Chicago Blues Revival!

Written by Shawn Funk

While the origins of American blues music can be traced all the way back to cultural survivals from West Africa, blues in its most exquisite form would not be realized for nearly a century after abolition. Chicago circa 1960, bright lights big city. Chicago’s south side was the place to be for the blues.  On any given night, bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf belted out lyrics laced with innuendos and manly overtures while playing their instruments for raucous partygoers. It was no doubt a very special time for the blues genre as a confluence of talent and technological innovations, like electrified instruments, created the conditions for the blues to flourish outside of the juke joints and clubs where audiences were primarily African American. The British Invasion of the 1960s was predicated on American blues. Guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green began featuring blues artists on their albums while covering popular blues standards, bringing many obscure blues artists into the spotlight for the first time.

For anyone who is looking for an easy entry into the blues genre, like those rock idols of the ’60s, Chicago blues is an excellent starting point, as it features many older artists who grew up in the southern delta while introducing a new crop of young bluesmen that carried on the traditions of the blues for future listeners like you.

The following albums epitomize the soul of Chicago Blues and are all available on Spotify. Listen to them now!   

Down and Out Blues- Sonny Boy Williamson II

Photos courtesy of Shawn Funk, taken of his personal collection.

A double album that features his best work. Sonny Boy was a character nicknamed “The Menace,” he was a showman par excellence, and his love for the stage is evident in the footage that survives. As proof that his arrogance onstage is no act, Sonny Boy had unabashedly lifted his stage name from an earlier performer named Sonny Boy Williamson, who was murdered outside a Chicago club in 1948. Even so, his act was legendary, and he is widely considered to be one of the best harmonica players of all time. His stage name is now often followed by a “II” to distinguish between the two Sonny Boys.  Find him on YouTube performing at the American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe throughout the 1960s. “Wake-up, Baby” and “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” are a couple of my favourites. BTW, his real name is Rice Miller.

Hoodoo Man Blues – Junior Wells Blues Band

Photos courtesy of Shawn Funk, taken of his personal collection.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest blues albums of all time, the Hoodoo Man Blues is an electrified blues album that exemplifies the tone, attitude, and style that the younger bluesmen brought to the stage. Sonny Boy Williamson, in all his modesty, frequently bragged about teaching Wells everything he knew about harmonica. Wells’ stellar guitarist, Buddy Guy, has made significant contributions to the blues up to the present day. At 87 years old, Buddy Guy is, since B.B. King’s death in 2015, the sole heir to the throne, making him the last king of the blues.

The London Sessions – Howlin Wolf

Photos courtesy of Shawn Funk, taken of his personal collection.

As mentioned above, American blues was quite popular in Britain. Collaborations between British rockers and American bluesmen produced some very satisfying recordings. The London Sessions featured members from the rock bands Blind Faith and The Rolling Stones, with Eric Clapton being the most prominent English musician featured. The album is more of a clinic for the English rockers, as Howlin’ Wolf performs his songs while the English boys learn at his feet. The album is electrified, featuring guitar work from The Wolf’s extraordinary guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, accentuating The Wolf’s powerful and direct vocals. Check out the track “Poor Boy” as an excellent example of that smokey blues club sound that was so perfected in Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues.  

Cryin’ Time – Otis Spann

Photos courtesy of Shawn Funk, taken of his personal collection.

The title says it all. Otis Spann was a generational talent who passed away when he was only 40 years old. He was known for his piano playing, but his talent was multi-faceted. While small in stature, Spann possessed an incredibly expressive booming voice and a penchant for creating equally expressive piano accompaniments that were unmatched in their technical, emotional, and stylistic appeals. Cryin’ Time features some of Spann’s best work in “Mule Kickin’ in my Stall” and “Home to Mississippi”. He also has an excellent album featuring Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac called The Biggest Thing Since Colossus.   

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