Chicago Blues

Chicago blues is literally the sound of the Great Migration. As vast numbers of Black Americans rolled north beginning in the 1910s, they brought their musical traditions with them, but updated them to suit their new circumstances. The blues was a way of chronicling Black life, so when that life changed, the lyrics and ultimately the sound changed, too. Chicago blues, with its clanging electric guitars and shrieking, distorted harmonica, is a perfect example of what Luigi Rossolo wrote about in his famous 1913 essay The Art of Noise:

“Nowadays musical art aims at the shrillest, strangest and most dissonant amalgams of sound. Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor. In the pounding atmosphere of great cities…machines create today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion. To excite our sensibility, music has developed into a search for a more complex polyphony and a greater variety of instrumental tones and coloring. It has tried to obtain the most complex succession of dissonant chords, thus preparing the ground for Musical Noise.”

The city’s South Side in particular was the cradle of the urban blues. Players would arrive from Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee or Louisiana, and get their start playing house parties or the outdoor market on Maxwell Street. Eventually, they might be able to get gigs playing in the city’s bars, and as with Bakersfield country, the demands of the audience and the environment shaped the music. Sitting down with an acoustic guitar, plucking out simple country boogie rhythms, wasn’t going to get the job done, and Chicago blues became an electric — and amplified — music. Guitarists like Howlin’ Wolf’s secret weapon Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers from Muddy Waters’ band, and later Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and others, cranked up the volume, while Little Walter blasted listeners with a harmonica played directly into a hand-held microphone, creating waves of steely distortion. The lyrical tone of Chicago blues was different, too, often more sexually aggressive and bragging than that heard on the Delta. Tales of heartbreak and sorrow remained at the heart of the music, of course, but Waters’ songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready” (“I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite/I hope some screwball start a fight”), and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” were soundtracks to urban life.

The music was documented by a variety of labels, including majors like Columbia and RCA Victor, but some of the most important were local indies like Chess, Delmark and Alligator. Chess’s roster included both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Little Walter, Willie Dixon (who wrote songs for everyone), Buddy Guy, and performers who evolved the blues into rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. When one considers not only the commercial impact of these artists’ original recordings, but their influence on everything that came after, it’s easy to argue that Chess Records was one of the most important record labels in history. Though smaller, Vee-Jay, Delmark and Cobra were also important, bringing the world John Lee Hooker, Magic Sam and Otis Rush, among many others, and Alligator Records, launched in the early 1970s specifically to release the music of Hound Dog Taylor, gradually became one of America’s best blues imprints. 

At this point in history, Chicago blues is undoubtedly the sound most people think of when they think of blues, period; it has long since eclipsed the acoustic Mississippi Delta music that codified the form, and other styles — the one-chord droning vamps of the Mississippi hill country or the jazzier Texas blues — are regional styles mostly of interest to specialists. And the performers who made their mark during the heyday of Chicago blues, from the 1940s to the 1960s, were some of the greatest musicians America and the world have ever produced. These songs will be heard and sung, and influence subsequent generations, as long as music exists.

Mr. Luck: The Complete Vee-Jay Singles cover

Every Jimmy Reed song sounds the same, but while you’re listening to it it’s the greatest song you’ve ever heard. His patient, somewhat nasal singing is reminiscent of Cab Calloway, and his simple, loping style of blues features a slowly bouncing boogie rhythm, choruses that are barely an extension of the verse, and a relaxed feel that makes his music purely pleasurable. Many of his songs, like “Big Boss Man,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,” “Take Out Some Insurance,” are blues classics and have been recorded by Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Animals, Van Morrison, and many others. This three-CD set contains nearly 80 tracks and about a dozen short clips of Reed talking about some of his biggest hits, and it’s simultaneously everything you’ll ever need and not nearly enough.

Howlin’ Wolf cover

Howlin’ Wolf’s second album gathered the singles he’d released between 1959 and 1962. It’s a showcase for his raucous, raspy vocals (with a few surprises, like the dramatic recitations on “Goin’ Down Slow”) and Hubert Sumlin’s stinging, inventive lead guitar, and contains many of his classic songs, including “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “Back Door Man.” But sometimes the more obscure songs, like “Down in the Bottom,” a tale of running from a cuckolded husband set to the melody of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, really show him at his sharpest and wittiest — the Wolf of song was a ladies’ man first and foremost, after all, and this story of him running down the road shouting “I’m too young to die” is worthy of Chuck Berry, and the music has a strong enough backbeat, occasionally adorned by slapback echo, to inch it in the direction of rock ’n’ roll at times, but for the most part this is essential electric blues.

