I had originally intended to do a "Greatest Blues Albums of All Time" article, but I found it nearly impossible to compile, particularly for artists recording prior to 1960 whose works were often released as singles and now appear mostly on anthologies or greatest hits albums. Many times the original albums are simply out of print. I suppose I could have just listed all of the releases from the Chess Records label and be done with it, but then I got to thinking that it is not necessarily albums the blues greats were known for (although Muddy Waters' At Newport 1960, Willie Dixon's I Am the Blues, Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' in the Moonlight, Albert King's Born Under a Bad Sign and Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 Sessions all come to mind as great albums). No, it is the individual songs that have left an indelible impact on music and generations of blues fans. A single great blues song can be played and replayed by different artist with different interpretations and sound fresh and new each time.
So, I've decided to offer up the greatest blues tunes off all time, but I am going to do something completely different for this list. I will neither alphabetize the performers, nor enumerate the songs in some subjective hierarchy of greatness (which tends to cause inane arguments over which song should be is #1, instead of appreciating all the songs for their inherent qualities). I am going to simply go through my collection and list blues songs that are, in my estimation, the greatest, and then when I get to fifty, I'll stop - and then start a second fifty in another installment, maybe adding a third installment as well. So if you don't see songs such as "St. Louis Blues", "House of the Rising Sun", "The Thrill is Gone" or "Kind Hearted Woman", or such performers as Memphis Minnie, Son House or Lightnin' Hopkins, never fear they shall appear. Hell, I've got a hundred years of blues to wade through!
I've tried whenever possible to stick with the original performances of the songs and the artists who composed them, but sometimes you have just got to give your due to someone else who just did a better version and took the song to another level. As I've stated in other articles, the blues medium is a continual cannibalistic process where whole songs or parts of songs are reused or replayed over and over again, often to fantastic effect. Blues is good for the environment. Blues is the original recycling project. And, in honor of the blues, I am recycling another list! Enjoy!
P.S. Here's the next installment The Greatest Blues Songs of All Time, Part II.
If you've never heard Charley Patton, then your knowledge of Delta Blues history is incomplete. Charley was one of the fathers of the blues, and both John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf were heavily influenced by him, and perhaps Robert Johnson was as well (although that SOB probably would never admit it). Love the fingerpick and thump style on High Water Everywhere.
This version from Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live is a helluva lot of fun, with Johnny Winters joining in on the festivities.
Hoochie Coochie Man
A great blues tune penned by Willie Dixon but made famous by Muddy Waters (and Dixon as a composer for other blues artists will be a recurring theme throughout these articles). The horn section in this version is hot!
JOHN LEE HOOKER
John Lee could move a mountain with his beat. "Boom Boom" was a big hit for Hooker in 1962. There is nothing allusive in this song, the sexual nature of the lyrics are overt and in your face...or wherever else you might want to apply them.
"Let that boy boogie-woogie - it's in him at its got to come out!" No truer words were spoken, and that could be John Lee Hooker's epitaph. Born in Mississippi, Hooker eventually wandered up to Detroit where he got a job working on the line at Ford Motor Co. He played at the legendary clubs on Hastings Street, and came into his own when he traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar.
Crawlin' King Snake
One of those songs that gestated over time, with variations from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Victoria Spivey, Big Joe Williams and Tony Hollins, until John Lee got a hold of it in Detroit in the 1940s with a bite like a striking rattlesnake.
Along with Elmore James and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf is my favorite. It's that powerful, booming voice. And nowhere is that voice more thunderous than on "Smokestack Lightnin'".
I Aint Superstitious
The very best version of this song. Honorable mention goes to Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart for their wah-wah infused interpretation.
Another tune penned by Willie Dixon, although he borrowed liberally from Charley Patton's "A Spoonful Blues" and Luke Jordan's "Cocaine Blues". But once again, Howlin' Wolf recorded his version of Dixon's song first, and poor Willie could never really get it back.
Back Door Man
Willie Dixon wrote "Back Door Man" for Wolf, and although Dixon does a grand version of his own song, it aint as downright evil as Howlin' Wolf.
