Blues is a style of music that originated approximately between 1860 and 1900 in the music made by slaves from Africa in the South of the United States – among others in the Mississippidelta, between Memphis and New Orleans). The main musical sources that contributed to the creation of the blues are the religious songs (gospels, spirituals), the worksongs and the field hollers. A typical variant of the blues is the cajun music. Making music with each other or alone, with or without instruments, was often the only way for them to express and alleviate their suffering. Because this music had a melancholic tone and content, it was called ‘blues’. Sometimes the singers used ‘swear words’ that the guards did not know. For example, they agreed that ‘rake’ in their song was meant as ‘foolish’. In this way they could swear at the guards without them noticing. They made their own instruments and in the evening they sang at full blast about the misery they had. The indication ‘blue’ for mourning comes from sailing. If a ship lost her captain or another officer during the voyage, she would fly a blue flag for the rest of the voyage and a blue band would be painted around the whole ship before entering her home port. When, around World War I, many blacks moved from the South to the cities of the North (including Chicago and Detroit), the blues acquired a more ‘urban’ sound, mainly characterised by the use of electrically amplified instruments. This more up-tempo variant of the blues would later pave the way for rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The latter would push the blues somewhat into the background, but in the 60’s and 70’s the genre revived as British (white) rock musicians like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin started playing blues again. All styles of jazz are strongly influenced by the blues, from New Orleans Jazz to cool jazz.
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On 19 June 1865, slavery was abolished in the United States. One of the consequences was that the black population could openly make music. A music culture that had been dormant on the plantation fields for two centuries blossomed. The music of the slaves goes back to their past in Africa with question-and-answer chants and pulsating rhythms. But it is by no means a stagnant musical culture. Slaves from different areas of Africa take over ideas from each other and their music also mixes with that of other immigrants: Scottish and Irish folk, Polish polka, Spanish flamenco and Western European brass band. All these influences can be heard in the first black music styles that came to maturity: from 1900 ragtime and after the First World War jazz. These genres originated in the big city, in the dance clubs where, despite the prohibition imposed by the American government in those years, alcohol is always available. In the countryside in the south the blues develops, a style of music and poetry that touches the soul of the black population. Played on cheap acoustic guitars and pianos that can be found in every pub. It is music that is played in the evening after a long day of work to relax, but soon – in the twenties – makes an advance through 78 rpm records. The acoustic guitar then often made way for a more jazzy accompaniment (piano and horns). When in the thirties the economic depression rises, thousands of blacks are forced to go to the big cities for work. There an urban variant of the blues arises, with slide guitar and harmonica. Electrically amplified blues. Harder, rawer and grimmer in character. Until the fifties, variants of the blues emerged in various places in the United States. The rhythm & blues (R&B), one of the pillars of what was to become the rock ‘n’ roll, also came into being. With the R&B the blues chords are played with a steaming backbeat, with the emphasis on the (poppy) song. In the sixties, however, the black youth chooses en masse for other, new black music: soul and funk. It is remarkable that it is precisely in this period that white youngsters pick up the blues and start bands.
The history of Blues.
The Blues is a kind of folk music that was practised and listened to by the North American black population from around 1900. In the blues the worries of everyday life were sung about: a lost love, injustice that was done to you or the fact that the roof of your house was leaking, in short, everything that makes life more unpleasant. A different atmosphere can be found in the religious negro spirituals. They sang the praises of faith and the hope for freedom that would come in this life or in the hereafter. Initially blues and spiritual were performed without any accompaniment, later the singers took a guitar to accompany themselves. The blues generally consisted of twelve-bar verses with the following harmonic scheme (I-I-I’IV-IV-I’V-IV-I-I). However, there are so many variants that it is difficult to speak of ‘the blues scheme’. The accompaniment chords of the blues are major chords, but in the melody there is a minor tuning. Therefore ‘blue notes’ are used: notes from the minor scale which, in combination with the major chords, evoke a poignant tension. The fact that the notes are often sung against the note (dirty intonation) enhances the minor effect.
1912: W.C. Handy releases ‘The Memphis Blues’, the first song with the word Blues in the title.
1920: Mamie Smith records ‘Crazy Blues’. A million copies of the single are sold, making the song the first hit of blues music.
1923: Vaudeville star Ma Rainey signs a record deal with Paramount.
1925: Bessie Smith records for the first time for Columbia Records in New York.
1929: Charlie Patton records ‘Pony Blues’ in Wisconsin.
1936: During his first recording session in a studio in Dallas, Robert Johnson performs ‘Crossroads Blues’.
1943: Muddy Waters leaves Mississippi and moves to Chicago.
