Written by Ross Woods
Choosing a set of classic albums is a very personal thing, something where there’s no right and wrong. I chose these albums with a few different things in mind. Some of them are personal favourites, some are representative of an important style, some of them have heavily influenced popular music, and some are all three!
Almost all the music was recorded before 1970 – there’s plenty of great blues recorded since, but I can’t cover everything! I’ve chosen albums that feature individual artists, and a few compilations.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the LP only became popular in the 1950s, and before then almost all music was released as singles on 78rpm. Albums of pre-1950s music are virtually all compilations; the ones I suggest below are just examples, and others can be just as good.
Bessie Smith | The Essential Bessie Smith
A superstar of her time with a huge white audience. And her own railroad car.
Memphis Minnie | Queen of the Blues
Women dominated blues music in the 1920s. The selection on this album is interesting for the crossover between music hall/cabaret style (with piano) and Delta blues (with guitar). Most blues artists of this era were very versatile – they were entertainers who played in multiple styles.
Her song “When the Levee Breaks”, telling the tale of the 1927 Mississippi flood, was copied by Led Zeppelin.
Blind Willie McTell | The Early Years
Country blues, in the finger-picking Piedmont style, with story-telling lyrics. The inspiration for Bob Dylan.
Leadbelly | The Tradition Masters
Listen to ‘The Tradition Masters’ here.
Leadbelly sang in many styles and is famous for singing his way into a pardon from a jail sentence. He was back in jail again a few years later, where he was “discovered” by folklorists John and Alan Lomax.
Leadbelly is perhaps most famous for his rich 12-string guitar sound, and the song “Good Night Irene”, which incidentally is the theme song for the Bristol Rovers football club.
Robert Johnson | King of the Delta Blues Singers
Hugely influential for decades because of his remarkable ability to simultaneously play rhythm plus lead on the guitar, his poetic lyrics, and for living a short drama-filled life with a violent end.
Muddy Waters | Plantation Recordings 1941-42
A blues giant whose career spanned more than 40 years. This recording by Alan Lomax shows him as a delta artist and includes interviews which I loved hearing.
Muddy Waters | Live at Newport 1960
Here he is again two decades later, this time as a Chicago blues musician playing with amplification. By now he was an established star and went on to even greater prominence with tours of Europe in the 1960s.
The Rolling Stones were hugely influenced by Muddy Waters and named themselves after a song from one of his records.
Junior Wells | Hoodoo Man Blues
A classic Chicago harmonica player and vocalist teams up here with Buddy Guy for a classic set of intensely heartfelt blues.
A great mix of driving rhythm and expressive melodies.
Lightnin Hopkins | The Prestige Recordings
A prolific Texas bluesman with hundreds of recordings. Famous for his loose style, with flexible rhythms and improvised lyrics.
Big Mama Thornton | Ball n Chain
A powerful woman with a big voice, as well as a great performer who rode the wave of the blues revival. She also wrote songs that made other people famous: “Hound Dog” (Elvis Presley) and “Ball n Chain” (Janice Joplin).
Listen out for the words to “School Boy”, a brilliant twist on Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl (with great guitar work that sounds a lot like Mississippi Fred McDowell).
Otis Spann | Otis Spann is The Blues
A brilliant blues pianist and singer who had a great solo career as well as being a key member of Muddy Waters’ band for more than 15 years.
Recorded with Fleetwood Mac during the British blues revival.
Champion Jack Dupree | Blues from the Gutter
Brilliant blues pianist who lived in Europe from 1960 onwards, including a few years near Halifax UK.
This album includes some beautifully sparse performances, with the spaces between the notes producing a relaxed bluesy feel to the songs.
Aretha Franklin | The Delta Meets Detroit
Although not known as a blues artist, this album contains some classic blues tunes like “Night Time is the Right Time” and “The Thrill is Gone,” as well as crossovers into soul.
BB King | Live at the Regal
The King of the Blues. Famous for his influential style of electric guitar and his taxing performance schedule of around 250 shows a year.
The Story of the Blues album | Paul Oliver
A brilliant introductory sampler of the blues from the 1920s to the 60s. Based on the book of the same name, which in turn was based on an exhibition of his photographs at the American Embassy in London in 1964.
This album is difficult to find in digital format. You can get it as two 1-hour podcast episodes for a dollar each on BandCamp.
I totally recommend the weekly podcasts from Blues Unlimited.
American Folk Blues Festival
A nice sampler from a series of albums recorded as part of annual European tours during the 1960s blues revival. Packed with superstars.
Chicago | The Blues | Today!
A 3-volume compilation by blues historian Sam Charters covering the Chicago blues scene.
For more great albums compiled by Charters, see The Country Blues volumes 1 and 2.
Ladies Sing the Blues
A recent but really great compilation of women blues artists.
So many classic albums to enjoy in the new year! Scroll down to leave a comment with your personal favourite!
Listen to some of our favourite songs from the albums on this special Spotify playlist.
Many thanks to author Ross Woods. Long-standing and highly-regarded DJ from the Bristol blues scene he wrote an earlier post on Lightnin Hopkins here.
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