New definitive book on Rock Music from its roots – Rock Routes

New definitive book on Rock Music from its roots – Rock Routes – out now in paperback for £9.57.

I spent years writing this and have been holding it back. I decided to release it now. I don’t know why.

If you like Rock Music you will adore this! It gives you my personal take on all the genres and their major exponents and essential tracks. It’s informative and readable. It sheds light and is a great guide. Why not give it a try?

Blurb

This charts the progress of Rock Music from its beginnings in Country Blues, Country& Western, R&B and Gospel through to its Post Punk period of 1980. It tells the tale of each genre and lists all the essential tracks. I was there at the beginning and I’m still there at the front! Keep on Rockin’!!

Advertisements

Rock Genres – The Blues pt2 – Into the Urban environment.

Rock Genres – The Blues pt2 – Into the Urban environment.

E_James4howlin-wolf lightnin' HopkinsMI0001325829

As the 20th century progressed things changed. The increasing mechanisation reduced the need for so much labour and the rural work-force started to migrate from Mississippi to the cities in search of work. The big northern cities of Detroit and Chicago had the factories and car production that required workers. The money was good and it proved a big pull.

I went to Chicago in 1971. Walking the streets of Chicago in the seventies was a daunting experience. The skyscrapers loomed over the underpasses and it felt very forbidding. I found it quite threatening. During the fifties the southern states were full of segregation, intimidation and Jim Crow but the Northern cities were even more dangerous. The places were full of gangsters, pimps and murder. You carried a gun and a knife and the murder rate was high. It felt like that to me. It was scary.

A staging post along the way for musicians was Memphis. Situated in Tennessee it was a half-way house on the way to Chicago. The talent scouts would check out the black acts from the rural areas for the big black record labels such as Modern, set up by the Bihari Brothers, or Chess (and it’s subsidiaries Checker, Cadet and Argo), set up by Phil and Leonard Chess. Sam Philips started off in the late forties as a scout for these labels (as did Ike Turner). After a bit he decided to set up his own Sun label in Memphis working on the premise that there was money to be made and why send all the talent up the road to Chicago when he could record in Memphis? Sam recorded the local Blues, R&B and Country before inventing Rockabilly. He ‘discovered’ Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others but he always said that the greatest talent that he unearthed was Howlin’ Wolf.

Memphis developed a booming blues scene on Beale Street. It had started out in the twenties and thirties with acoustic blues with the likes of Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes but by the forties it had turned electric. The first black radio station WDIA was broadcasting and giving airtime to the likes of BB King. I walked round Beale Street. By the time I got there it had become commercial. The old time place was knocked down but it still had a bit of the feel. There were blues bands playing and we went in BB Kings place and caught a few acts. At the end of town I sat by the bronze statue of W.C. Handy and then the one of Elvis in all his glory. It seemed appropriate. It took me back to the dust of that old town as it had been in its hey-day..

The forties was the era of ‘Race’ records. Radio stations and segregated music and audiences. The whites had their crooners and swing with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney or the Country & Western of Hank Williams, Gene Autrey, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Flatt & Scruggs. The blacks had the blues. There was a stark difference. The blues was raunchy in a way that white music never was. The blues seemed real. White music seemed sanitised.

Most of these early blues records were recorded in make-shift studios, in hotel rooms or above shops. That still went on but in the fifties there were proper studios like Sun and Chess. Many of the blues guys would record for a number of different labels using various pseudonyms in order to avoid being sued. John Lee Hooker was famous for it. He’d notoriously record for one label in the morning and another in the afternoon under a different name.

The post-war blues scene was different. The urban environment was harsher and the clubs small, noisy and sweaty. This was no country juke where a national steel guitar was sufficient. In order to make yourself heard you needed amplification. The electric sound mainly grew out of Chicago.

The workers had been on the assembly line all day and when they hit the bars and clubs they wanted to let off steam. The music reflected that. It was loud, aggressive, beaty and rocked. The clubs were packed and the floor writhed. I would have loved to have had a single night in one of those joints. From the reports they were alive. They were funky with sweat.