1951: B.B. King scores his first national hit in the United States with ‘Three O’Clock Blues’.
1953: After recording in Memphis, Howlin’ Wolf signs with Chess Records and moves to Chicago.
1958: Muddy Waters travels to England to give a series of concerts. The audience expects calm folk blues, but is gassed on pruned electric guitar work.
1965: The Rolling Stones invite Howlin’ Wolf to perform with them in the ABC television show Shindig.
1969: B.B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ reaches the pop-hit parade.
1986: Robert Cray wins a Grammy Award for his album Strong Persuader.
1990: Stevie Ray Vaughan is killed in a helicopter crash after a performance in Wisconsin.
1991: Buddy Guy wins his first Grammy Award for Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues!
GEOGRAPHY OF THE BLUES
Baton Rouge: If you’re wondering where and when Louisiana’s swampblues started, then you should be in Baton Rouge in the 1950s. From Baton Rouge and surroundings came blues artists like Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim.
Kansas City (Missouri): In the 1930s and 1940s, Kansas City was a centre for both blues and jazz. The city made a name for itself in music in the sixties with the Rock ‘n Roll classic ‘Kansas City’ by Wilbert Harrison.
Californië: Both Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area have had an active blues and R&B scene since the late 1940s. Well-known blues artists from the West Coast area include Wynonie Harris, Etta James and Pee Wee Crayton.
Memphis: The city of the famous Beale Street quarter (where W.C. Handy and many others played around the turn of the century) and of the legendary Sun studios, where owner Sam Philips recorded with Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Elvis Presley in the early fifties.
Chicago: Chicago is widely regarded as the centre of modern blues. At the famous Chess studio in this city, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and many others recorded their best music, writing blues history in the fifties and sixties.
Mississippi-Delta: The Mississippi delta is the agricultural area of the state generally considered to be the birthplace of the blues. Artists who were born and worked in this area include Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters.
New Orleans: New Orleans, the Crescent City, has a long and rich musical tradition. The musical spectrum of the city ranges from blues (Guitar Slim) to jazz (Louis Armstrong, King Oliver) and R&B and soul (Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas).
Piedmont-streek:The Piedmont is an area stretching across parts of North and South Carolina and Georgia. The area is famous for the great acoustic blues artists who came there in the 1920s and 1930s, including Blind Blake, Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell and Ma Rainey.
St. Louis:A city immortalized in blues history by the song ‘St. Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy. Rocker Chuck Berry, R&B artist Ike Turner and the blues artists Albert King and Little Milton worked here in the fifties.
Texas:Dallas, Houston and Austin all played a major role in the development and history of Texas blues. Famous blues artists who were born and worked in Texas include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and T-Bone Walker.
SOME GREATS FROM THE BLUES
Robert Johnson: There are 2 versions of Robert Johnson’s life story. We have chosen the most interesting one. In his youth on the Dockery plantation Robert decided to become a blues musician and did his utmost to achieve that goal. After being instructed to appear with his guitar at noon on a nearby crossroads, Johnson was welcomed there by the devil himself. He picked up Johnson’s guitar, tuned the instrument and then gave it back to Johnson. From that day on Johnson played and sang better than any other blues artist thanks to his supernatural abilities. Producer John Hammond wanted Johnson to perform at a Spirituals To Swing Show in the Carnegie Hall in 1938 and sent people out to track him down and bring him to New York. Unfortunately, the sad news from Mississippi that Johnson had died was poisoned in a jukejoint by a friend’s jealous husband. Legend has it that he had the foam on his mouth, crawled around on all fours, and snatched at the people around him like a mad dog when he was last seen alive. It is said that just before he died he spoke the following words: ‘I hope the Redeemer comes and takes me out of my grave’. Now follows the events that really did happen: He married in 1929 and may have become a quiet family man, but his wife and son died a year later in childbirth. Then he began to move from place to place to play the blues. From then on he was always on the road, practising continuously to perfect his playing and performing as often as he could. Johnson had strange habits. He practised leaning against a tombstone in the local cemetery in the dark. He secretly hitchhiked goods trains to Chicago, Detroit, New York and St. Louis. Johnson resumed his nomadic existence on a Saturday evening in August. After his performance, he flirted with a woman on the dance night, when her jealous husband or boyfriend decided to make him pay for it by offering the singer a bottle of illegal whiskey containing a splash of lie. Johnson kept drinking and playing until he was so sick he could not go on. He was transferred to nearby Greenwood, where he died of pneumonia on 16 August 1938, after suffering terrible pain for a few days.