Black Magic cover

Magic Sam’s second album was his last; he died of a heart attack at 32, less than a month after it was released. It leaves one wondering what he might have achieved had he lived longer, because the music here is a determined evolution of Chicago blues, pushing it in the direction of R&B without losing any of its grit or the raw emotion at its core. His guitar playing is sharp and savage; he unleashes stinging solos as rhythm guitarist Mighty Joe Young chops out fierce, emphatic chords and drummer Odie Payne Jr. keeps the rhythm danceable at all times; “You Belong To Me” could have been a Stax single, while “You Don’t Love Me Baby” rides a strutting backbeat, and “I Have the Same Old Blues” has the loping, almost country feel of Albert King. 

Big Mama Thornton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band cover

Big Mama Thornton is most often deployed as a cudgel by people who think disliking Elvis makes them special. To truly understand her appeal, check out this live album from 1966, where, as the title indicates, she’s backed by Waters and Sammy Lawhorn on guitar, James Cotton on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Luther Johnson on bass, and Francis Clay on drums. Her powerful voice settles deep into the band’s driving groove, on both uptempo (“Black Rat”) and slow-burning (“Sometimes I Have A Heartache”) numbers, and when Cotton takes a solo, he’s not seizing the spotlight so much as matching her volcanic energy. At times, the music has an almost gospel feel, like on “I Feel The Way I Feel,” a brilliant showcase for Spann’s piano and Thornton’s voice, with no guitars or harmonica to get in the way.

West Side Soul cover

Magic Sam was one of a trio of artists — the other two were Otis Rush and Buddy Guy — who revolutionized Chicago blues guitar playing with their striking tremolo sound. Born in Mississippi in 1937, he moved to Chicago at 19 and began recording for the Cobra label, releasing numerous singles in the late 1950s. In 1967, he signed with Delmark and released this album, which showcased his stinging, reverb-heavy guitar solos and his soulful vocals. The album includes a re-recording of “All Your Love,” one of his 1950s singles, as well as takes on several songs made popular by other artists, like “My Love Will Never Die” (Otis Rush), “Sweet Home Chicago” (Robert Johnson), and “Mama Talk To Your Daughter” (J.B. Lenoir), but it’s such a rocking, vibrantly alive album that it doesn’t matter if the material is familiar.

The Howlin' Wolf Album cover

In 1969, Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, decided to bring two of the label’s biggest blues artists, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, to hippie audiences with albums that reworked their classic material in psychedelic fashion: Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album, respectively. Both featured Rotary Connection, a group that included guitarist Pete Cosey (who would find fame in Miles Davis’s mid ’70s electric band), keyboardist Charles Stepney (who’d later work with Earth, Wind & Fire), and vocalist Minnie Riperton (not heard on the blues sessions). The Howlin’ Wolf Album is the better of the two, mostly because songs like “Spoonful,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Back Door Man,” “Down in the Bottom,” “Evil,” and “Moanin’ At Midnight” are hard to screw up, and Wolf’s voice is as powerful as ever, the grit of old age only adding to its strength. This might not be blues for purists, but it’s absolutely worth hearing.

Burnin' cover

This 1962 album is one of John Lee Hooker’s most immediately accessible efforts. Recording in Detroit, he was backed by the band that would become known as Motown’s Funk Brothers, including pianist Joe Hunter, bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin, and saxophonists Hank Cosby and Andrew “Mike” Terry. As a result, the grooves are tighter than most of his work, from the hard-charging boogie of “Boom Boom” (one of his biggest hits) to “Lost A Good Girl,” which you could almost do the stroll to. “Let’s Make It” verges on rock ’n’ roll, and “Keep Your Hands To Yourself (She’s Mine)” is basically a rewrite of the riff from the Champs’ “Tequila”(!). When he sits down with his guitar and settles in, though, as on “A New Leaf” and “Blues Before Sunrise,” the darkness and haunted isolation of his best work is instantly present.

The Real Folk Blues cover

This compilation, released in 1966 to capitalize on an already waning folk music trend (Bob Dylan had gone electric the year before), gathers some of Muddy Waters’ earliest recordings and places them alongside louder, electric material from the 1950s. “Mannish Boy,” which opens the album, was a 1955 single that remains one of his best-known songs; the cavelike reverb and pay-phone distortion on everything (his voice, the guitar, the harmonica, the drums), not to mention the whooping and hollering crowd in the back, make it one of the most electric blues recordings of all time — there’s nothing “folk” about it. There are some more backwoods-ish tracks, though, like his version of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” and Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” has an almost jazzy swing.