The development of the music can be clearly seen by a quick comparison between Robert Johnson and Elmore James. Elmore based his slide guitar style on that of Robert Johnson and Kokomo Arnold and did a cover of Robert’s ‘Standing at the Crossroads’ which was his story about selling his soul to the devil. In the forties, after being discharged from the army, Elmore worked in an electric store on Hickory Street in Canton. It was there that he developed his raw electric sound. He created his own electronics to produce distortion and sustain so that his guitar sound was searing. He has many imitators but has never been equalled. That sound is still boss. I visited Canton and that street. It had been demolished. All that was left of Elmore’s electric shop was the foundations and a few bricks. I stood in the dust and could imagine him standing in that shop working on his guitar to create a different type of pick-up. He was a genius in many ways. Elmore is one of my heroes.

The Robert Johnson acoustic version of ‘Crossroads’ is brilliant. His anguished voice and complex guitar are masterful. But Elmore took it somewhere else. He electrified the sound with a scorching riff and added a thumping beat. This exemplified the difference between the forties and fifties.

The whole of Memphis was jumping with the Blues and R&B and this is where Elvis snuck off to watch the black performers busking or playing in the clubs. He was knocked out by the power of Rufus Thomas, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and Big Mama Thornton. But it was in Chicago that the Blues really reached its apotheosis. The clubs were a battle-ground in many ways and the giants of the scene would battle it out for supremacy. At that time it Was Muddy Waters slugging it out with Howlin’ Wolf for who was the top dog. They were closely pressed by Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Then there was Billy Boy Arnold, Little Walter, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. Elsewhere Lightin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam, Robert Nighthawk, Albert King and John Lee Hooker were setting their styles.

The bands pulled out all the stops to create excitement and steal the show. They’d learnt their trade as showmen and pulled out all the tricks. Howlin’ Wolf was famous for his lascivious tricks with his harmonica, for howling and rolling around on the floor like a wolf and clawing his way up curtains, all wide-eyed and ferocious. He was a huge man, weighing in at 300 lbs. and standing six foot seven and created an imposing, formidable act. Muddy Waters was not to be outdone. He’d work the audience into a frenzy, put a bottle of coke down his pants, flip the top off and spray the audience at the climax. This was the type of raw sex and fury that was lacking for me in the controlled, censored music produced for white audiences. I wanted the real thing.

Willie Dixon was the driving force behind much of the Chess label success. He was a great bass player and arranger but it was his song-writing that really made the difference. He penned most of the great blues numbers that powered the later British blues boom including: Spoonful, Little Red Rooster, Wang Dang Doodle, Back door Man, I Just want To Make Love to You and Smokestack Lightnin’.

I went to Clarksdale and visited the Delta Blues Museum. They had Muddy Waters’ shack in there with a wax model of Muddy sitting in it with a guitar. It didn’t feel right to me. I visited the site where they’d taken it from and stood there looking over the fields of the plantation he used to work on driving his tractor, where it had all started. I wished they’d left the shack there. It felt more fitting.

I also went to White Station where Howlin’ Wolf grew up. The Howlin’ Wolf museum was shut but I walked around and sat by the statue they had to him. It was slightly smaller than life-size but it was good. He was being recognised as a great performer. Mississippi Hill Country was hot and fertile. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) used to plough the land with an ox. I could imagine the huge man doing that in the heat with the buzz of insects and rich smell of the soil.

My first introduction to the Blues was when I was fourteen and my friend Dick Brunning played me his records. I had to listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins. I couldn’t make out a thing he was singing and there was only that electric guitar run with Lightnin’ keeping time with bottle-tops nailed to his shoes. It took me a while for my ears to tune in but I grew to love it. It was a huge difference to the Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Beatles that I was listening to. Dick introduced me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and I never looked back.

Those earthier, sexier sounds were raw and sang of a different, more real life to the one I was living. It stank of sex, excitement and energy. I wanted it.

