, one scotch, one beer. He’d change a few words in a song, use another name to circumvent contractual obligations. Hooker was a one-off, had his own approach to The Blues. Only John Lee could do a song like “Boom Boom.”

We consciously avoided compilations when compiling our list, but tough to ignore Best of Friends. It’s a greatest hits compilation tribute homage album where he is joined by Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, among others, to record slick, polished renditions of John Lee Hooker’s best known songs.

The highlight, and one of Hooker’s best songs ever, is “Chill Out (Things Gonna Change)” with Carlos Santana on lead guitar.

The tragic omission from this collection is an insanely hot duet with Van Morrison on “Gloria,” which is on Morrison’s LP Too Long In Exile, an excellent record.

There are times you simply have to hear some John Lee Hooker, and if you are looking to buy one of his albums, Best of Friends is probably a good place to start.

 

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John Lee Hooker, Best of Friends

 

John Lee Hooker & Van Morisson, "Gloria"n

 

Too Long in Exile, Van Morrison

Rod Price
Open

 

Released in 2002 by Foghat alumni Rod Price this is one of the hottest slide guitar albums you will ever hear. Gotta love any album that includes a version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bluebird.” Open also features kick-ass renditions of “Walking Blues,” “Key To The Highway,” “Sitting On Top of The World,” and “The Stumble.”

Rod Price had chops, especially on slide. Some slide players have range. They can do subtle and sweet, understated. Listen to Duane through “I Am Yours” on Layla. Rod Price doesn’t bother. He’s got that searing white-hot laser through your brain slide down pat. Open is loud, electric and in your face.

 

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Rod Price, Open





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