John Lee Hooker: John Lee Hooker is undoubtedly one of the true greats of the blues, along with Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Hooker is often called the ‘King of the Boogie’, and his energetic rhythmic way of playing the guitar has become an inseparable element of the sound and style of the blues. After his birth on 17 August 1920 in Mississippi, John Lee grew up in a blues-rich environment, learning to play the guitar from his stepfather Will Moore. In his childhood Hooker sang gospel songs in church, which was his main musical influence, until the blues caught him. When he was 15, he ran away from home and went to Memphis to make a name for himself in the blues scene. He was caught and sent back home, but eventually returned. To make ends meet, he worked as an usher in a cinema. In the following six years Hooker made records under numerous invented names, nicknames and variants of his own name for just about every record company that offered him a contract. Highlights of Hooker’s career in the eighties were his entry into the Hall of Fame of the Blues Foundation and the re-release of several of his earlier records. He was also featured in the film “The Blues Brothers”, in which he highlighted the boogie patterns typical for him with the song “Boom Boom”. John Lee Hooker opened his own blues club in California in 1997: John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Boom. He died in 2001.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: If contemporary blues has a real guitar hero, it is the late Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990). Stevie Ray had a dizzying guitar technique reminiscent of Albert King and Jimi Hendrix and is therefore more often imitated than anyone else. Stevie Ray was born on 3 October 1954 in Oak Cliff, a district of Dallas. His first teacher was his older brother Jimmie, who awakened two great loves in him: the guitar and the blues. He dropped out of high school in 1970 and started his career as a blues artist. He received many offers from great artists such as Mick Jagger and David Bowie. In 1986 Stevie Rays’ addiction to alcohol and drugs began to take its toll. He fell off stage in October after a concert. He then went on tour in the US in the first months of 1987, but immediately reported to a rehabilitation centre after his last performance. He spent most of that year dealing with his addictions and putting his house in order. But he returned and played the stars of the sky. At the beginning of 1990 he recorded an album with his brother Jimmmie, called Family Style. On August 26th 1990 Stevie performed with several famous blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton Robert Cray and his brother Jimmie Vaughan. After the show he got on a helicopter that would take him to Chicago. A few minutes after departure, the helicopter crashed in thick fog. All five people on board died…
SOUND AND STYLE OF THE BLUES
One of the most important ingredients of the blues is the beat, or rhythm. Even with acoustic variations of the blues, every song has a clearly recognizable rhythm. The reason for this is simple: the blues has always been more or less dance music, whether the tempo is a smooth boogie or a slow and dragging blues buffet. Another important ingredient of the blues is the vocals. The singing of the blues which is firmly rooted in the gospel tradition, is often raw, full of deeply felt emotion and is performed in a direct and honest way. How you should use your voice when singing the blues is not one-two-three to say. Blues can be sung in the sweet-voiced way of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, but just as well with a dirty voice as that of Howlin’ Wolf. In both cases it is and remains blues. Singing the blues is not about perfect sounding notes or touching every note precisely, but more about expressing sincere emotion (from sad to overjoyed and everything in between) in music. A third characteristic of the blues is formed by the instruments. It is with blues bands just like with ducks. Just as you can immediately recognise a duck by its croaking and waddling gait, so a blues band is also immediately recognisable. If a blues band looks and sounds like a blues band, then it is probably also a blues band. In a blues café you will never see a cello, oboe or timpani on stage. What you will find there are guitars, a drum kit, a mouth organ and maybe a washboard when you are in Louisiana. One of the ways in which you can explain a certain form of music is to see which instruments are used when playing that music. Most blues musicians use the following musical instruments:
Guitar: Although this instrument only came into general use in the 1920s when it supplanted the banjo in rural areas in the south of the United States, the guitar is now the great common denominator of the blues. The sound of an electric guitar (once passed through an amplifier) has an enormous dynamic range – from silky to raw and distorted. Guitars in the blues come in two basic varieties: electric and acoustic. The acoustic guitar is usually used to accompany the singing – usually the singer is also the one who plays the guitar or as a solo instrument. An electric guitar can be found in almost every blues band of any size.
Mondharmonica: The mouth organ – also called the mouth organ and without doubt the most useful instrument of the blues – is the second major solo voice of the blues. The instrument was given a prominent place in blues music at about the same time as the guitar. The mouth organ is considered to be a wind instrument that you play by blowing air over metal or wooden vibrating plates. With this warm and expressive instrument you can produce sounds ranging from penetrating acoustic pity sounds to the full, rich sound of the electric mouth harmonicas used in the Chicago blues. When you play a mouth organ acoustically, the way you put your hands around the instrument and move it will shape and change the sound. You then chalk out tones and nuances that resemble a human singing voice. When playing with electric amplification, place the harmonica directly against a cheap microphone to get a ‘dirty’ distorted sound that is the hallmark of modern Chicago blues.