Out of that Chicago sound Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry emerged to pump that energy into the nascent Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. The blues sound was largely ignored by the white audiences in the USA but had a huge impact in Britain. Chris Barber was responsible for bringing the artists like Muddy Waters across the ocean where they received a rapturous response in Europe. Some even settled here. This sparked off a great interest in the blues which resulted in a multitude of British blues bands starting with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and giving rise to the sixties Beat bands like the Rolling Stones. Stars like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf found a new audience in Britain just as their home black audience was moving on to the softer sounds of Tamla Motown, Doo-wop and the R&B dance crazes of the late fifties and early sixties.

The electric blues sparked off electrification back in the rural regions too. In Louisiana we had the swamp blues of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and Lonesome Sundown and in the Mississippi Hill Country we had the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside.

The Blues was alive and rockin’ and went on to invigorate the sixties Rock scene in many ways. Blues is seminal.

Rock Music Genres – The Blues – pt1 – Rural Mississippi.

Rock Music Genres – The Blues – pt1 – Rural Mississippi.

Robert Johnson Son house

The blues started off in the Deep South of America, in the rural regions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. The first recorded mention was by W.C. Handy, a bandleader who was waiting for a train in Tutwiler Mississippi. He recalled seeing a man playing a guitar using a knife on the frets and singing.

I visited that station and sat on the bench. It was hot, humid and sultry. I could imagine.

The blues developed out of African rhythms on European instruments. In those early days there were no drums. Drums were banned. It was widely believed that the African Slaves could talk and organise through their drumming.

The deep South and particularly the fertile Mississippi delta , was the place for big plantations growing cotton, soy bean and corn. They used black slaves brought over from Africa.

The blues probably developed as a music form around 1900. It went on to become the basis of Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll and is still developing today.

People think of the blues as being sad. The romantic view is that it expresses the melancholy of the oppressed black slaves. That is far from the full picture. The blues covers a wide spectrum of styles and uses. It was used in the fields to entertain and create rhythm for manual work. A lot of the blues shouts come out of this. It was used as dance music at the jukes and was lively and bright. It was used as entertainment in the brothels and bawdy houses where boogie-woogie piano developed. It was used for busking on street corners or performances in inns. It was also used to express emotion and feeling. It was even used to express sexuality, full of earthy expressions and double entendres. Rarely was there any overt political or social comment, at least not in the recorded versions. Given the oppressive circumstances, lynchings and activities of white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan this was hardly surprising.

A number of the early exponents were disabled in some way. If you were blind, legless or handicapped you had no way of earning a living. Music gave you an opportunity.

The early exponents were people like Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Kokomo Arnold, Peg Leg Howell, Tommy Johnson and Bo Carter.

Bo Carter specialised in the use of double entendre. White society was very puritanical and a lot of his stuff would have been quite shocking. Charlie Patton was an early Hendrix. He’d play the guitar behind his back, through his legs and back to front. Tommy Johnson had a trick of doing handstands on the guitar while playing. The object of the showmanship was to attract a big audience. They’d vie with each other on street corners.

By the 1930s the style had reached its peak. The great Son House (A leading exponent of the national steel guitar using bottle-neck), who I saw perform in 1968, taught Robert Johnson how to play. Robert, who was poisoned in 1937 at the age of 23, had perfected a style that was intricate, melodic and poetic. His songs went on to form the backbone of everything that followed.

I visited all three of Robert’s graves and paid homage.

I had the privilege of talking to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who was with Robert on the night he got poisoned. He told me which of the three was the real one. It is the one at the back of the church.

It makes you wonder what might have been – if Robert had gone on to live and produce music of such quality the world would have been all the richer. It wasn’t to be and all we have left is thirty seven tracks recorded in hotel rooms on portable equipment over three sessions. They are scintillating.

Look what came out of them!

BB King – the last of the great Blues Singers – A tribute.

BB King – the last of the great Blues Singers – A tribute.

b-b-king-the-hooks-brothers-1949

OK – Riley B King is not the last of the great Blues Singers – we still have the great Buddy Guy, Billy Boy Arnold and Lazy Lester – but he was a giant of a Blues Singer and Guitarist. But BB was one of the best.

The great years of Chicago was when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were slugging it out to be cock of the roost, Elmore James was searing out those unparalleled slide guitar riffs, Sonny Boy Williamson (the 2nd) was laying down his harp wailing stories and the Little Walter, James Cotton, Otis Spann and Shaky Horton providing ample support. Then there was the incredible John Lee Hooker.

