It’s that time of year again! No, not the holidays – but that, too. No, what I am referring to is the time of year when new records are inducted into the illustrious Grammy Hall of Fame.
And what a class of inductees it is!
25 new records have been picked for the honor, in genres ranging from modern rock to classic R&B to contemporary hip hop and, of course, jazz and blues. If you’re interested, you can read the full list of inductees here.
But we’re not going to talk about all of them. Instead, we’re going to focus on our favorite records from this admittedly strong group of recordings, essentially all of which are deserving of this special honor.
- Blind Willie McTell – Statesboro Blues
The haunting blues ballad “Stateboro Blues” was originally written by the great Piedmont blues musician Blind Willie McTell, inspired by his adopted town of Statesboro, Georgia. McTell originally recorded the tune for the Victor record label on October 17, 1928. Four decades later, blues musician Taj Mahal was reinterpret and modernize the song for his debut album. This particular version of the tune reached a wide audience among who were members of the soon-to-be-legendary Allman Brothers Band.
In March of 1971, the Allman Brothers played their own cover aggressive southern rock cover of the McTell song at the iconic venue The Fillmore East. The recording featured slide guitarist Duane Allman’s signature licks, and Rolling Stone magazine has written that Statesboro Blues featured, “the moaning and squealing opening licks [that] have given fans chills at live shows.” “Statesboro” is the song credited with inspiring Duane to pick up the slide in the first place, and he became, simply stated, one of the best players ever.
Hearing those opening slide riffs from Duane still gives me chills to this day – but McTell’s original is just as powerful in its own way.
- Missisippi John Hurt – Stack O’Lee
Mississippi John Hurt is one of my favorites due to his smooth vocals and equally suave fingerpicking. His song “Stack O’Lee” was originally a popular American folk song called either “Stagger Lee” or “Stagolee.” The theme of the song was the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton, which occurred in St. Louis on Christmas of 1895. Stag Lee Shelton historically was a peddler of prostitutes in the late 19th century. On Christmas night, Shelton was drinking at a saloon with a bit of another shady underworld acquaintance in Lyons. A dispute arose between the two, and Shelton wound up shooting and murdering Lyons when the latter took Shelton’s Stetson hat.
The song most likely began as a black American field holler / work song that over time crystallized into a more structured, hardened folk blues tune. In 1910, Alan Lomax got a partial transcription of the song into his hands, and soon appeared in publication and was then recorded by Waring’s Pennsylvanian’s in 1923. Mississippi John Hurt’s rendition of the tune is considered by most to be the definitive recording of “Stack O’Lee.” The song represents a piece of the “Bad Man Ballad” genre, essentially a pre-cursor to blues music proper, as did songs like “Frankie and Johnny” which were also a part of Mississippi John Hurt’s repertoire.
- Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra – “When the Saints Go Marching In”
I love it when songs become associated with a particular city. Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” come to mind. Another great one is Louis Armstrong’s brilliant rendering of the traditional church hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In”, which he recorded for Decca in 1938 with his brass Orchestra. Armstrong was in a traditional line of musicians who re-imagined traditional church songs as brass and jazz-based dance numbers, but nobody else did it quite like Satchmo.
- Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water
Deep Purple’s proto-metal classic “Smoke on the Water” was originally released on their groundbreaking 1972 album Machine Head. More than anything, it’s famous for its undeniably potent guitar riff, which has seared itself into our minds and never let up since the song’s debut. Total Guitar magazine, for instance, ranked the riff #4 on its list of the greatest guitar riffs ever.
Speaking of #4, the song was a #4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also ranked 11 on VH1’s greatest hard rock songs in 2009. So, needless to say, the song has had many accolades and much popular success in the world of music fandom. But the song is much more than just a heavy metal guitar riff. For instance, there’s Ritchie Blackmore’s unforgettable and hard-hitting guitar solo. John Lord augments the number with his searching psychedelic organ swirls. And Ian Gillen’s trenchant vocal delivery helps put this song over the top for us as one of the all-time great hard rock songs.