The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll

“If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll, or any other music, for that matter.” — Keith Richards

When people are feeling down and out, they get depressed.  They get sad.  It happens to everyone.  They get what has often been known as The Blues.

How do we deal with these negative feelings?  As is often the case, we turn to music to put salve on our psychic wounds.  We just sing.  We just play the guitar, or fiddle, or harmonica, and let the music take us to a better place.

bradfordville_540x242And yet, at its purest sense, blues music has been largely ignored by the mainstream public at large.  For instance, there aren’t more than a handful of truly blues songs that have found their way on to the Top 40 pop charts.  Back in 1958, Eddie Cochran’s smoldering cover of  “Summertime Blues” reached #8 on the pop charts, and The Who’s live version ended up at #27 in 1970.   But those are exceptions to the rule.

Still, blues has played a pivotal role in the evolution of rock music, and most major rock bands have included pure blues tunes in their repertoire.  Witness “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” or “For You Blue” by The Beatles, or “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors, or “One Way Out” by The Allman Brothers, or “Black Limousine” by The Rolling Stones, even “Steamroller” by James Taylor.

Blues music is soulful.  It’s full of deep emotion.  It attempts to address the pain of those who suffer, yet it gives hope and support as well.  And it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the blues emerged from the Southern U.S. cotton fields, where slaves and indentured blacks toiled, looking for a break in their bleak existence.  They found solace in song, and put melody, rhythm and words to their misery.

The first appearance of the blues is usually dated after the end of the Civil War, between 1870 and 1900, a period that also saw the rise of so-called “juke joints” where blacks went to listen to music and dance after a hard day’s work.

9772_b-b-kingsAs blues guitar legend B.B. King put it:

“Blues was started by the slaves, and I think everyone thinks it should all be sad.  But even the slaves had fun with it.  Blues began out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.  But blues don’t have to be sung by people from Mississippi, like me.  There are people having problems all over the world.” 

Icons like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first to record early blues songs in the 1920s in the Delta, at the same time country legends were doing the same thing in Memphis and elsewhere.  The two genres have had a lot in common, and have merged many times in their mutual evolution.  In fact, in the first half of the 20th Century, blues was known as “country blues,” played on acoustic guitars, harmonicas and pianos.  Later, after blacks migrated to St. Louis, Chicago and other Northern cities, “urban blues” developed, which featured electric guitars, basses, organs and brass instruments.

Robert_Johnson

Robert Johnson

But let’s really look at The Blues.  Let’s look at Sonny Boy Williamson (“Bring It on Home,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “One Way Out”),  and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Baby Please Don’t Go”), and Big Bill Broonzy (“Key to the Highway”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster”), and so many other legends who wrote and played heartfelt songs that were popular not only in blues circles at the time but were later interpreted to greater success by others like Cream, Sam Cooke, Johnny Winter, Derek and the Dominos, Steppenwolf, Dave Mason and The Doobie Brothers.

 

We ought to thank the sailors on the postwar merchant ships who brought early blues records with them on their long voyages to England, where youngsters like John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton got their hands on them and had a spiritual awakening.  They formed bands, and  cranked out electric versions of these same blues — records like The Stones’ “Not Fade Away” and The Beatles’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Bad Boy.”

MaRainey

Ma Rainey

“When we started playing in London in 1962,” notes Keith Richards, “we started off with Chicago blues.  If you wanted stardom and fame, clearly that was not the way to go.”

 

By the late ’60s, American musicians had also become reacquainted with the blues, and they joined the blues revival:  Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and so on.  Still, it was the Brits who continued to be the main source of blues music interpretations, thanks to artists like Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck.

Here’s the thing about The Blues:  The best blues you’ve heard, or will ever hear, is not in some domed stadium, arena or large venue.  It will come instead in some dive joint down a dark street in some sketchy neighborhood, where seasoned veterans will play blues music all night long.

chi-muddy-waters-home-museum-20140128-001

Muddy Waters

Perhaps that’s why many music lovers I know have only a small window of appreciation for the blues.  “I’ll enjoy two or three songs, but then I want something else,” says my wife, while I’d be happy to sit in that blues club and groove along until four in the morning.

 

Blues artists have always seemed to be satisfied cruising along just under the radar, gaining just enough attention for people to keep packing the clubs and buying an album or two, but not necessarily seeking top-of-the-charts fame.

I’d like call out the blues music artists, and their albums, that I believe are the ones you should explore.  These are blues legends, or more recent artists who have embraced blues music and are worthy of your consideration.