Those were the great years of Electric Blues. Albert King was laying it down with Stax in Memphis and then there was the brilliance of Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Freddy King and Slim Harpo. From the melting pot of New Orleans all through Louisiana and Mississippi up to Memphis and on to Chicago in the industrial north the Blues was flourishing.

BB King was a giant in this competitive forum. As a young kid he secured a spot on WDAI radio in Memphis and never looked back. He still busked on street corners though. His articulate voice and unique guitar style of slick, fluent runs were ideal in his brilliant story-telling blues. He excelled on numbers like ‘Everyday I have the Blues’, ‘Why I sing the Blues’, ‘The Thrill has Gone’, ‘Lucille’ and the great ‘When Love Comes to Town’.

BB King got himself the reputation of being the hardest working man on the circuit. He often played 365 concerts a year. It was testament to the love he felt for his music. He set up clubs in Memphis and Chicago and gained a huge following.

He went on performing right up to the end and has now died at the age of eighty nine. He was a real link to those early years of rural Blues in Mississippi. We’ll miss him but he has left us a brilliant legacy of music.

Thanks Riley! You made the world a better place.

The Thrill has gone! We’re the poorer for its passing.

Leadbelly – Bourgeois Blues – First hand record of Racism in operation. Protest on Civil Rights.

Leadbelly Ledbetter Lead_Belly_publicity_shot

Leadbelly was a giant of a Folk Singer/Blues Singer. It was rare for black guys to speak out against the racism they experienced on a daily basis. This was because of the great retribution that would come down on their heads. They could find themselves lynched.

Leadbelly was a brave man

This song highlights the terrible racism that existed even in the Northern American cities.

The Civil Rights struggle is not yet over. Until we have eradicated all prejudice we should be vigilant and speak out.

Bourgeois Blues

Me and my wife went all over town
And everywhere we went people turned us down
Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say’n I don’t want no niggers up there
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Rock Geniuses – Lazy Lester – a few photos that I took a couple of years ago! Swamp Blues of the 60s

Rock Geniuses – Lazy Lester – a few photos that I took a couple of years ago! Swamp Blues of the 60s

Lazy Lester was a leading exponent with his ‘I’m a Lover not a Fighter’. Which was covered by bands such as the Kinks.
I was lucky enough to catch him in London.

Lazy Lester was brilliant when I saw him recently. The strange thing was that he did not play ‘I’m a Lover not a Fighter’.

SC_0014 SC_0022 SC_0016

He was a bit surly in the photo session though!

Rock Music Genres – Swamp Blues in the late fifties.

Rock Music Genres – Swamp Blues in the late fifties.

 

In the late fifties the electrification of the blues created a range of different styles emanating from different regions of the Southern States. Swamp Blues was the sound that came from Louisiana. It was called swamp blues because this was the land of the bayous and swamps along the coast out from Baton Rouge.

The sound was developed by J.D Jay Miller who distributed via Excello records. It was a laid-back, slightly muffled, echoey production based very much on the Jimmy Reed beat. Baton Rouge had close proximity to New Orleans and there is a rich flavour of Cajun, Creole and Zydeco in that earthy beat. It is very distinctive.

The leading exponents were Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester and Lonesome Sundown. Even the names conjured up that lethargic, sultry heat of the Mississippi Delta. The only one I got to see was Lazy Lester a few years back. I got in on a photo session and took some shots and had a chat. He was a bit moody and surly but his set was brilliant and perversely he refused to play his big hit ‘I’m a Lover Not a Fighter’. It seemed right.

I discovered Swamp Blues back in the sixties on an LP simply called ‘Swamp Blues’ featuring samples of all the various artists’ work. I was smitten. The sound was so rich and textured, so full of Spanish moss that you could imagine yourself sitting in the bayou with the alligators as the sun went slowly down.

I visited Baton Rouge (named after the little red stick the slaves used to check the ripeness of the chillies) and hunted out Slim Harpo’s grave. It was a big sarcophagus all covered in roots and trees. That was OK too. I’m rather glad that he wasn’t lauded by the town. It would have seemed insincere.