Dust My Broom
The King of the slide till the day he died! With such disciples as The Stone's Keith Richards, Fleetwood Mac's Jeremy Spencer, Jimi Hendrix (whose stage name was "Jimmy James" early in his career), and Beatle George Harrison (who can be heard to say "Elmore James got nothin' on this baby" on the song "For You Blue"), Elmore James reached more rock fans than perhaps no one this side of Willie Dixon.
Shake Your Moneymaker
One of my favorite blues tunes of all time. Just plain damn good fun!
Rollin' and Tumblin'
Whether you prefer Elmore James' jazzier version or Muddy Water's great original, don't make no never mind. The blues is all about variation and adaptation.
Cross Road Blues
There is no more legendary blues tune than this, or at least there is no blues tune that has more legends surrounding it. Supposedly, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the "Cross Road", which is now the intersection of U.S. Route 49 and U.S. Route 61 (where Bob Dylan got the idea for his album Highway 61 Revisited). In conjunction with such songs as "Me And The Devil" and "Hellhound on My Trail" (appearing in the next installment), "Cross Road Blues" cemented the idea of Johnson getting his blues talent from an unholy deal with the devil.
Love in Vain Blues
The more famous Rolling Stones version was heavily modified and countrified, but it expresses the themes of sadness and desolation from Johnson's original quite well.
Rambling on My Mind
This is a fascinating recording. Someone on Youtube (Andytheaston) slowed down the recording and dropped the pitch one key. There has been conjecture for years that Robert Johnson's vocals were sped up during the recording process, and that most of the versions of his songs now available do not accurately reflect his vocals. Is this how Robert Johnson really sounded? Very cool!
BIG MAMA THORNTON
Ball and Chain
There's no arguing that Janis Joplin recorded a great version of this song, but Big Mama has got her beat hands down, and Thornton's remarkable backing band makes Big Brother and the Holding Company sound like a bunch of teenagers practicing in a garage.
Fuck Elvis. I mean it.
THE ROLLING STONES
Raunch 'n' blues from The Stones from the album Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, is not only one of the best blues tunes but one of the great live performances of all time. There's a reason Mick and Keith appropriated a phrase from Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" to use as the name for their band, and it is readily apparent here. The boys were on fire this night, and Mick Taylor never got his props for being so important to The Stones during the greatest period of their long recording careers.
A gussied-up and orchestrated variation of the blues, but there's no doubt Ms. James is belting out her soul on this recording, and I do love the sinuous movements of the strings backing her.
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON
Nobody's Fault But Mine
There is just something about Willie Johnson's voice that sends a cold chill up my spine.
Motherless Children (Have a Hard Time)
Eric Clapton's version might have had more radio play, but Blind Willie Johnson lived the song and sang from his broken heart. His mother died when he was very young, and his father remarried a woman who threw lye in the face of little Willie during an argument with his father. Willie was blinded for life.
Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)
The most violent blues tune ever written, or played for that matter.
Anyone who ever said Hendrix couldn't play the blues is full of shit. This version is from the legendary (and nearly unobtainable) Hendrix In The West album. It starts off quietly and slowly builds into one of the most awe-inspiring blues guitar solos of all time. Enjoy all 13+ minutes of it. If you're short on time, here's the original 3:49 version.
(Nobody Know You) When You're Down and Out
This Prohibition-era song by Jimmy Cox tells the age-old tale of a rich man and the fickle friendships that run dry as soon as the money is gone. Bessie Smith popularized the song in 1929 and it has been covered hundreds of times since, most notably by Eric Clapton during the Derek and the Dominos sessions.
I Aint Got Nobody
Yes, this tune is recognizable to anyone whose every heard David Lee Roth's campy send-up of "I'm Just a Gigolo", but the "I Aint Got Nobody" part of that medley was originally copyrighted in 1914, 1915 or 1916 (take your pick of the feuding composers each claiming a stake in the song). There are many artists who've had a hit with this song, but Bessie does it best.
Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues
One of my favorite Delta pickers, Skip James is an artist who I could listen to play all evening on his front porch way down in Bentonia, Mississippi, with a jar of whiskey and a stogie or two.
Wang Dang Doodle
Lawdy Miss Clawdy, can Koko belt out the blues! This song has been covered countless times, but Koko Taylor owns it as far as I'm concerned. I also like Z.Z. Hill's more uptown R&B version.