 

Eric_Clapton_UnpluggedEric Clapton has probably done more to promote the blues than anyone in the music industry.   His work with Cream (1966-1969) revitalized names like Willie Dixon (“Spoonful”), Albert King (“Born Under a Bad Sign”), Chester Burnett (“Sitting on Top of the World”), and Robert Johnson (“Crossroads”).  And the “Layla” album, where he played in tandem with Duane Allman, is one of the best blues albums of all time (“Key to the Highway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”).  In his solo career, he explored many non-blues forms, but he always returned to the blues, his true love.  His bluesiest albums to check out:  John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (1965).  Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” (1967) and “Wheels of Fire” (1968).   Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” (1970).   Solo albums:  “Just One Night” (1980), “Money and Cigarettes” (1983), “Unplugged,” (1992),  “From the Cradle” (1994), “Riding With the King” (2000), “Me and Mr. Johnson” (2004).

 

Buddy_Guy_SRV

Stevie Ray Vaughan (left) with Buddy Guy

Stevie Ray Vaughan was the heir apparent to the blues guitar throne in the late 1980s.  He emerged from an Austin, Texas, scene with smoldering tracks like “Texas Flood” and “Pride and Joy,” and even had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.  His work made him an attraction to stars like David Bowie, who featured him on his monumental “Let’s Dance” LP in 1983.  Vaughan died in a freak helicopter crash in 1990, just as his career was gaining momentum.  Albums to check out:  “Texas Flood” (1983) “Soul to Soul” (1985), “In Step” (1989).

 

0001132301Buddy Guy is a true legend, and a man Clapton describes as “the best blues guitar player ever, bar none.”  Now 81, Guy has been an explosive force in concert for more than 60 years, and has influenced most of the better known guitarists in the business.  Check out “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” (1991).

Jimmy Page, first with The Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin, has been at the top of everyone’s list of great blues guitarists, and Zeppelin’s debut “Led Zeppelin” (1969) is the best place to hear it.

John Lee Hooker was a towering blues guitarist and songwriter from his teens in the early ’30s until his death in 2001.  He was a multiple Grammy winner and a major influence on blues music for seven decades.  Try “The Healer” (1989) and “Mr. Lucky” (1991).

Jimi Hendrix recorded only two pure blues songs on his official releases — “Voodoo Chile” and “Red House” — but he did more to reinvent the blues than any guitarist in history.  “Are You Experienced?” (1967) and “Electric Ladyland” (1968) showcase Hendrix’s unique style of blues-based originals.

008811164614BB King, rightly dubbed “King of the Blues” in most music polls, lived to the ripe age of 89, and continued performing upwards of 250 shows a year right up until the end in 2015.  His string-bending guitar style influenced dozens of electric blues guitarists who followed.  I recommend “Live at The Regal” (1965) and “Completely Well” (1969), and his collaboration with Clapton, “Riding With the King” (2000).

Peter Green, founder of the venerable Fleetwood Mac, was in charge of the group for its first three years, when they were known as Britain’s best blues band.  It was Green’s outstanding blues guitar and songwriting that put them at the top of the charts there.  Check out “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” (1968) and “Mr. Wonderful” (1968).

617gSnp3ovL._SL500_Duane & Gregg Allman are among the top two or three blues guitarists and singers, respectively, in the business.  Duane died at only 24 but laid down some of the best blues recordings ever in his short life.  Gregg just died this year, and contributed great vocals, organ and songwriting throughout his lengthy career.  Check out “Live  at Fillmore East” (1971), “Eat a Peach” (1972) and “Laid Back” (1973).

Joe Bonamassa was a guitar prodigy, playing electric guitar before he entered kindergarten!  Now 40, Bonamassa puts on a virtual guitar clinic with every performance.  He has such a passion for the blues that he devotes time and treasure to a non-profit called Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which funds music scholarships and music education all over the country.  I would recommend “Beacon Theater:  Live From New York” (2012) and “Blues of Desperation” (2016).

Janis Joplin had perhaps the most dynamic blues voice of all, but we only got to hear it for a few years.  Fortunately, records like “Cheap Thrills” (1968) and “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” (1969) captured her spine-tingling vocals at their best.

John Mayall was and still is a sort of “father figure” to blues musicians from 1960 on.  Consider that Clapton, Green, and The Stones’ Mick Taylor all spent time as guitarists for Mayall’s band The Bluesbreakers.  “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1965) is an absolute must, as are “The Turning Point” (1969) and “Chicago Line” (1988).

Jeff_Beck-TruthJeff Beck is still blowing people’s minds today at age 73 with his innovative guitar playing.  While he also delved into jazz fusion and progressive rock, he cut his teeth on the blues, as evidenced by his work with The Yardbirds on “Roger the Engineer” (1966) and his stunning solo debut, “Truth” (1968).