Slim Harpo was the main man. His songs ‘King Bee’, ‘Got Love if you Want It’ and ‘Shake Your Hips’ were covered by the Stones, Kinks and Yardbirds. I would have liked to have seen him play but I did get to see Lazy and Jimmy Reed and I guess that was the next best thing!

Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit – a hauntingly poetic Jazz Protest highlighting the lynching of black people in the South. Civil Rights Protest.

billie Billie Holiday

This song was written for Billie and she made it her signature tune.

It was a haunting Jazz song, languid and soft, reflecting those hot magnolia scented nights in the Deep South. The word plaintive was invented for this song.

Unfortunately it tells of the frequent and arbitrary rough justice handed out to the black community on the slightest pretext. It was the law of the mob, unjust and vicious, without the slightest trace of compassion. They hung people in the most horrifying way. The strange fruit were the corpses of black men dangling from the trees.

Sometimes this was even worse. What happened to Emmett Till was even worse. He was beaten and tortured by a gang of white thugs and killed. His screams resounded all around but no one came to his rescues.

Thank heavens for the Civil Rights Movement. Thank heavens for all the white activists who put their lives at risk supporting the black communities.

This was an important song.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Rock Genres – The Blues pt2 – Into the Urban environment.

Rock Genres – The Blues pt2 – Into the Urban environment.

E_James4howlin-wolf lightnin' HopkinsMI0001325829

As the 20th century progressed things changed. The increasing mechanisation reduced the need for so much labour and the rural work-force started to migrate from Mississippi to the cities in search of work. The big northern cities of Detroit and Chicago had the factories and car production that required workers. The money was good and it proved a big pull.

I went to Chicago in 1971. Walking the streets of Chicago in the seventies was a daunting experience. The skyscrapers loomed over the underpasses and it felt very forbidding. I found it quite threatening. During the fifties the southern states were full of segregation, intimidation and Jim Crow but the Northern cities were even more dangerous. The places were full of gangsters, pimps and murder. You carried a gun and a knife and the murder rate was high. It felt like that to me. It was scary.

A staging post along the way for musicians was Memphis. Situated in Tennessee it was a half-way house on the way to Chicago. The talent scouts would check out the black acts from the rural areas for the big black record labels such as Modern, set up by the Bihari Brothers, or Chess (and it’s subsidiaries Checker, Cadet and Argo), set up by Phil and Leonard Chess. Sam Philips started off in the late forties as a scout for these labels (as did Ike Turner). After a bit he decided to set up his own Sun label in Memphis working on the premise that there was money to be made and why send all the talent up the road to Chicago when he could record in Memphis? Sam recorded the local Blues, R&B and Country before inventing Rockabilly. He ‘discovered’ Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others but he always said that the greatest talent that he unearthed was Howlin’ Wolf.

Memphis developed a booming blues scene on Beale Street. It had started out in the twenties and thirties with acoustic blues with the likes of Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes but by the forties it had turned electric. The first black radio station WDIA was broadcasting and giving airtime to the likes of BB King. I walked round Beale Street. By the time I got there it had become commercial. The old time place was knocked down but it still had a bit of the feel. There were blues bands playing and we went in BB Kings place and caught a few acts. At the end of town I sat by the bronze statue of W.C. Handy and then the one of Elvis in all his glory. It seemed appropriate. It took me back to the dust of that old town as it had been in its hey-day..

The forties was the era of ‘Race’ records. Radio stations and segregated music and audiences. The whites had their crooners and swing with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney or the Country & Western of Hank Williams, Gene Autrey, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Flatt & Scruggs. The blacks had the blues. There was a stark difference. The blues was raunchy in a way that white music never was. The blues seemed real. White music seemed sanitised.

Most of these early blues records were recorded in make-shift studios, in hotel rooms or above shops. That still went on but in the fifties there were proper studios like Sun and Chess. Many of the blues guys would record for a number of different labels using various pseudonyms in order to avoid being sued. John Lee Hooker was famous for it. He’d notoriously record for one label in the morning and another in the afternoon under a different name.