Stone Crazy! cover

On Halloween 1979, Buddy Guy walked into Condorcet Studio in Toulouse, France with his road band — his brother Phil on rhythm guitar, J.W. Williams on bass, and Ray Allison on drums — and cut one of the fiercest, most unhinged albums of his career. Stone Crazy!, originally released as The Blues Giant on the Isabel label in France and reissued two years later by Alligator in the US, gives about as pure a dose of uncut Guy as one can get. The six tracks include a re-recording of the title track, disguised as “Are You Losing Your Mind” for copyright reasons, but the opening “I Smell A Rat,” nearly seven minutes long and opening with one of the most scorching solos of Guy’s career, sets the tone. (Note: the band was joined by Guy’s longtime touring partner, singer/harmonica player Junior Wells, for the album Pleading The Blues at the same session.)

Hard Again cover

Muddy Waters had recorded for Chess Records for close to 30 years, but when they folded in 1975, he signed with Columbia’s Blue Sky imprint and released three killer studio albums and one live disc, of which this was the first. The opening re-recording of his 1955 smash “Mannish Boy” is one of the most amped-up, raucous, screaming-and-hollering blues performances of all time, with an absolutely killer band, particularly pianist Pinetop Perkins, harmonica player James Cotton, and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (plus Johnny Winter, who also produced, on guitar), absolutely tearing it up. That same energy level is maintained throughout; the album includes reworkings of two more old songs, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Want To Be Loved,” as well as new material that stands up to anything Waters had done before.

Sweet Tea cover

Buddy Guy is one of the best-known players of Chicago electric blues, but he frequently stretches out and makes unexpected choices on record. On 2001’s Sweet Tea, he turns his attention to the music coming out of Mississippi’s hill country in the mid ’90s thanks to the efforts of Fat Possum Records. Four of the album’s nine tracks (“Done Got Old,” “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me,” “Stay All Night” and “I Gotta Try You Girl”) are by Junior Kimbrough, while others are by T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, and Robert Cage. Guy adapts his guitar style to this slow-burning, one-chord sound, eschewing his usual fireworks in favor of searing, sustained single notes on “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me,” and he lets the groove roll — “I Gotta Try You Girl” might be the longest song in his catalog at a stunning 12:09. This is a grimy, primitive album that’ll make you feel like you’re sitting in a grimy, barely-lit juke joint, drinking clear alcohol bought from the guy who made it.

Natural Boogie cover

Hound Dog Taylor only released two albums in his lifetime, but they’re both amazing. His crude, slashing slide guitar — listening to it’s like being whipped across the face with a car antenna — is backed by Brewer Phillips’ rhythm guitar and Ted Harvey’s drums, and the music has a loose, headlong crudity that almost prefigures punk rock. Their version of Elmore James’ “Hawaiian Boogie” (they also play his “Talk To My Baby”) is so nasty it’s nearly atonal at times, with Taylor’s strings sliding so loose they might slip right off the neck. Even when things aren’t quite as berserk, as on the loping boogie “See Me in the Evening,” there are sudden bursts of static and noise from Taylor’s cheap-ass guitar that push things out of the realm of comfort and into wild abandon.

Don't Turn Me from Your Door: John Lee Hooker Sings His Blues cover

This album, released in 1963, was recorded at two different sessions nearly a decade apart, the first in 1953 and the second in 1961. And yet, the whole thing fits together seamlessly, because John Lee Hooker was such an individualistic musician, he was almost an outsider artist at times. On almost the whole album, it’s just him and his heavily reverbed, distorted electric guitar, the slap of his foot providing the only rhythm. He chops out simple chords and short melodic flourishes, murmuring his lyrics in a gravelly growl that seems to emanate from the earth itself. There are also two instrumentals, “Misbelieving Baby” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” on which he duets — if that’s the word — with Earl Hooker (no relation), and those are astonishing proto-noise-rock.

What It Takes: The Chess Years cover

Koko Taylor earned her nickname “the Queen of the Blues” on the road, where her hurricane-strength vocals, backed by a hard-charging band, lashed audiences into submission for decades. This compilation gathers her singles, most notably her hit 1966 cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” Her version of Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum,” recorded as a duet with him, is one of the most harrowing songs in the entire Chicago blues repertoire, but she’s got a solid line in lyrical wit, too, as proved on more lighthearted songs like “I Don’t Care Who Knows,” “Whatever I Am, You Made Me” and “Bills, Bills And More Bills.” She even makes Buddy Guy’s “Let Me Love You Baby” her own, flipping the lyrical gender while retaining the objectification, leering over the way her man walks. Her backing bands are as adept at gutbucket grooves as driving soul and R&B, too.