John Mayer writes beautiful melodies and sings them with a sweet voice, but until you see him live, you may not realize what a phenomenal blues guitarist he is.  The best album to illustrate this is “Where the Light Is:  Live in Los Angeles” (2008).

Paul Rodgers, former lead singer of Free and Bad Company, was nominated for a Grammy for his superlative album “Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters” (1993), which features some of the top guitarists guesting on Waters’ best songs.

Robert Cray, starting in the mid-’80s and continuing to this day, has released new blues albums every couple of years, highlighting his smooth blues guitar work and vocals.  “Strong Persuader” (1986) and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1988) are excellent LPs from his strong catalog.

j1523_stones_packshot-digital-4000x4000-layered-f23ca9df-dee7-4b99-a7d4-a18b920f3501Jonny Lang was only 15 when he astounded blues music lovers with his debut LP “Lie to Me” (1997).  He continues to amaze concertgoers with his talents on blues guitar.

The Rolling Stones, for more than 50 years, have wanted to make a blues album, playing the music they did when they were just starting out.  They finally did, and it’s a revelation:  “Blue and Lonesome” (2016).

 

 

While blues music only occasionally shows up at the top of the pop charts, and its popularity waxes and wanes over the years, it’s durable.  There’s always a place for the blues.  In a 1968 interview, Willie Dixon was philosophical about the role that the blues play in the larger musical picture:  “The blues are the roots, and the other musics are the fruits.  It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.  The blues are the roots of all American music — country, jazz, rock.  As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”

 

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All the leaves on the trees are falling

This is the third in a series of four entries that examine some of the great songs of the pop music culture celebrating the four seasons.  At this time of the autumnal equinox, we take a look at songs of autumn.

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Of the four seasons, I think autumn elicits the widest range of emotions.  Many people I know proudly claim fall as their favorite.  The air gets slightly cooler and crisper, the trees turn into dazzling displays of color, festive sports events (games and tailgate parties) are everywhere, Halloween is looming, and thoughts invariably turn to serene reflection.

The-road-through-the-autumn-forestAnd yet, many folks are overcome with sadness as another summer passes, with the knowledge that Old Man Winter isn’t far off.  Very understandable;  the days grow shorter, animals prepare for winter’s hibernation, our bones get chilled more easily.

As is so often the case, music has an uncanny way of crystallizing our thoughts, capturing the mood of the moment.  As autumn takes hold, I’d like to take a look at a handful of pretty great songs that explore the many feelings of this multifaceted season.

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“Leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way, thanks to you, I’m much obliged, such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way…”

Even a hard blues rock band like Led Zeppelin had something poignant to say about fall. In “Ramble On” (1969),  from the band’s iconic “Led Zeppelin II” LP, vocalist Robert Plant came up with perfect lyrics to complement the music Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones put together for this track about moving on before the weather turns bitter.

“Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance with the stars up above in your eyes, a fantabulous night to make romance ‘neath the cover of October skies, and all the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow…”

Van Morrison has written several songs that explore autumn and its moods — his “Autumn Song” from 1973 is nearly 11 minutes long — but his best, I think, is “Moondance” (1970), with its jazzy piano, bass, flute and sax behind a gorgeous vocal delivery.

In my search for songs about autumn, I found the pickings remarkably slim, at least in the rock music genre.  In the ’40s and ’50s, many torch songs about the sadness of autumn were written, and several gems have emerged in more recent years that are worth celebrating.  So I’ve chosen to feature some of them here, even if they don’t strictly adhere to my blog’s usual 1960s-1970s-1980s focus.  I’m bargaining that you won’t mind…

Here’s my list of songs of autumn, with a Spotify playlist at the end for listening along.

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51FxT0FRwVL._SY355_“Autumn Leaves,” Nat King Cole, 1956, and Eric Clapton, 2010 

This timelessly lovely melody was written by Joseph Kosma in 1945, with French lyrics.  Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics in 1947, and since then, it has been recorded by dozens of pop vocalists and jazz instrumentalists, including Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra, Roger Williams and Cannonball Adderley,  Gene Pitney, The Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Willie Nelson.  More recent renditions include those by Rickie Lee Jones (1995), Eva Cassidy (1996), Paula Cole (1997) and Bob Dylan (2015).  I’ve selected Nat King Cole’s classic treatment from 1955 and Eric Clapton’s 2010 rendition as the ones you should check out (although pretty much all are worthy of your attention 72547650 — the song is THAT good).   Humorous footnote:  There’s a 1956 film, originally titled “The Way We Are,” that actually was changed to “Autumn Leaves” just to capitalize on the Cole version, high on the charts at the time, that was played over the opening credits!  It’s a quintessentially melancholy song about lost love and how autumn can bring back painful memories:  “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold… Since you went away, the days grow long, and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song, but I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall…”