The post-war blues scene was different. The urban environment was harsher and the clubs small, noisy and sweaty. This was no country juke where a national steel guitar was sufficient. In order to make yourself heard you needed amplification. The electric sound mainly grew out of Chicago.

The workers had been on the assembly line all day and when they hit the bars and clubs they wanted to let off steam. The music reflected that. It was loud, aggressive, beaty and rocked. The clubs were packed and the floor writhed. I would have loved to have had a single night in one of those joints. From the reports they were alive. They were funky with sweat.

The development of the music can be clearly seen by a quick comparison between Robert Johnson and Elmore James. Elmore based his slide guitar style on that of Robert Johnson and Kokomo Arnold and did a cover of Robert’s ‘Standing at the Crossroads’ which was his story about selling his soul to the devil. In the forties, after being discharged from the army, Elmore worked in an electric store on Hickory Street in Canton. It was there that he developed his raw electric sound. He created his own electronics to produce distortion and sustain so that his guitar sound was searing. He has many imitators but has never been equalled. That sound is still boss. I visited Canton and that street. It had been demolished. All that was left of Elmore’s electric shop was the foundations and a few bricks. I stood in the dust and could imagine him standing in that shop working on his guitar to create a different type of pick-up. He was a genius in many ways. Elmore is one of my heroes.

The Robert Johnson acoustic version of ‘Crossroads’ is brilliant. His anguished voice and complex guitar are masterful. But Elmore took it somewhere else. He electrified the sound with a scorching riff and added a thumping beat. This exemplified the difference between the forties and fifties.

The whole of Memphis was jumping with the Blues and R&B and this is where Elvis snuck off to watch the black performers busking or playing in the clubs. He was knocked out by the power of Rufus Thomas, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and Big Mama Thornton. But it was in Chicago that the Blues really reached its apotheosis. The clubs were a battle-ground in many ways and the giants of the scene would battle it out for supremacy. At that time it Was Muddy Waters slugging it out with Howlin’ Wolf for who was the top dog. They were closely pressed by Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Then there was Billy Boy Arnold, Little Walter, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. Elsewhere Lightin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam, Robert Nighthawk, Albert King and John Lee Hooker were setting their styles.

The bands pulled out all the stops to create excitement and steal the show. They’d learnt their trade as showmen and pulled out all the tricks. Howlin’ Wolf was famous for his lascivious tricks with his harmonica, for howling and rolling around on the floor like a wolf and clawing his way up curtains, all wide-eyed and ferocious. He was a huge man, weighing in at 300 lbs. and standing six foot seven and created an imposing, formidable act. Muddy Waters was not to be outdone. He’d work the audience into a frenzy, put a bottle of coke down his pants, flip the top off and spray the audience at the climax. This was the type of raw sex and fury that was lacking for me in the controlled, censored music produced for white audiences. I wanted the real thing.

Willie Dixon was the driving force behind much of the Chess label success. He was a great bass player and arranger but it was his song-writing that really made the difference. He penned most of the great blues numbers that powered the later British blues boom including: Spoonful, Little Red Rooster, Wang Dang Doodle, Back door Man, I Just want To Make Love to You and Smokestack Lightnin’.

I went to Clarksdale and visited the Delta Blues Museum. They had Muddy Waters’ shack in there with a wax model of Muddy sitting in it with a guitar. It didn’t feel right to me. I visited the site where they’d taken it from and stood there looking over the fields of the plantation he used to work on driving his tractor, where it had all started. I wished they’d left the shack there. It felt more fitting.

I also went to White Station where Howlin’ Wolf grew up. The Howlin’ Wolf museum was shut but I walked around and sat by the statue they had to him. It was slightly smaller than life-size but it was good. He was being recognised as a great performer. Mississippi Hill Country was hot and fertile. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) used to plough the land with an ox. I could imagine the huge man doing that in the heat with the buzz of insects and rich smell of the soil.

My first introduction to the Blues was when I was fourteen and my friend Dick Brunning played me his records. I had to listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins. I couldn’t make out a thing he was singing and there was only that electric guitar run with Lightnin’ keeping time with bottle-tops nailed to his shoes. It took me a while for my ears to tune in but I grew to love it. It was a huge difference to the Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Beatles that I was listening to. Dick introduced me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and I never looked back.