Black Magic Woman
I had to laugh at VH1's silly cut-and-paste list of 100 great blues songs that included Santana's version of "Black Magic Woman" but made no mention of the original by Fleetwood Mac. As far as the blues, sorry VH1, Peter Green trumps Carlos Santana any day of the week, and you've got to love the drumbeat Mick Fleetwood lays down.
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT
Nobody's Dirty Business
Like Skip James, I have a deep and abiding reverence for the gentle Delta giant Mississippi John Hurt and his finger picking style. I also dearly love Taj Mahal's funny drug-related version, wherein he sings the famous line "Candy is dandy and liquor is quicker, you can buy all your liquor down in Costa Rica".
I could've gone with Ma Rainey's famous early version in this spot, but I like Hurt's version better, even if Louis Armstrong is backing Rainey.
Born Under a Bad Sign
Sorry Eric, Jack and Ginger, you might be the Cream of the crop, but you can't top Albert King's original version of this song.
Women Be Wise
Sippie had faded into obscurity but was brought out of the shadows by Bonnie Raitt, and their long friendship is one of the enduring stories of the generational respect blues artists have for their elders.
Have You Ever Loved a Woman
One of the great blues performances of all time. Talk about giving the blues all your heart and soul! And that crazy shirt collar has got to be legendary as well!
Everyday I have the Blues
And I think we are all better off for you having the blues everyday, B.B.!
How Blue Can You Get
Hands down the best song B.B. ever played. Absolutely the greatest lyrics for a blues tune!
HOUND DOG TAYLOR
Give Me Back My Wig
Good lord do I love Hound Dog! If you can find this live album with the Houserockers Beware of the Dog, snatch the damn thing up immediately!
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON
Black Snake Moan
Originally recorded as "Black Snake Blues" by Victoria Spivey, I prefer Blind Lemon's guitar work. The man was known as the "Father of the Texas Blues" and the legendary bluesmen who followed in his footsteps include Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson.
The "Black Bottom" was a dance craze back in the 1920's. Ma Rainey may give the impression she is referring to the dance, but I have a feeling she is referring to something else altogether. I am very perceptive that way.
Call It Stormy Monday
Perhaps the most covered blues tune in music history. And for good reason.
Goin' to Chicago
B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix all claimed T-Bone as a primary guitar influence. How would you like that on your resume'?
Playing on the folklore of the "seventh son of a seventh son", Willie crafts a great song in the long line of tall tale blues tunes.
I Can't Quit You Baby
Led Zeppelin was obviously deeply indebted to Willie Dixon. Their first two records might as well be Dixon tribute albums.
You Shook Me
See comments above, ie. Led Zeppelin = Willie Dixon tribute band.
Pine Top's Boogie
Yes, yes, I know this tune was composed by Pinetop Smith, but his recordings on YouTube are all scratchily deplorable, so here's Pinetop Perkins (who died in 2011 at age 97!), the ageless pianist known for years as Muddy Waters' right-hand man, who absconded with Smith's boogie-woogie and made it his own. I think Perkin's version has more jump and jive to it anyway.
BLIND WILLIE McTELL
Can you hear Jimmy Page playing acoustic blues in the same tuning? Bob Dylan once said "Nobody can sing the blues as Blind Willie McTell".
SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON I
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Sonny Boy died young in 1948 (34 years old), but he left behind a wealth of great blues tunes. This one is his most famous, and a blues standard.
SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II
Bring It On Home
Yes, I know, it's confusing. But there were two Sonny Boy Williamsons. This one is the second, obviously. Robert Plant and Zeppelin didn't just cover this tune, the first couple minutes are a karaoke version.
One Way Out
Of course, I love The Allman Brother's great version from the Filmore East Concerts, but Sonny Boy's jazzier original has got jump.
A song revered and played by rockers like Jack Bruce of Cream (on the Fresh Cream album) and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (on This Was), here sung by an unsung legend of Detroit Blues, Doctor Ross and the Orbits. Just for reference, here is the frenetic harp version from Cream, and Mick Abrahams on the Tull version