noun pi·o·neer \ˌpī-ə-ˈnir\
: a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.
Without pioneers, there would be nothing. The great American pioneers of history forged new paths to reach new lands that before they could only dream about. With the blues, the situation is the same. Without the blues pioneers, there would be no blues. The blues pioneers invented the art form, honed and crafted it, and delivered it to the people. Thanks to the pioneers, we have great blues musicians today like Joe Bonamassa, keeping the blues alive and bringing it to new and uncharted territories. But how did we get here – how did we arrive at Joe Bonamassa? To fully understand, we need to trace the path of blues history, and reconnect with the men who broke the barriers down to begin with, who discovered a new kind of authentic sound never before heard. Here are five men who blazed the paths of the blues and showed us all the way:
- Robert Johnson – The Man, the myth, the legend. You know the story. He had a world of blues ambition but couldn’t play the guitar too well. So one night he went down to the crossroads, had some talk with the devil, and exchanged his soul for the ability to play, well, like the Robert Johnson that we know and love. Despite selling his soul, his voice was eerily tuned into the soul of man as he sings about heartache and troubled times. The recordings of Johnson’s music are still astounding today, and their influence on blues, rock, and basically all derivative genres is virtually impossible to overestimate.
Trailblazing Song: Cross Road Blues
- Muddy Waters – Muddy Waters may have come from the Mississippi Delta, but he’ll forever be associated with that great big town Chicago and its distinctive brand of smokin’ blues. His distinctive electric guitar stylings helped change the blues forever. His recordings of songs like “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working” are some of the all-time classics of the genre. And the course of rock music is almost as unthinkable without him and his legendary band. After all, without the inspiration of Muddy Waters’ song “Rollin’ Stone”, The Rolling Stones may just have been known as “The”.
Trailblazing Song: I Just Want to Make Love To You
- Howlin’ Wolf – Does Howlin’ Wolf have the best blues voice ever? I’d argue that he’s in the discussion. His voice has the power to thrill and chill, to move you to ecstasy or tears. Wolf wasn’t just an incredible blues icon, but also seems to have been a heckuva guy, always paying his musicians well and on time, including benefits like health insurance. The competition between Waters and Wolf to be the mayor of Chicago blues lead to the creation of some of the finest music ever, and his interpretation of Willie Dixon’s songs are virtually unsurpassable. No wonder his wife Lillie fell for him when she saw him perform one night!
Trailblazing Song: Smokestack Lightning
- B.B. King – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – and Joe’s said it too by the way – B.B. King is the blues. Even if you don’t like the blues, I think it is well nigh impossible not to like, or at least appreciate, the King of the Blues. With his trusty Lucille, B.B. King has played some of the hottest licks this side of the galaxy. His vocal talents are equally impeccable – he’s the first of the great bluesmen that I’d ever heard and his singing still gives me chills to this day. Joe Bonamassa has mentioned Live at the Regal as perhaps his favorite live album ever. Good pick.
Trailblazing Song: The Thrill Is Gone
- Albert King – Out of these amazing five blues pioneers, Albert King has always been the least familiar to me – and that’s to my own shame. For Albert King is a true blues heavyweight and one of the great guitarists of, well, ever. Albert’s signature Flying V (named Lucy) is as essential to his identity as Lucille is to B.B.’s, but while Albert may have styled his name after the latter, he didn’t steal his licks. Albert King’s style is all his own and immensely influential in both blues and rock music (notice a trend here?) After all, if you’re good enough to influence Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, you must have done something right.
Trailblazing Song: Born Under a Bad Sign
To be continued…perhaps!
Which blues pioneer do you think most paved the path towards contemporary blues? Let me know in the comments!