Blues Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Born Under a Bad Sign

Albert King

File this under “Change does a bluesman good.” For the early part of the 1960s, Albert King (1923–1992) recorded fairly conventional electric blues for regional labels in St. Louis and Chicago, with little success. In 1966, he was invited to cut a few singles for the Stax label in Memphis, and that’s when lightning struck. Backed by the überconfident band known as Booker T. and the MGs—organist-pianist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr.—King found himself at the center of an earthier, less-traditional attack, one informed by rock and rhythm and blues. In this context, his lusty blues-guitar boilermakers resonate with devastating force, separating him from the other “Kings” of the blues, B.B. King and Freddie King.

Born Under a Bad Sign collects these first singles, several of which reached into the Top 40 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Usually such compilations are unsatisfying hodge-podges, but these singles make a strikingly coherent package, one that feels as though it was planned as an album sequence. Every track is demonically inspired, and funky in ways lots of electric blues is not. Each features the left-handed guitarist King, whose broad, gut-wrenching sound has no peer in the world of guitar; so powerful is his solo on “Personal Manager,” British blues disciple Eric Clapton plays chunks of it, note-for-note, on Cream’s “Strange Brew.”

After he’s blown convention to smithereens, King throws a curve with the final track—a version of the Ray Noble torch song “The Very Thought of You.” The mighty King, who was known as the “Velvet Bulldozer,” has evidently decided that it’s quitting time. He’s done all the heavy lifting, and now he’s gonna sit back and swing easy, and prove to all doubters that a blues belter who’s not even particularly respected for his singing can, in the right atmosphere, turn a song like this out.

GENRE: Blues.
RELEASED: 1967, Stax.
KEY TRACKS: “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw,” “The Hunter,” “The Very Thought of You.”

New Orleans Piano

Professor Longhair

The mighty New Orleans pianist Henry Roeland Byrd (1918–1980), better known as Professor Longhair, had a tireless left hand, an ingratiatingly besieged voice, and the rare ability to get a room going all by himself. That’s what Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun discovered when he made a pilgrimage to hear the man called “Fess” in 1949: “We came upon a nightclub—or, rather, a shack—which like an animated cartoon appeared to be expanding and deflating with the pulsations of the beat,” Ertegun recalled in producer Jerry Wexler’s memoir of the Atlantic years. “Instead of a full band, I saw only a single musician—Professor Longhair—playing these weird wide harmonies, using the piano as both a keyboard and a bass drum.”

Ertegun, blown away, recorded Byrd playing his originals backed by a full band in 1949 and 1953. These sessions, collected on this blazing disc, codified the tricks of the piano trade as practiced in the Crescent City—usually a syncopated rumba-style bass line supporting wild boogie-woogie meanderings. The Atlantic sides, considered by some historians to be a crucial spark in the development of rock and roll, made Byrd a local legend, though not a star. After a long period of dissolution in the 1960s, when for a time he swept the floors of a record shop, he was rediscovered in the early ’70s and embraced by a generation that was just beginning to discover the city’s rich rhythm and blues heritage. Byrd began recording again; among his best later works are such electrifying live records as Big Chief.

One of the great entertainers, Fess delighted people with his confident stride style and relentless, rollicking sense of swing. His originals “Tipitina” and “Hey Little Girl” push toward an elation that goes beyond words, a conflagration of boogie and jump blues and his own island-tinged “rum boogie” that is as close to pure groove nirvana as most humans ever get.

GENRE: Blues, R&B.
RELEASED: 1972, Atlantic.
KEY TRACKS: “Tipitina,” “Ball the Wall,” “Hey Little Girl,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Two Steps From the Blues

Bobby “Blue” Bland

Bobby “Blue” Bland wasn’t an elder statesman of anything when he recorded these astounding soul-blues singles in the late ’50s. He just sounds that way. On songs that celebrate commitment and cry about the heartaches that inevitably follow, Bland, who was in his late twenties, brought the blues to new levels of intimacy. He found an emotionally expressive terrain the volatile kingpins of Delta blues ignored and, before he’d even been recording for very long, developed it into a sound that influenced an entire generation of singers—Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and all the rest.

A founding member, along with B.B. King, of the Memphis aggregate known as the Beale Streeters, Bland was first recorded in 1951, on a single produced for Chess by Sam Phillips that went nowhere. The singer entered the military in 1952, and when he returned to civilian life in 1955, he found himself in demand right away, performing with harmonica ace Junior Parker and recording singles for Duke Records.

Soon after, Duke was bought by notorious record-biz hustler Don Robey (another in a line of businessmen to claim songwriting credit to skim publishing royalties from artists). In what became a blessing for Bland, Robey paired him with the smart musician and arranger, Joe Scott, who discovered and exploited Bland’s innate smoothness.

Many of the singles here, including “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Lead Me On,” were written by Deadric Malone and arranged (often cannily underarranged) by Scott. Bland delivers each with a predator’s patience and clearly enjoys having his vocals reinforced by the equally distraught guitar ad-libs of Clarence Holliman. Bland’s laments about the love that’s gone proceed at a slow and steady pace, and by the time he utters the raw vocal appeal he calls a “squall” (see “Little Boy Blue,” his zenith, for a few memorable ones), he’s thoroughly set a scene. All he has to do is whimper a little bit, and he whisks his listeners to his specific spot on the misery index, a place that isn’t two steps away, as Bland claims, but deeply immersed in the blues.

GENRE: Blues.
RELEASED: 1961, Duke.
KEY TRACKS: “I Pity the Fool,” “Little Boy Blue,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “I’ll Take Care of You.”