Harvest_-_neil_young“Harvest Moon,” Neil Young, 1992

Ol’ Neil isn’t generally much for sentimental songs, but this one, from his 20-years-later sequel to his #1 album “Harvest,” is an exception.  What a marvelous, delicate love song, perfect for a cool autumn evening:   “There’s a full moon rising, let’s go dancing in the light, we know where the music’s playing, let’s go out and feel the night, because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again, because I’m still in love with you, on this harvest moon…”

R-969718-1272902137.jpeg“September,” Earth, Wind & Fire, 1978

As Earth Wind & Fire were working on recording this infectious track, band member Allee Willis remembers asking songwriter/bandleader Maurice White, “We ARE going to change ‘ba-de-ya’ to real words, right?’  Maurice gave me one of my greatest lessons in songwriting:  ‘Never let the lyrics get in the way of the groove.'”  The song went to #3 in the fall of 1978:  “Ba-de-ya, say, do you remember, ba-de-ya, dancing in September, ba-de-ya, never was a cloudy day…”

jeff-waynes-musical-version-of-the-war-of-the-worlds-4f80e55d0c13b“Forever Autumn,” Justin Hayward, 1978

Incredibly, this melody was first written as a jingle for a Legos commercial in 1969.  Jeff Wayne and Gary Osbourne then added lyrics and released it as a single in 1972, which was a hit in Japan but nowhere else.  Wayne tried again in 1978 as he was compiling the soundtrack for his “Musical Version of War of the Worlds,” and his dream was to have “the voice that sang ‘Nights in White Satin’ sing it.”  His wish was granted when Justin Hayward stepped up, and the result was a #5 hit in the UK (although only #47 in the US).  “Through autumn’s golden gown, we used to kick our way, you always loved this time of year, those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now, ’cause you’re not here…”

R-473160-1396361401-6704.jpeg“November Rain,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1991

For many rock fans, this song tops Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ as the best example of a song that merges thoughtful melody, meaningful lyrics, delicate beginning and blistering hard rock finale.  Ax’l Rose, Slash & company were never my cup of tea, but man oh man, this track is absolutely seismic.  Turn it up!  “Never mind the darkness, we can still find a way, ’cause nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain…”

48de0b2e58ea216687e6034ef78c538b--best-music-album-cover“Indian Summer,” Poco, 1977 

One of the criminally unheralded bands of the country rock genre was Poco, among the pioneers of the merger between country and rock in 1969.  With the likes of Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Randy Meisner, Rusty Young, Timothy B. Schmidt and Paul Cotton in their ranks, they flirted with but really never reached the stardom they deserved (although “Heart of the Night” and “Crazy Love” did well in 1979).  Do yourself a favor and delve deep into Poco’s repertoire and you’ll find jewels like “Indian Summer” from 1977:  “Indian summer is on its way, cool at night and hot all day, ain’t no black clouds filled with rain, Santa Ana wind blew them all to Maine…”

the-kinks-autumn-almanac-pye-3“Autumn Almanac,” The Kinks, 1967

Speaking of unheralded bands, The Kinks may be the #1 most ignored supergroup.  Unquestionably influential, delightfully quirky, capable of foppish English pop and hard-ass grunge rock, Ray Davies and his cohorts have an enormous treasure of great material you should take the time to peruse.  One lost gem is “Autumn Almanac,” a 1967 single that describes autumn rather nicely:  “When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac, breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow, so I sweep them in may sack, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac…  Tea and toasted buttered currant buns can’t compensate for lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone, la-la-la, oh my poor rheumatic back, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac…”  

61FG2HSNXWL“Leaves That Are Green,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966

In the early days, Paul Simon’s lyrics were steeped in angst and sadness, painted in isolation (“I Am a Rock”), homesickness (“Homeward Bound”) and quietude (“The Sound of Silence”).   And yet, his songs offer achingly beautiful melodies, shimmering harmonies and an undefinable sense of hopefulness.  Witness “Leaves That Are Green,” which reminds us of how all those gorgeous leaves turn brown and die, but the words are sung to a lilting beat and optimistic bounce.  That takes a rare talent, as we have seen in Simon’s 50+ years of songwriting.  “And the leaves that are green turn to brown, and they wither with the wind, and they crumble in your hand…”

death_cab_for_cutie_-_plans“Summer Skin,” Death Cab For Cutie, 2005

I LOVE this band.  Such wonderful music, engaging sentiments, clever arrangements.  Much good music, but look at 2003’s “Transatlanticism,” and especially “Plans,” their 2005 commercial breakthrough, which includes “Summer Skin”:   “Then Labor Day came and went, and we shed what was left of our summer skin… And we peeled the freckles from our shoulders… ‘Cause the season’s change was a conduit, and we left our love in our summer skin…”