Piano: Apart from the human voice, the piano was probably the first musical instrument to be heard on a blues record. Nowadays, the piano is usually only found in classical blues band line-ups, but the piano used to be the solo instrument par excellence in blues music. Just like on a guitar, you can play both rhythmic chords and solo melodies on a piano at the same time. Perhaps the piano’s greatest contribution to the blues is the boogie-woogie motif played with the left hand. This is, transferred to the bass strings of the guitar, one of the musical pillars of the blues and one of the most powerful rhythms. Boogie-woogie is mainly played on the piano, with the left hand doing most of the work by playing a repetitive series of bass figures (or melodic motifs). The left hand thus creates a tight rhythm, while the right hand improvises. And if all goes well, but that depends on the musician, the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.
Percussion: Although the use of percussion in African-American music goes back several centuries, the drum kit as we know it today was not introduced into the blues until after the Second World War. In the early fifties, after the formation of the first electric blues combos, a drum kit became a familiar phenomenon in performances of blues bands. The drum kit in an average blues band is usually much simpler than the gigantic drums that rock bands use nowadays. A blues drum kit is usually modelled on the standard set used by jazz musicians, consisting of four or five parts. In the blues, drummers seldom solo. Instead, they concentrate on maintaining a tight beat that provides the group with a solid foundation.
Bass: The bass, which also belongs to the rhythm section, first appeared in blues bands in the late forties. At that time, only the acoustic upright bass was used. This instrument, with its deep sonorous sounds, formed the musical basis of the rhythm. In addition, one could strike the strings of the upright bass, which gave a percussion effect. In the early fifties the upright bass was replaced by electric models with a massive body and a long neck, exactly like six-string guitars. Many musicians switched from the cumbersome acoustic bass to the smaller electric bass guitar, which has been a regular part of the rhythm section of a blues band ever since.
Blowing instruments: In the past, jazz combos that played blues numbers made room for trumpets, trombones, saxophones and clarinets. Nowadays jumpblues groups and R&B-soulbands often still have a complete horn section with saxophone trumpets and the occasional trombone, but in modern blues bands you rarely see such a section anymore. If you hear a wind instrument in a blues section, it is usually a tenor saxophone. Although some blues artists have a sax section in their group – usually consisting of two tenor saxes and in the New Orleans blues also a baritone sax – in modern blues bands you usually only find a lone tenor saxophonist.
Rhythm: The rhythm of a song is indicated by a certain measure. In blues music, 99% of all songs are played in a four-quarter bar. If you can count up to four, and I think most of them can, you can count just far enough for one bar of blues music. So a bar in blues music usually consists of 4 beats. To get a real blues rhythm you only have to accentuate the second and fourth beats of the bar, so you get a so-called backbeat (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 etc.). Grab that rhythm, count faster or slower according to the tempo you want, and you’ve got the blues beat. In a standard blues scheme, generally three chords are played, and usually these are major chords, but there may also be minor chords in between. In a blues scheme of twelve measures, each of these chords is assigned four measures. This number may vary depending on the structure of a song. In the simplest blues form, the musical main theme is performed in the first four bars and repeated again in the bars five through eight. The last four bars usually crown the original theme by giving it a certain twist or ending. All in all you then come to 12 bars. The following lines give an example of such a blues scheme and the typical bar division that goes with it. Below the bars are the sung words, which indicate the basic theme. This theme is repeated in the second line and then rounded off in the closing line:
1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4
I woke up this morning, feeling oh so bad…
5-2-3-4, 6-2-3-4, 7-2-3-4, 8-2-3-4
I woke up this morning, feeling oh so bad…
9-2-3-4, 10-2-3-4, 11-2-3-4, 12-2-3-4
Thinking about my baby and it makes me oh so sad.
Turnarounds and stops: In a blues song with a basic scheme of twelve bars, the last four bars are used to round off the strophe musically. With these four bars the song ends, or they are used as a transition to the next series of twelve bars. If the latter is the case, it is a turnaround. Playing a smooth turnaround using the third chord of the three chords is an art in itself. Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed were good at this. Another structural variation in a blues scheme of twelve bars is the so-called stop. The first four bars of a strophe are then extended to eight bars in which ‘breaks’ or ‘stops’ are made to chop the line into pieces. This eight-bar rule is then added to the remaining eight bars of a standard twelve-bar blues schedule.
Chicago blues: The chicago blues is probably the most popular and most listened to form of blues. The popular image of a tiny stage in a smoky room with a group of musicians jamming on electric guitars, an amplified mouth organ, piano, bass and drums can be traced directly back to the early Chicago style.
