Classic Blues Albums

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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Blues heroes | Lightnin’ Hopkins

Guest post by Ross Woods

I met Ross Woods for the first time in 2013 when I went along to DJ at Blue Mondays in Bristol. Ross was a regular DJ on the team and someone who had been deep into blues music for a very long time. 

Pretty soon I was part of the Blue Mondays group on Facebook, and noticed that Ross shared every one of his playlists as a note inside of the group. I hold him in high regard for having consistently good taste in blues; he’s introduced me to lots of excellent music over the last few years.

The last time I went to Bristol (for the Bristol Blues Exchange in July) I could only stay for one night but was lucky to be hosted by Ross and his wife Dee.  It turned out that we both had time for an extended breakfast (with lots of coffee) and we had a lot of fun talking about how we select songs when we’re DJing (Ross watches for visual cues from the dancers while I use mainly instinct and harmonic mixing, just in case you are interested).

Ross also showed me his amazing vinyl collection and one record in particular. This was the starting point for the story you’re just about to read.

LightninFinding ‘the’ Album

I must have been about 19, in probably my second year of university when I bought my first blues album. I’d decided I was interested in blues music, but didn’t really know anything about what I liked, or even what was out there. I went into the university bookshop, up to the record store on the mezzanine floor, and went diving around in the Blues section. This was in the days when vinyl was the only format.

I’ve no idea why I chose Lightnin’ Hopkins – Volume II; maybe it was the enthusiastic tone of the liner notes. Anyway, they had headphones so you could try out records without disturbing the peace. They put on the record for me, and within about 10 seconds I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. I still love the opening few bars of that track, ‘Last night‘, with those gloriously relaxed guitar fills.

The Album

A special feature of the album is the superior rhythm section of Earl Palmer and Jimmy Bond, who follow him wherever he goes – in the middle of ‘That’s My Story‘ Hopkins announces:

“I got so much good stuff behind me today, that I don’t hardly know how to shake myself!”

As a bonus, jazz trombonist John “Streamline” Ewing turns up on a few of the tracks too – on ‘Dillon’s Store‘ (my favourite track) he is brilliant in a duet with Lightnin on slide guitar.

One of the funniest (or perhaps saddest) things about this album is that the photo on the album is not of him (it’s T-Bone Walker, another Texas bluesman).

Exactly the same music was released on another album as Fugitive Blues.

Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Music

My impression of his music is that it’s just so cool and yet intense at the same time. I especially love the slow songs with those huge bent notes and long pauses. His vocals sound relaxed to me because he doesn’t sing right on the beat, and stretches words out.

If you listen obsessively, he’s all over the place when it comes to song structure – while his basic pattern is 12-bar blues, he throws in extra bars and plays melody lines that just ignore the bar structure altogether; whatever sounds good to him.

When he plays solo his timing can be pretty loose at times, which is great for dancing, because you get great rewards for listening! It’s great to dance to what the musician actually plays, rather than relying on an internal metronome that we set up at the start of the song.

His guitar playing is a great combination of heart-rending emotion and virtuoso technique. Here’s a great example where he’s playing ‘Lightnin’s Blues‘. Listen carefully to hear little flashes of his dark humour in the lyrics.

Of course it’s not all slow and melancholy, here he is, all upbeat and optimistic that he’s going to make money betting on a horse in ‘Goin’ to Dallas’.

About the man

The music of Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins spans a huge swathe of 20th century blues. He learned to play blues while he was growing up in Texas. He first met the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson age 8 and learned from him directly, supporting him at church events once he could play well enough.

After a trip to Houston county penitentiary, Lightnin’ lost the blues for a while until re-connecting with his cousin ‘Texas’ Alexander. Playing with him at weekends he was spotted by a talent scout for Aladdin records. Thus began his career in earnest.

Hopkins recorded a staggering number of songs in the 40s and 50s, estimated at somewhere between 800 and 1000. Even when he became well-known he rarely strayed outside of Texas; preferring to play his local clubs in Houston instead of going out on the road to play the juke-joint circuit like many of his fellow blues men and women.

By the late 1950s the strength of his recorded material had achieved him a strong national following. Riding the crest of the blues wave, he toured to play for white audiences during the “re-discovery” of blues as American folk-music in the 60s.

He continued to record at least one album a year until 1969. He died of cancer in 1982.

Hopkins was a great entertainer and storyteller, and was known for his humorous introductions to songs. One of my favourites is the story of Mr Charlie. Be sure to listen right to the end!

If you want to read more about him, take a look at the beautiful heartfelt writing and first-hand accounts in these DVD liner notes.

Thank you so much Ross!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Lightnin Hopkins and his unique style of blues. If you get to hear Ross DJ at some point, listen out for his music. I play him sometimes too. And when you dance to live musicians, you’ll be hearing some Hopkins covers, that’s for sure.