JethroTull-albums-heavyhorses“Heavy Horses,” Jethro Tull, 1978 

In 1976, Scotland-born Ian Anderson, after eight years of cranking out some of the best blues-oriented progressive rock we’ve ever seen, bought himself a salmon-farming operation in his homeland, and spent nearly half of his time settled into a more pastoral, agrarian lifestyle.  Jethro Tull remained a major player for a while yet, beginning with the delightful “Songs From the Wood” LP, which reflected his interest in the more organic side of life.  Even better is the title track to his 1978 album “Heavy Horses,” a minor masterpiece that succinctly describes the mighty work of the Clydesdales and other massive farm horses who have traditionally done the heavy lifting during the toil of harvest time each autumn:  “Iron-clad feather feet pounding the dust, an October’s day towards evening… Bring me a wheel of oaken wood, a rein of polished leather, a heavy horse and a tumbling sky, brewing heavy weather…”

51RydFIEfCL“September Grass,” James Taylor, 2002

One of the best songwriters of the late 20th Century seemed to be running out of gas when he released “October Road” in 2002, a resounding dud which had maybe two or three decent songs instead of the usual eight or nine.  One of the standout tracks turned out to be John Shelton’s “September Grass,” the only non-original on the LP.  Wonderful lyric, pretty melody, altogether perfect for this mix:  “Well, the sun’s not so hot in the sky today, and you know I can see summertime slipping on away, a few more geese are gone, a few more leaves turning red, but the grass is as soft as a feather in a feather bed, won’t you lie down here right now in this September grass?…”

6d562d24f4afb945e763df4e84948fd1“The Chill of an Early Fall,” George Strait, 1991

Country songwriters Green Daniel and Gretchen Peters teamed up to write this heartbreaker about a person whose lover has cheated in the past, and a former lover has suddenly come around again to upset the balance.  Why does this always happen in autumn?  “Here it’s comes again, that same old chilly wind will blow like a cold winter squall, and I’ll begin to feel the chill of an early fall, and I’ll be drinking again, and thinking whenever he calls, there’s a storm coming on…”

61vH8pA2AkL._SX355_“Indian Summer,” Joe Walsh, 1978

You wouldn’t expect a hotel-room-wrecking rock star like Joe Walsh to come up with a comforting soft-rock piece like this one, but sure enough, you can find it on his classic “But Seriously Folks” album next to “Life’s Been Good”:  “I was taken by surprise by the thunder, sat and stared out at the rain, taken back, I was younger in a vacant lot day, and then fall brought an Indian summer, and plenty of places to play…”

220px-TomWaits-TheBlackRider“November,” Tom Waits, 1993

Waits is a surly, cantankerous sort who isn’t prone to explaining the meaning behind his lyrics.  “I believe what Dylan said:  ‘If you have to explain ’em, they weren’t very good in the first place.'”  Like Dylan, Waits writes lyrics that nurture and grow, taking on new meaning the more often you hear them.  Check out “November,” a tremendous track from his 1993 LP, “The Black Rider”:   “November has tied me to an old dead tree, get word to April to rescue me, November’s cold chain, made of wet boots and rain, and shiny black ravens on chimney smoke lanes, November seems off, you’re my firing squad, November…”

es-divide-final-artwork-lo-resAutumn Leaves,” Ed Sheeran, 2017

Pity the folks who chose not to buy the deluxe version of Sheeran’s new “Divide” CD, which includes his very fine track “Autumn Leaves.”  It bears no relation to the time-honored classic mentioned at the beginning of this piece (but I’ll bet it inspired it):  “Do you ever wonder if the stars shine out for you, float down like autumn leaves, and hush now, close your eyes before the sleep, and you’re miles away, and yesterday you were here with me…”

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Honorable mention:

The Autumn Stone,” The Small Faces, 1969;  “September Morn,” Neil Diamond, 1979;  “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” The White Stripes, 2002;  “Autumn Song,” Van Morrison, 1973; “September Song,” Frank Sinatra;  “Girl From the North Country,” Bob Dylan, 1963;  “Autumn in New York,” Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1957;  “October,” U2, 1981;  “The Witch’s Promise,” Jethro Tull, 1972;  “Blue Autumn,” Bobby Goldsboro, 1968;  “Indian Summer,” Audience, 1972.