Delta-blues: The Delta-blues are also called the Mississippi blues, but both designations refer to the blues style from the Mississippi Delta area. Most Delta blues are played acoustically, as on the original records from the twenties and thirties, with guitars with a hollow sound box that were made before the electric guitar entered the blues in the late forties. The Delta blues is characterised by fantastic guitar playing, cutting slide work and deep bowing rhythms, all brought with an emotional depth dripping from the record.
Texas-blues: The Texas-blues has existed for almost a century and flourished twice in that time. The first in the 1920s and the second after the Second World War. The characteristics of the Texas blues also include a relaxed, relaxed style of playing and a strong swing rhythm, reminiscent of the rhythm of groups playing jazz from the thirties and forties.
Memphis-blues: The Memphis-blues has 2 totally different styles of music: that of the twenties and that of the fifties. One developed in the time of the tent and medicine shows. At the beginning of the fifties the Memphis-blues went on the electric tour. The Memphis-blues are characterised by heavily amplified, sometimes extremely distorted, guitar work, and aggressive and thundering drum parts. The vocals that are rather passionate make the music even more impressive.
West Coast-blues: The West Coast-blues derives a large part of its swing tempo and rhythmic cadence from the post-war Texas-blues, which is easy to explain. Many enthusiastic practitioners of the West Coast blues were originally from Texas. The West Coast blues is characterised by flowing guitar solos and jazzy improvisations.
Louisiana-blues: Louisiana is a state rich in indigenous musical styles, including jazz, cajun, zydeco and swamp pop. In addition, the Louisiana blues owes a lot to the post-war Chicago electric blues as far as its sound is concerned. Characteristic is the loose blues, much less emotionally charged than other variants, lazy rhythms, overloaded echoes.
BLUES WITH OTHER MUSIC
If you listen carefully, you can hear traces of the blues in almost every other American music genre. Sometimes the connection is obvious, like the straight line that runs from the blues to the Rock ‘n Roll, one of the musical lottery tickets to the tribe of the blues. Of all American forms of music, jazz has the strongest historical connection with the blues. But nobody knows exactly if one influenced the other or vice versa. It is most likely that both styles of music developed at the same time and thus influenced each other.
It was jazz bands that were the first to perform with classical blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and were also the first to record with them. It is said that around the turn of the century jazz bands played almost exclusively blues and blues-derived music. When jazz musicians began to improvise on pop songs, jazz music entered a new field that is still being explored. But even after big band groups became a fad, the blues remained a musical touchstone to which jazz musicians turned as a source of inspiration. Whether you call it rhythm and blues, soul music, jump ‘n jive or boogie-woogie, music with a strong beat has always been one of the most characteristic elements of the blues. And when blues musicians moved from the countryside to the big city, the beat became even more powerful.
In the course of time other musical elements mixed with this dance-friendly blues ditch and those elements changed this style. The beginnings of the Rhythm and Blues were made by jumpbands after the Second World War. Jump artists, led by people like Louis Jordan, adopted the jazz style of big bands, slimmed it down to music in a smaller line-up and added a heavy beat. The jumpblues style of the forties eventually developed out of the music of these jumpbands. The jumpblues was characterized by a strong boogie-woogie rhythm to dance to and strong wind parts. Finally, singers with a strong voice were added to the mix, after which the music developed into the Rhythm and Blues, but with a stronger accent on the lead vocals than with the jumpblues.
The influence of the gospel singers on the rhythm and blues gave the music a new appearance, after which the name was abbreviated to R&B. The variant to which the music evolved in the mid-sixties was called soul music. This type of music eventually got the name R&B-soul. R&B-soul is a distinct and intense mix of the best soul music, gospel and blues. If any form of American music descends directly from the blues, then it is the Rock ‘n Roll. The blues resonates through all rock music. The term Rock ‘n Roll was originally used by musicians who made jazz music in the twenties. However, on the whole, rock is real, unadulterated blues, but with a solid beat. The first Rock ‘n Roll songs looked a lot like jumpblues songs from the forties. But in particular, it will forever be remembered as the first popular musical form embraced by the youth culture of all races.
Rock ‘n Roll is nothing more or less than accelerated blues. You can call it R&B but it is and remains blues. After the R&B came the Rock ‘n Roll, appropriated that sound, reduced the line-up of the band and put that firm rhythm under it. Blues music and gospel music used to be compared to splits from a spiritual path, one leading to sin and the other to redemption. But ‘sacred’ gospel music and ‘worldly’ blues music cross each other’s musical path much more often than you might think. Many early blues artists, including Son House and Charlie Patton played both blues and gospel songs when they performed. Patton even made records in both styles.
