With well over a hundred years of blues music, we have seen and heard some of the most incredible musicians to burst out on the scene. From Robert Johnson to fifteen-year-old “Taz” Niederauer and everyone in between, there have been some legendary blues musicians who propelled the genre to great and unexpected heights. Although many of our favorites are sadly gone, there are still some pioneering musicians who are continuing their traditions and forging paths for younger generations to follow.
Today we will dive into some of the best living American blues legends who have made a great and lasting impact on our favorite genre!
You knew we had to start with the guy who made polka dots synonymous with the blues. Like many of the early-era bluesmen, Buddy was born in the south but migrated up to Chicago where he fully blossomed as a formidable blues guitarist. He was given many opportunities to play with various musicians around the area, most notably with Muddy Waters and his band. In fact, the major blues label, Chess Records used Buddy as a main session player for Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others. Although he had been playing extensively since the early 50’s, Buddy Guy’s career hit its stride around the 80’s when blues was going through a revival period. A large catalyst for this Buddy hype came from Eric Clapton’s inviting Guy to play on his 25 Nights live album at Royal Albert Hall. The performance and subsequent album featured prominent musicians like Albert King, Phil Collins, Nathan East, and Jimmie Vaughan.
Buddy Guy’s influence can be heard vastly across the blues spectrum with musicians like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and John Mayer, who all have named the legend as a major influence on their playing. At 81 years old, Buddy is still recording and performing persistently with his most recent album The Blues is Alive and Well being released in June of this year. As one of the few remaining blues heroes of the early years, Buddy Guy demonstrates that age is not a factor when it comes to music and that he can still deliver a killer blues album sixty-five years later!
I bet you can’t guess where this legendary musician got his start. Ok, maybe you can. Otis Rush came up in the Chicago blues scene around the same time as Buddy Guy. Like many of the other blues musicians of the day, Otis partnered with some of the iconic labels like Cobra, and Chess, and later worked with Blind Pig Records, the independent label that is still going strong and works with big names including Elvin Bishop, Bob Margolin, Tommy Castro, and a slew of others.
Otis Rush has one of the most distinctive guitar tones, evoking a “slow burn” feel with distorted high bends and fierce melodic solos. His sound was so unique that it garnered a new classification, “West Side Chicago Blues” which inspired guitarists like Michael Bloomfield, and Peter Green.
Although Otis Rush did not become as big as some of the other legends on our list, many of his fans recognize him for his big hits like “Double Trouble” as well as being the first to record the famous Willie Dixon hit “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”
After a few intermittent breaks in his career, Rush received his first Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1999 for his album Any Place I’m Going. Due to “ongoing health issues” Rush has been unable to perform, making sporadic public appearances whenever he can.
Charlie Musselwhite is one of the most respected premiere harmonica players in music. He has been a hot commodity in the blues scene ever since he came up in the late 60’s, adding his flare to notable musicians and bands like Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, and Mike Bloomfield. Like many of his cohorts, Musselwhite decided to chase his dreams in the blues holy land, Chicago, where his skills were able to blossom alongside the likes of Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others.
Since those days, Musselwhite has lent his talents to a wide range of musicians and signed a record deal with Alligator Records which effectively “led to a resurgence of his career.” Now, he has found a brilliant blues duo with his partner Ben Harper. The stellar musicians have released two albums with their first receiving a Best Blues Album Grammy and both being raved about by fans and critics alike. They have found a refreshing blend of traditional blues music from Musselwhite’s era with modern elements. At 74 years young, Charlie still has harmonica chops that would make anyone blush and is still considered one of the best at the game.
You didn’t think we’d forget the ladies, did you? The lovely Bonnie Raitt has been playing her infectious mix of Americana, roots, rock, and blues music since the early 70’s. She has always been highly regarded by music critics and adored by fans, but she did not see major commercial success until her 1989 album Nick of Time which has gone Platinum 5 times in the US and received three Grammy Awards in 1989.
Bonnie Raitt has become one of the most recognizable names in music and has won ten Grammys and has appeared on Rollingstone’s 100 Greatest Singers and Guitarists of All Time. At 68 years old, Raitt is still going strong, touring and recording whenever she can.
Taj Mahal is one of the most eclectic blues musicians, combining traditional elements with world music and sounds from Africa, Caribbean, and other locations. He grew up in a music-centered household; his father being an accomplished Afro-jazz pianist. Mahal would listen to radio broadcasts of music from around the world which helped to spark his creativity and appreciation for a variety of music. He adapted his stage name in the late 50’s after having a dream about Ghandi and social justice.
In 1964, after moving to California, Taj Mahal formed the band Rising Sons, with a very young yet promising musician who would later go on to be very successful, Ry Cooder. Taj has traveled all over the globe, bringing his positive vibes and amazing music everywhere he goes. At 76 years old, this living legend is still out performing and released a collaboration album with another great musician, Keb’ Mo’ in 2017.