What better time to immerse ourselves in the blues than now? Taking an approach with a wide focus, I thought I would pick a few favorites with no principle of selection other than my own deep fondness for the artists and the songs. The level of writing, performance, and production is so high that these songs overcome their thematic sadness.
For historical purposes I recommend the work of my favorite music writer, Peter Guralnick. Guralnick’s pioneering collection of profiles was Feel Like Going Home: Portraits In Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll (1971). In it Guralnick takes up Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charlie Rich, among others. I have learned much from him.
Howlin’ Wolf is a giant in Guralnick’s pantheon and he he was extremely influential on the gentlemen of the British Invasion. Indeed, several of them gathered together with Mr. Wolf to back him on Howlin’ Wolf in London (1971). On “Killing Floor” (1964) we find Mr. Wolf growling in classic style with Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy on guitars, Lafayette Leaks on piano, Andrew McMahon on bass, and Sam Lay on drums. The composer is Mr. Wolf himself.
Everybody knows “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, it was a hit single for Albert King on Stax in 1967 with the Stax house band backing him — Steve Cropper on guitar, Booker T. Jones on piano, Duck Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson on drums. It was a hit single before the Stax team made it the title track of the album. Guralnick profiles that team in his aptly named Sweet Soul Music, a classic in its own right.
Willie Dixon wrote “I Ain’t Superstitious,” but it was the estimable Mr. Wolf who first recorded it (1961). I thought Jeff Beck and his band including Rod Stewart on the vocal turned in a powerful and witty performance of it on Truth (1968). Beck’s guitar does a lot of the talking on this one.
The double album Fathers and Sons (1969) is one of my favorites. It’s a Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) album in part recorded live at Chicago’s Super Cosmic Joy Scout Jamboree (so they said). The group backing Muddy included Michael Bloomfield on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, and Sam Lay on drums. You can demonstrate your knowledge by sorting the fathers from the sons. The video below includes both “Got My Mojo Working, part 1” and “Got My Mojo Working, part 2,” with Buddy Miles taking over on drums for part 2. I had to check my copy to confirm that the late, great Duck Dunn plays the incredibly active bass. Oh, what a night!
I love Tracy Nelson. She recorded an album of folk blues and gospel numbers released on Prestige in 1964 or 1965 while she must still have been a student at the University of Wisconsin. Long out of print, the entire album is now accessible on YouTube. Tracy taps into the distaff side of the blues and gospel legacy. On the Mother Earth album Satisfied (1970), she turned in an anthemic performance of Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of My Heart.” I think Otis Redding “borrowed” from the song for his “Pain In My Heart.” Seeing Tracy perform live at the Dakota in Minneapolis a few years ago was a thrilling experience and a bucket list item for me. She did not disappoint.
Muddy Waters had a latter day hit with the album Hard Again (1977), produced by Johnny Winter. “Bus Driver” is one of the album’s most memorable numbers. Muddy is backed on it by musicians including Pinetop Perkins on piano, Bob Margolin on guitar, and James Cotton on harmonica.
Boz Scaggs recorded “Loan Me A Dime” for his debut album on Atlantic over 50 years ago. Written by Chicago bluesman Fenton Robinson, the song is an extended outpouring of grief for love lost. I’ve heard Boz perform it live several times as the closing encore in his visits to the State Theater in Minneapolis, most recently from the first row with our friends Tom and Randy Edelstein in 2018. It was if anything the best version I’d heard yet. Boz brings something special to the song. The video of the performance below is from Greatest Hits Live (2004).