The vocals in the blues are directly derived from the vocals in gospel music. Voice vibrato, singing certain notes one semitone lower, the use of melisms (stretching a syllable over several notes) and the emotional enthusiasm in the best blues concerts is derived from church music. Many blues singers practiced their voice from an early age in a church choir, and several soul singers made good use of their gospel singing lessons and became exceptional R&B vocalists.
On the surface, country music seems to have nothing to do with the blues, but a quick look at American music history shows that the two forms of music have kept each other company for decades. The man considered to be the father of country music, Jimmy Rodgers, achieved star status in the 1920s by singing endless variations on his Blue Yodel theme which is nothing more than a series of blues strophes with a cowboy yodel at the end of every two strophes. Other cowboy singers followed Rodgers’ example in the thirties and forties by composing country songs based on a strong blues sound.
The person who turned this musical crossover into a real art form and achieved a lot of success with it was Hank Williams sr. In his hits the traditional blues texts and the musical structure of the blues can be recognized again. The emotional charge of the lyrics is perhaps the strongest link between country and blues music.
Whether a song is about love desires, a past love, deceit and abuse, or getting ready for a hearty Saturday night out, the blues and country music approach their subjects honestly and straightforwardly. Now that country music is gaining popularity with the general public and the average age of buyers of country music is falling, modern country is starting to sound more and more like Rock ‘n Roll, making the bond between country and the blues even stronger.
BIOGRAPHIES AND BACKGROUNDS OF SOME VERY WELL-KNOWN ARTISTS
W.C. (William Christopher) Handy was born in 1873 in Muscle Shoals in Alabama and was a trained musician who performed with various tent and variety shows in the south of the United States. During his travels Handy heard early versions of what would later become the blues. Handy claimed to have discovered the blues in 1903 when he heard a street musician play slide guitar. Handy was far from being a blues detective. With his nine-headed dance band he entertained the better circles of the African-American community. The early blues music he heard may have been fascinating, but he considered it too raw and unpolished for mass consumption. However, he changed his mind when a combo consisting of a guitar, a mandolin and a double bass performed in a break during one of his balls. After playing a song, the trio received more tips than what Handy’s band collected all evening. In 1912 Handy came up with his first blues composition, ‘Memphis Blues’. The success of this song led to more hits for Handy, including ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘Ole Miss’, ‘Beale Street Blues’ and ‘Yellow Dog Blues’. W.C. Handy was not the inventor of the current standard three-line, four-bar blues scheme, but was enormously influential in making it popular. Handy encouraged other composers and music publishers to explore this new form of music. W.C. Handy was a bandleader and composer and is often referred to as ‘the Father of the Blues’. In a park in Memphis named after him there is a statue of him, he is honoured with an American stamp and the annual Handy Awards are the most prestigious prizes to be won in the blues. On 28 March 1958 William Christopher Handy died in New York.
Ma Rainey was born on 26 April 1886 as Gertrude Malissa Pridgett. She turned out to be a gifted singer at an early age. At the age of twelve she made her musical debut during a talent show in her hometown Columbus in Georgia. She married the variety show manager William ‘Pa’ Rainey in 1904 and changed her stage name to ‘Ma’. A strange choice for an eighteen-year-old girl, but it was a name that seemed to suit her. Ma Rainey was called “the Mother of the Blues”, an honorary title. Although she wasn’t the first blues artist to make a record, she had done her best to make blues music popular for almost twenty years before she recorded her first song. Her success paved the way for many other female blues artists, including her protégé Bessie Smith. As a live artist, she was simply a fascinating figure. She stepped on stage from a giant copy of a Victrola, all extravagantly dressed up. Once on stage she parade up and down, stayed up, posed in front of the audience, laughed, moaned, shouted and raved as if her life depended on it. People often got so carried away by her show that they groaned along with her. She sang straightforwardly and with a natural purity that enchanted her listeners. To say now of Ma Rainey that she had a powerful voice would have been too weakly expressed. The only time she used a microphone was in a recording studio and even that is doubtful, given the primitive equipment in her time. In the early 1930s the world economic crisis and the shift in popularity from female blues singers to male country blues artists forced Ma to stop making records and touring. Many of her colleagues disappeared into anonymity and got into financial trouble, but the indomitable Ma Rainey went for it. Ma Rainey died in 1939 at the age of 54 after a well-spent life in the world of show business and blues music.
