How I Learned About The Blues

I am writing this a few days after Chuck Berry passed away at the age of 90. Chuck Berry’s double-stop guitar solos gave Rock and Roll it’s defining sound. Chuck Berry recorded for Chess Records in Chicago. He wasn’t a typical blues guitarist. But Chess Records was known for its roster of blues musicians. Although Chess was a Chicago company and I grew up in Chicago and it’s suburbs, I didn’t get hooked on the blues because of my Chicago roots. That is sad and embarrassing.

Blues lovers only slightly older than I am often discovered the blues through old 78 rpm record collections. They either curated these collections themselves by going to used record stores, flea markets, rummage sales and the like, or they were fortunate enough to have a parent, relative or friend who had saved these records. I’ve read that Dan Aykroyd became a blues fan this way and then hooked John Belushi on the blues by sharing his collection. Many of the early British rockers also discovered the blues this way. Clapton, Lennon, Paige and others listened to those old records and then covered those tunes on their own recordings.

Which brings me to the sad way I became acquainted with electric blues. I first learned of the blues greats playing in Chicago by listening to the invaders from Britain who covered their tunes. I wasn’t alone. I think many in my generation learned about Chicago Blues from the Stones, Clapton, John Mayall and Bluesbreakers and others.

At some point during my high school years, I became curious about who composed the tunes being recorded by The Stones and others. The Beatles and Stones both covered American blues artists in their early years but went on to write a lot of their own material. I wanted to know if the tunes I was listening to were originals or covers of some else’s work. The Stones became my entrance into electric blues, much of which originated in my hometown of Chicago. It’s embarrassing I had to learn of the great blues artists from the British Invasion.

LP Albums gave credits for the songwriters and lyricists on the record label (not always on the Album cover). Here are some of the tunes from an early Stones album with credits. The 1964 American version of the album, “The Rolling Stones” included the following (see link for full listing).

  • Route 66 by Bobby Troup. This was originally a pop tune with a jazz flavor. One of the best known recordings was by Nat King Cole.
  • I Just Want to Make Love to You by Willie Dixon. Willie Dixon wrote many classic blues tunes recorded by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters for Chess Records.
  • Honest I Do by Jimmy Reed, a great blues guitarist who also played harmonica.
  • Little by Little, credited on the album to Nanker Phelge and Phil Spector, but is, in fact, a Junior Wells tune. 1
  • I’m a King Bee by Jame Moore, the birth name of Slim Harpo. I like the Slim Harpo version but love the Muddy Waters version of this tune.
  • Carol, a Chuck Berry tune.

Reading album labels also introduced me to Chester Arthur Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf) and McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) in addition to names like James Moore (Slim Harpo), Elmore James, and Willie Dixon. Once I started digging and researching I discovered the Kings (B.B. King, Freddie King, and Albert King), Big Moma Thorton, Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Blind Willie McTell, Son House and so many others.

In addition to Chicago style electric blues, the British boys (Stones, Beatles and others) covered country, rock-a-billy, and rhythm & blues. For examples, see this wiki list of Beatles covers.



Little by Little (Stones)

Little by Little (Junior Wells with Buddy Guy)


I’m a King Bee (Stones)

I’m a King Bee (Muddy Waters)

I’m a King Bee (Slim Harpo)

 

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Footnotes

  1. Nanker Phelge was a pseudonym for the entire Rolling Stones band.

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