Those earthier, sexier sounds were raw and sang of a different, more real life to the one I was living. It stank of sex, excitement and energy. I wanted it.

Out of that Chicago sound Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry emerged to pump that energy into the nascent Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. The blues sound was largely ignored by the white audiences in the USA but had a huge impact in Britain. Chris Barber was responsible for bringing the artists like Muddy Waters across the ocean where they received a rapturous response in Europe. Some even settled here. This sparked off a great interest in the blues which resulted in a multitude of British blues bands starting with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and giving rise to the sixties Beat bands like the Rolling Stones. Stars like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf found a new audience in Britain just as their home black audience was moving on to the softer sounds of Tamla Motown, Doo-wop and the R&B dance crazes of the late fifties and early sixties.

The electric blues sparked off electrification back in the rural regions too. In Louisiana we had the swamp blues of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and Lonesome Sundown and in the Mississippi Hill Country we had the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside.

The Blues was alive and rockin’ and went on to invigorate the sixties Rock scene in many ways. Blues is seminal.

Rock Music Genres – The Blues – pt1 – Rural Mississippi.

Rock Music Genres – The Blues – pt1 – Rural Mississippi.

Robert Johnson

The blues started off in the Deep South of America, in the rural regions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. The first recorded mention was by W.C. Handy, a bandleader who was waiting for a train in Tutwiler Mississippi. He recalled seeing a man playing a guitar using a knife on the frets and singing.

I visited that station and sat on the bench. It was hot, humid and sultry. I could imagine the scene.

The blues developed out of African rhythms on European instruments. In those early days there were no drums. Drums were banned. It was widely believed that the African Slaves could talk and organise through their drumming.

The deep South and particularly the fertile Mississippi delta , was the place for big plantations growing cotton, soy bean and corn. They used black slaves brought over from Africa.

The blues probably developed as a music form around 1900. It went on to become the basis of Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll and is still developing today.

People think of the blues as being sad. The romantic view is that it expresses the melancholy of the oppressed black slaves. That is far from the full picture. The blues covers a wide spectrum of styles and uses. It was used in the fields to entertain and create rhythm for manual work. A lot of the blues shouts come out of this. It was used as dance music at the jukes and was lively and bright. It was used as entertainment in the brothels and bawdy houses where boogie-woogie piano developed. It was used for busking on street corners or performances in inns. It was also used to express emotion and feeling. It was even used to express sexuality, full of earthy expressions and double entendres. Rarely was there any overt political or social comment, at least not in the recorded versions. Given the oppressive circumstances, lynchings and activities of white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan this was hardly surprising.

A number of the early exponents were disabled in some way. If you were blind, legless or handicapped you had no way of earning a living. Music gave you an opportunity.

The early exponents were people like Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Kokomo Arnold, Peg Leg Howell, Tommy Johnson and Bo Carter.

Bo Carter specialised in the use of double entendre. White society was very puritanical and a lot of his stuff would have been quite shocking. Charlie Patton was an early Hendrix. He’d play the guitar behind his back, through his legs and back to front. Tommy Johnson had a trick of doing handstands on the guitar while playing. The object of the showmanship was to attract a big audience. They’d vie with each other on street corners.

By the 1930s the style had reached its peak. The great Son House (A leading exponent of the national steel guitar using bottle-neck), who I saw perform in 1968, taught Robert Johnson how to play. Robert, who was poisoned in 1937 at the age of 23, had perfected a style that was intricate, melodic and poetic. His songs went on to form the backbone of everything that followed.

I visited all three of Robert’s graves and paid homage.

I had the privilege of talking to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who was with Robert on the night he got poisoned. He told me which of the three was the real one. It is the one at the back of the church.

It makes you wonder what might have been – if Robert had gone on to live and produce music of such quality the world would have been all the richer. It wasn’t to be and all we have left is thirty seven tracks recorded in hotel rooms on portable equipment over three sessions. They are scintillating.

Look what came out of them!