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga on 15 April 1894 and became acquainted with show business through her brother Clarence, who later joined a travelling vaudeville show and left town. Encouraged by him, Bessie learned to sing and dance, and when Clarence returned, Bessie was ready for show business. She began her professional career in 1912 as a dancer, where Ma Rainey performed as the main act. From the different stories going around, it’s not sure if Ma Rainey taught her how to sing the blues. That the two were close friends is a fact. Of all the blues singers who made records in the heyday of classical female blues from the early twenties to early thirties, Bessie, nicknamed ‘the Empress of the Blues’, had the most talent and got the greatest fame. The sense of rhythm, the timing and the emotions that she put into her songs made the grandiose difference to other blues artists. At her peak she sold more records and earned more money than any other female or male blues artist.
Bessie became a real star, broke racial barriers by performing in theatres and nightclubs, set up her own road shows and recorded one hit after another. She dressed in elegant dresses and sang jazz songs and pop songs, but the blues remained her specialty. In 1929, she performed in a short film based on her hit version of ‘St. Louis Blues’, the only film she made. When the tastes of blues music lovers began to change, the best singers, including Bessie, suddenly discovered that their time in the limelight was over. She was put aside by her record company in 1931 and started drinking heavily. She worked, haunted by setbacks, as a backing vocalist in small clubs. In one of those clubs she was approached one day by a producer to start making records again. She started a comeback again. But on a tour of Mississippi in 1937, her car collided with an oncoming truck. In the collision, almost one of her arms was torn off, causing her to bleed to death. Her great voice would be silent from now on, but what remains is her legacy on record. She was 43 years old.
Jimi Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle on 24 November 1942. He started playing the guitar at an early age and played the instrument left-handed and with the strings upside down. When he was eleven, he learned a number of Chuck Berry songs from outside and hoped to gain a place in a local rock ‘n roll band. In his early teens, Hendrix was a regular member of The Spanish Castle teen club in Seattle. He often stole his guitar and amplifier from the stage hoping to be invited to play a song or two. Jimi got to know show business by performing for years in the so-called chitlin circuit – low paying clubs, roadside restaurants and dance halls that almost exclusively booked African-American blues and R&B artists. The competition in this circuit was big and show talent was appreciated as much as musical talent. Many of the tricks Hendrix performed during performances – playing guitar behind his head, behind his back and with his teeth – were stunts to entertain the audience. In 1959 Jimi left high school early and joined the army, where he met Billy Cox who would later make recordings as a bass player with Hendrix. In 1964 Hendrix moved to New York City, where he kept his head above water with a self-made blues cover band and ended up in the blues and folk scene in Greenwich Village. Here he was also discovered and taken to England by producer Chas Chandler to start his own band. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was founded and in 1966 they were the talk of the town in London and the young guitarist was already ranked among the best in England. He too came to an early end in 1970. He suffocated in his sleep, reportedly after an overdose of barbiturates. Hendrix left behind a large amount of unfinished and unreleased music, and now that all these recordings will become available, his status as an innovator of blues music will only continue to grow. Although Jimi flirted with various musical movements during his short career, he always focused on the blues first and foremost. He was only 28 years old.
B.B. King was born on 16 September 1925 in Indianola in Mississippi as Riley B. King. In his youth he sang in a church, where the preacher taught him a few guitar chords and thus aroused his interest in the instrument. He started listening to blues guitarists, including T-Bone Walker, his greatest source of inspiration. But the man who most influenced young Riley was slide guitarist Bukka White, a nephew of his. King moved to Memphis in the mid-forties, lived with his cousin for a while and tried to imitate the sound of Bukka’s slide game with his bare fingers. If there is a name in the blues that almost everyone knows, it is B.B. King. In his enormous successful career spanning fifty years, B.B. King has reached more people than any other blues artist. Who else enters concert halls, advertises fast food in prime-time TV commercials, shows up in a comedy series with Bill Cosby and scores a hit with the U2? He has done more than anyone else to give the blues a face. He is also the inventor of the famous finger vibrato, in which he quickly moved a string back and forth with one finger, causing fluctuations in tone. Partly because of this he has been the most imitated electric guitarist in popular music for the past fifty years. As a singer he brought gospel influences into the raw blues vocals and gave the blues a new sound. B.B. made the blues acceptable to the better circles and eventually even managed to appeal to the general public. As a human being he made it his life’s work to ensure the survival of the blues, and he received more honours and honorary doctorates than anyone else. At the beginning of his career B.B. decorated a radio nibble. Every day, at the end of a DJ’s shift, he could be heard on the WDIA radio station. His first R&B hit, Three O’Clock Blues he recorded in Memphis. In the fifties it rained hits. Nobody who played the guitar better and could sing better than him. Although the time when he finished 300 concerts a year is over, he still plays wherever music fans want to hear him.
