I had no help when I began my journey through a century of blues. I had no compass or map but this was a trip I needed to take and I was willing to risk getting lost. That didn't happen too many times but I did have a few missteps while also repeatedly striking gold.
The journey continues but here's a little travelogue for those of you considering booking your own blues vacation. This is my Blues 101 list of 5 Blues Albums You Must Own. A music with such a rich, deep tradition has innumerable entry points. This isn't necessarily where I started but if I were to go back and to it all over again, this is the road I would take.
A couple things about the list:
- I made my life more difficult by forbidding the use of compilations because it felt like cheating. Maybe I'll write a companion to this and send you to some of those anthologies and multi-disc box sets.
- It's very Chicago-centric, which works great for me as that's the sound I've come to love the most but there are so many other styles that deserve your time and consideration.
This is my Blues Starter kit and these might also be the five blues records I'd take with me to that mythical deserted island.
- Otis Rush - Right Place, Wrong Time: This is my favorite blues LP of all time from my favorite bluesman of all time and it's the first record I'm sending anyone who wants to discover the power, magic, mystery, and wonder of the blues. Otis is a phenomenal guitar player with impossibly great touch and emotion in his playing and is also among the most soulful vocalists I've ever heard. You get all of that on this set.
- Magic Sam - West Side Soul: This is a record someone should have made me buy a whole lot sooner than I did because it is jawdropping. Sam was a skilled guitarist but it's his voice that puts him in the legends category and this album is the best thing he ever did (although its successor is nearly as brilliant).
Albums three and four have something special in common: both feature Hall of Famer Buddy Guy, but in a supporting role. Guy is a fabulous frontman rightly recognized for decades of magnificent work but his ability to do interesting work as a sideman is something special, particularly as some blues fans and critics think his solo work got a bit too flashy and indulgent.
- Junior Wells - Hoodoo Man Blues: Junior Wells wasn't the greatest harmonica man in Chicago (that would be Little Walter, a name you'll want to know as you continue your blues journey) but he was a serious badass as a frontman and his harp work isn't to be ignored. The songs are great, Junior's swagger is spellbinding, and Buddy's supportive guitar work and the great rhythm work of The Aces make this an essential classic.
- Muddy Waters - Folk Singer: This is, for my many, the greatest acoustic blues record cut in Chicago. It's not the purest example of Delta blues but might be the best example of Mississippi-meets-Chicago as you'll ever hear. Waters was an influential guitarist and his lead slidework is excellent but throughout his career, he distinguished himself as a preeminent vocalist; he never sounded stronger than he did on Folk Singer.
- Freddie King - Let's Hide Away & Dance Away With Freddie King: I struggled to narrow down the list to just one Freddie King album as he could be an introduction to the blues on his own, just as Muddy could but this 1961 set features some of Freddie's finest instrumental work and these songs have influenced generations of guitarists- "San-Ho-Zay" alone has been covered and copied more times than I can count.