The Best of Muddy Waters cover

The first compilation of Waters’ singles was released in April 1958; the material included dates from between 1948 and 1954, and features many of his best-known songs (though not “Mannish Boy,” which was recorded in 1955). The performances — from Waters, harmonica wizard Little Walter, pianist Otis Spann, bassist Willie Dixon, and others — set the paradigm for high voltage electric blues, the songs booming from even the tiniest speaker thick with reverb and machismo. “I’m Ready” and “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” are suffused with swagger that verges on hostility, and other tracks like “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Mad Love (I Want You To Love Me)” are nearly as intense (“I want you to love me/Love me of your own free will/I want you to love me/Love me and don’t get me killed”).

Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers cover

Hound Dog Taylor played one of the cheapest guitars you could buy, but his raucous, primitive boogie inspired Bruce Iglauer, who worked for Delmark at the time, to start Alligator Records, which became one of America’s biggest blues labels; this album was their first release. It came out in 1971, when Taylor was already in his mid-fifties. (He died in 1975.) The music is played by a bassless trio — Taylor on positively ungodly slide guitar (it sounds like it’s coming through a malfunctioning pay phone), Brewer Phillips on rhythm guitar, and Ted Harvey on drums. The music boogies so hard it’s practically punk rock — you can draw a straight line from this not only to George Thorogood and the Destroyers, whose first album was originally bassless just like this one, but to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and other New York noise-blues terrorists of the 1990s.

I Was Walking Through The Woods cover

This 1970 compilation gathers tracks Buddy Guy — a highly emotional singer and an absolutely stunning guitarist — recorded for Chess between 1960 and 1964. Some, like “Let Me Love You Baby” and the opening “Watch Yourself,” feel like he’s trying unsuccessfully to become a soul artist in pursuit of a hit, but the more stark material like “Stone Crazy,” “I Got a Strange Feeling” (which he’d later re-record as “When My Left Eye Jumps”), “My Time After Awhile,” “Ten Years Ago” and “First Time I Met the Blues” are astonishing. “First Time…” contains the lyric that gives the album its title, and it’s an absolute nightmare of a song, Guy talking about the blues as a malevolent monster chasing him through the woods — “blues, you ran me from tree to tree…blues, don’t murder me.” “Stone Crazy” and “…Strange Feeling” are equally overwrought, with Guy’s voice cracking into a desperate howl of pain before his guitar explodes in a style like a cross between B.B. King and James “Blood” Ulmer or even Sonny Sharrock.

The Essential Little Walter cover

Little Walter was the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica; his simple but revolutionary technique of cupping a microphone in his hand along with the instrument and plugging into his own amp onstage allowed him to compete in terms of volume and distortion with the guitars, and his wild solos and accompaniment in Muddy Waters’ band made him a sensation. When he recorded the 1952 instrumental “Juke” on his own, it was Chess Records’ first #1 hit. This two-disc set contains all of his big singles and well-known songs (“Key to the Highway,” “Boom, Boom Out Goes the Light,” “My Babe”), which display a looser, sometimes almost jazzy rhythm and an insouciant vocal style in direct contrast to his wild, fierce blowing.

Moanin’ in the Moonlight cover

Howlin’ Wolf’s first album, released in 1959, was a compilation, gathering singles and other tracks recorded as far back as 1951. It includes many of his best-known songs, including “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “How Many More Years,” and “Evil” (written by Willie Dixon, but the Wolf’s version is the definitive one). Howlin’ Wolf was a giant of a man, at least 6’3” and possibly as tall as 6’6” and weighing close to 300 pounds, and his voice was astonishing — a rasping cry with impossible depth, that could rise to an eerie whistling howl. And yet, he was somehow not terrifying, but seductive; the Wolf’s persona was that of a ladies’ man, wronged but still in the hunt. The music, played by guitarist Hubert Sumlin, pianist Otis Spann, and various others, matches the power of his voice, hammering the repetitive blues riffs home with almost physical impact. 

The Essential Otis Rush cover

Otis Rush’s late ’50s recordings for the Cobra label are some of the most stark and disturbing of the era. He’s a raw, fiery guitarist, a clear precursor to Buddy Guy, and his vocals have a desperation at their heart that’s almost too intense to bear at times. And what he’s singing about is wild, too; songs like “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “Violent Love” (“I want to make violent love/To you by the moon above/I want to make violent love to you”) skirt the fringes of acceptability, but it’s his classic “My Love Will Never Die,” on which the guitar and horns line up and wail in unison as Rush’s voice floats above it all like a howling revenant, almost as unhinged as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, that truly sets him apart. It’s as frightening a performance as has ever been recorded.