Eric Patrick Clapton (nicknamed Slowhand) was born on 30 March 1945 in Ripley in the English county of Surrey. He only started playing the guitar when he was seventeen years old. A year later he founded his first band, de Roosters. After a short period with the Casey Jones and the Engineers he joined the Yardbirds, who had supplanted the Rolling Stones as England’s best R&B band. By then Eric had completely immersed himself in the blues and sometimes spent a long time studying the guitar techniques of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B., Freddie, and Albert King. With the English blues band John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he really stole the show. Clapton soon became England’s greatest guitarist. Clapton is God’ was chalked on the walls of the London Underground. After the bluesbreakers he founded his own band Cream. Cream fell apart in 1968, after which Eric, together with keyboardist singer Stevie Winwood, Ginger Baker and bassist Rich Grech, founded the supergroup Blind Faith, which, after a record and a short tour, broke up again. In 1970 he returned to England to master his well-known problems with drugs and alcohol. After being kicked out he performed again in 1973 and recorded again. In 1992 Clapton released an album with songs recorded during his concert for the MTV series Unplugged. It became his best-selling record ever and in 1993 he won no less than six Grammy’s with it. There aren’t many guitarists who have received as much acclaim in their careers as Eric Clapton. For a long time he has been considered the best and most famous guitarist in rock – only Jimi Hendrix had a similar status in his time – but his music has always remained strongly rooted in the blues. In the sixties, just over twenty, Clapton was already Britain’s most famous and respected blues guitarist, and the first true guitar hero. He almost single-handedly laid the foundations of blues rock music.
Lonnie Brooks was born in Dubuisson, Louisiana, on 18 December 1933 as Lee Baker jr. Although the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker aroused his interest in the blues at an early age, he only started playing the guitar at the age of twenty after moving to Port Arthur in Texas. Lonnie Brooks’ long and varied career spans four decades, in which he not only played the blues, but also zydeco, rock and soul. With a style in which he combines his swing music legacy from Louisiana with Texas-swing, Memphis-soul and Chicago Blues, Lonnie has acquired a place of his own in blues music. He entered show business when zydeco legend Clifton Chenier heard young Lee Baker playing on the porch of his house and offered him a place in his band. He also worked that time with guitarist Lonesome Sundown, who later made records for Exello. Lonnie made his first record in 1957 for the Goldband label from Lake Charles in Louisiana. Immediately on his first attempt he scored a regional hit with the swamprock-ballad ‘Family Rules’. This single and other early singles were released under the name ‘Guitar Junior’. Lonnie was mostly active in and around Chicago in the seventies and at that time he was honing his skills as a songwriter. By 1978 he had built up an impressive collection of new songs that could be recorded. Four of these songs ended up on a collection CD, ‘Living Chicago Blues’. Lonnie still performs. He has been featured at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as a guest in the television show Hee-Haw, as main act of the Chicago Blues Festival in 1996 and in the film Blues Brothers 2000. The Lonnie Brooks Band, of which his sons Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks are also regular members to form a line-up of no less than three guitarists, is a close-knit family group and one of the most successful and popular acts currently active in blues music.
Albert Collins was born on 1 October 1932 in Leona, Texas and moved to Houston when he was seven. Albert, a gifted musician from an early age, was influenced by his cousin Lighnin’ Hopkins, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and T-Bone Walker. When he was eighteen, Collins performed in the same clubs where he had seen these guitar legends play. No blues guitarist was able to get a killer and clearer sound out of his instrument than Collins, nicknamed ‘The Master of the Telecaster’. In his bare solos he made sure he counted every note. He influenced Jimi Hendrix, Robert Cray and Debbie Davis. Albert Collins Collins founded the Rhythm Rockers, a ten-piece band, in 1958 and released his first record that same year. This record, called ‘The Freeze’, became a regional hit and led to instrumental sequels. In 1962 Albert had his biggest hit with the instrumental ‘Frosty’ (number is also on the CD). A single of which millions of copies were sold. Collins’ unique style and sound were due to the unorthodox miniature chords he played and to the guitar clip he attached high on the neck. Furthermore, Collins also used his bare fingers to strike the strings in a hard, percussive way in order to extract a razor-sharp sound from his guitar. After years of ploughing on and driving the bus to yet another gig, Collins took advantage of the renewed interest in the blues in the mid-eighties. He performed at Carnegie Hall, appeared in the Late Night Show With David Letterman, appeared in a teen movie and even made a TV commercial with Bruce Willis. During a performance in Texas around 1953 Albert played guitar with one hand at the end of his performance and with the other hand he bounced a basketball between his legs. The tent went completely crazy. But Albert wasn’t given to enjoy the success he had been waiting for so long. He completed another album in 1993, but a month after its release he died of liver cancer. Albert Collins was 61 years old.