Blues heroes | Junior Wells

“As a boy I was listening to Sonny Williamson records and I would close my eyes and visualize myself playing the harp.”

– Junior Wells

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Photo by Brett Littlehales

One of the best-loved harp players in Chicago blues was Junior Wells. He took inspiration from the top living harmonica players and brought a passion and fire that was all his own.

Born and raised in West Memphis Arkansas, Wells learned from local blues hero Junior Parker. He was a skillful harmonica player by the time he was seven.

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Early Piedmont Blues | Blind Blake

Guest post by Stefano Ronchi

cordiallyyoursOne man and his guitar

Arthur “Blind” Blake, born in Jacksonville in 1896, is known as one of the best artists in Piedmont blues history, if not the greatest.

Also known as the man with the ‘piano-sounding guitar’ Blake is also regarded as the unrivalled master of ragtime blues finger picking guitar.

His complex and intricate finger picking style has influenced countless others.

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Fine and Mellow | Lady Day

12 Days of Blues-Mas | Episode #6

Written by Nicole Trissell


Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915), nicknamed “Lady Day”, sang incredible jazz tunes primarily during the 30s and 40s in the United States, at the height of American swing and jazz. She based herself in New York City, where she started singing in Harlem night clubs as a young teen, and eventually to sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Billie Holiday is celebrated as one of the most talented jazz singers who ever lived. Her timing, her sense of improvisation, her charm and style captivated audiences and earned her huge respect from other musicians.

But the life of a traveling star was hard, especially when compounded by the trials of pre-civil rights America. Billie Holiday, as one of the highest paid Black singers of the time, was still often asked to enter and leave gigs via the service elevator. This, plus a constant string of unhappy romantic relationships lead to heavy drug use throughout the 40s. This eventually landed her in jail and caused a slow decline in her voice and reputation, and by 1959 cirrhosis of the liver had claimed her life.

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CLICK TO Listen along WITH the playlist

Listen and join me in a journey through two decades of Billie Holiday recordings, as I show you some of her music that has touched me the most, as a dancer and a human.

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Your Mother’s Son in Law – 1933 recording

billieposeWhile this song is a little on the swing side for those of us of the blues dance persuasion, it is Billie’s first ever recorded song, set down in 1933 and bears listening to.

An interesting thing to note here, it takes more than a full minute for Billie’s singing to join the band already in full swing. It feels like it’s the band that’s the star here, especially the horns. She only sings twice, like an accent, or an additional instrument, but her singing does not feel like a focus.

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart – 1936 recording

Let’s Call a Heart a Heart is one of my favorite Billie songs.

Sentimental and Melancholy – 1937 recording

In both this and the previous song, I love the artistry with which she frolics and tumbles and holds the words.

You Go to My Head – 1938 recording
Yesterdays – 1939 recording
Fine and Mellow – 1939 recording

Fine and Mellow was actually written by Billie Holiday herself, in spite of the fact that she never learned to read music.

God Bless the Child – 1941 recording
Long Gone Blues – 1941 recording

These two are lovely, exquisitely emotive songs, and indicative of the thing that captivated so many audiences. Her voice soars over the rest of the small combo or quiet instrumentation, as the highlighted, soloing instrument, full of expression. In Long Gone Blues especially, compare what her voice does to what the horns do in their solos.

Georgia on My Mind – 1941 recording

This has quickly become my favorite version of this song. Again, there is no comparing to the way she sings, carries the words, bends the notes…

Gloomy Sunday – 1941 recording
Don’t Explain – 1946 recording

Exquisite, soaring torch songs. But as you listen to these two songs, side by side, compare the quality of her voice. All her artistry is still present in both songs, but the five years that passed between these two songs has been hard on Billie’s voice. It gets thinner, more gravely.

Baby I Don’t Cry Over You – 1946 recording

This song. Just everything about it. It’s carefree, it’s a great, empowered message. “I could have told you, right from the start, no man is man enough to break my heart.” You tell him girl!

Do Your Duty – 1951 recording

This song is one of the last songs Billie ever recorded. It had extra significance to her, as this was a standard of Bessie Smith, who was one of Billie’s early influences and idols. Personally, I like Bessie’s version better, but it’s kind of fun having these lyrics paired with a big, polished swing band.

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Nearing the End

Between these last two songs, Billie dealt with several arrests for narcotics possession, more abusive relationships, and continued drug use. She also was able to play packed houses at huge venues, but lost her ability to play in the intimate New York bars and clubs that she loved, due to losing her New York Cabaret Card as part of her legal troubles. After several more years of declining health and career, during which she published her autobiography, she finally passed away from side effects of her chronic drug use.

Her rise was meteoric: fast, bright, and over far too soon.

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Controversy

The last piece I want to leave you with was her most controversial, and also biggest-selling song. The song Strange Fruit was originally written as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol and speaks through intense imagery of racism and hate crimes. Billie Holiday would sing it at live performances often, on the condition that servers stopped serving, the space was made dark, and there was no encore after the weighty performance.

I leave you with a video of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.


12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Nicole Trissell.

Read other 12 Days of Blues-mas posts and subscribe to the emails to get all the blogs plus bonus links and playlists!

Classic Blues Albums

12 Days of Blues-Mas | Episode #3

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.

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Bessie Smith | The Essential Bessie Smith

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Listen to ‘The Essential Bessie Smith’ here.

A superstar of her time with a huge white audience. And her own railroad car.

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Memphis Minnie | Queen of the Blues

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Listen to ‘Queen of the Blues’ here.

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.

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Blind Willie McTell | The Early Years

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Listen to ‘The Early Years’ here.

Country blues, in the finger-picking Piedmont style, with story-telling lyrics. The inspiration for Bob Dylan.

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Leadbelly | The Tradition Masters

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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.

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Robert Johnson | King of the Delta Blues Singers

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Listen to ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ here.

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.

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Muddy Waters | Plantation Recordings 1941-42

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Listen to Plantation Recordings 1941-42 here.

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.

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Muddy Waters | Live at Newport 1960

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Listen to Live at Newport 1960 here.

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.

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Junior Wells | Hoodoo Man Blues

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Available to buy on Amazon | Also on iTunes

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.

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Lightnin Hopkins | The Prestige Recordings

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Listen to ‘The Prestige Recordings’ here.

A prolific Texas bluesman with hundreds of recordings. Famous for his loose style, with flexible rhythms and improvised lyrics.

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Big Mama Thornton | Ball n Chain

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Listen to ‘Ball N Chain’ here.

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).

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Otis Spann | Otis Spann is The Blues

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Listen to ‘Otis Spann Is The Blues here’.

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.

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Champion Jack Dupree | Blues from the Gutter

 championjackdupreeListen to Blues from the Gutter here.

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.

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Aretha Franklin | The Delta Meets Detroit

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Listen to The Delta Meets Detroit here.

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.

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BB King | Live at the Regal

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Listen to ‘Live at the Regal’ here.

The King of the Blues. Famous for his influential style of electric guitar and his taxing performance schedule of around 250 shows a year.

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The Story of the Blues album | Paul Oliver

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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.

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American Folk Blues Festival

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You can listen to ‘American Folk Blues Festival’ here.

A nice sampler from a series of albums recorded as part of annual European tours during the 1960s blues revival. Packed with superstars.

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Chicago | The Blues | Today!

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You can listen to ‘Chicago/The Blues/Today!’ here.

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.

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Ladies Sing the Blues

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Spotify only has about half the tracks but you can hear them all on Youtube.

A recent but really great compilation of women blues artists.

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So many classic albums to enjoy in the new year! Scroll down to leave a comment with your personal favourite!


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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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