Little did the bluesmen of the 1940s and '50s realize that the records they were making would be heard as far as half way across the world, inspiring a generation of teenage musicians in England, and across Europe as well as the U.S. Beginning in the early 1960s, music from artists like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and others could be found in the record collections of the young soul rebels who would invent the sub-genre of rock 'n' roll that would become known as blues-rock. These are the albums that have helped define the blues-rock sound during the 1960s.
Big Brother & the Holding Company – 'Cheap Thrills' (1968)
The sophomore album from this San Francisco band featuring the blustery vocals of Janis Joplin, a Texas-born tornado with blues in her blood who delivered a performance as emotionally-powerful as anything you'd hear during the decade. Led by the hit single "Piece of My Heart" and including a powerful cover of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain, Cheap Thrills would introduce the world to the charms of Janis. Big Brother was a mediocre band at best, and would struggle when Joplin left shortly after the release of Cheap Thrills to pursue a solo career.
Inspired by the boogie beat of John Lee Hooker's recordings of the 1940s and '50s, Canned Heat's sophomore album defined the band's trademark boogie-rock sound with a set of mostly original material. Yielding a Top Ten hit in "On The Road Again," Boogie With Canned Heat also featured the Albert King-styled rocker "Amphetamine Annie" and the country blues tune "Whiskey Headed Woman," based on a song by Delta bluesman Tommy McClennan. Canned Heat would have other hits, and continued to slog their way through the festival circuit well into the 2000s.
Working with producer Felix Pappalardi, later of Mountain, Cream's second album not only defined the power trio aesthetic, it took blues into an entirely different realm altogether. Featuring Eric Clapton's blistering fretwork and the explosive, heavy rhythms of bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, songs like "Strange Brew," "Sunshine Of Your Love," and "Takes of Brave Ulysses" mixed blues and psychedelic rock to devastating effect. Disraeli Gears would help launch the late-1960s blues-rock explosion, resulting in bands like Rory Gallagher's Taste, Gary Moore's Skid Row, and Leslie West's Mountain, among many others.
When Bluesbreakers alumni Peter Green left John Mayall's employ, he joined bandmates John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, along with guitarist Jeremy Spencer, to form Fleetwood Mac (also known, early on, as Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac). The British band's self-titled debut album would become an unlikely hit in the U.K., it's inspired mix of blues covers of songs from Elmore James "Shake Your Moneymaker"), Robert Johnson "Hellhound On My Trail"), and Howlin' Wolf ("No Place To Go") balanced by Green's maturing songwriting and considerable six-string skills.
Less than a year after his departure from British blues-rock legends the Yardbirds, guitarist Jeff Beck formed the Jeff Beck Band with vocalist Rod Stewart and bassist Ron Wood, later joined by drummer Mick Waller. The four young men recorded this explosive debut album, Truth mixing the amplified blues of artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf with hard rockin' guitar and heavy, bombastic rhythms. Performances like the old Yardbirds gem "Shapes of Things," and Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me" and "I Ain't Superstitious" would drive Truth to best-seller status in the U.S. and set the template for much of the blues-rock (and heavy metal) to follow.
The stunning debut by the Jimi Hendrix Experience blew so many minds because nobody had ever heard anything quite like it. The album's soulful vocals; dazzling guitar pyrotechnics; solid, heavy rhythms; and brilliant original songs like "Foxy Lady," "Purple Haze," "Hey Joe," and "Fire" blended blues, jazz, soul, and psychedelic rock unlike anybody before or since. Although British and American releases included different songs – a situation since corrected by CD reissues of Are You Experienced? – one thing was certain on both sides of the pond...Jimi Hendrix was an artist of exceptional vision and ability.
One of, if not the most influential blues-rock album in the genre, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton made a star of guitarist Clapton and cemented John Mayall's reputation as one of the forefathers of the British blues scene. With a smattering of Mayall's original songs and rockin' covers of music from Willie Dixon ("All Your Love"), Freddie King ("Hideaway"), and Moses Allison ("Parchman Farm"), Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton brought the blues to a Beatles-crazed England and opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of blues-rock bands.
By 1969, blues-rock music was already giving up ground to the popularity of psychedelic and hard rock in England, setting the stage for the proto-metal of bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. In the states, however, interest in the blues was rekindled by the fiery fretwork found on Texas guitarist Johnny Winter's self-titled debut album. Leading a classic power-trio line-up, Winter offered up blustery houserockin' blue covers like Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" alongside smooth blues like B.B. King's "Be Careful With A Fool." Original material like "Leland Mississippi Blues" and "I'm Yours And I'm Hers" offered a perfect showcase for Winter's roaring guitar.
Originally known as the "New Yardbirds," Led Zeppelin took the blueprint written by Cream and pushed it further towards the hard rock end of the spectrum. First, however, Jimmy Page's blues roots would be displayed on the band's self-titled debut, which reinterpreted the blues in a heavy metal vein with songs like "Dazed and Confused" and "Good Times Bad Times," as well as a pair of Willie Dixon songs, "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby." Zeppelin's plundering of the blues tradition, fueled by Page's ripping fretwork, Robert Plant's bluesy wail, and the dynamic rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, would make them the biggest band in the world during the early 1970s.
The self-titled debut effort from Paul Butterfield Blues Band would turn the blues world in America on its head, much as Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton would a year later in England. A multi-racial band comprised of Chicago blues veterans, Paul Butterfield's gruff-n-tumble vocals and raging harp would be complimented by guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, and supported by a stellar rhythm section in bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay, both from Howlin' Wolf's band. The album's mix of original material, including friend-of-the-band Nick Gravenites' "Born In Chicago" and the collaborative "Thank You Mr. Poobah" sit comfortably alongside covers of songs from Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters.