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Ten Early Blues Artists


These are the ten crucial artists that helped define the genre of the blues. Each of the following contributed greatly to the music, whether through their instrumental skills (usually on the guitar) or vocal talents, and their early recordings and performances served to influence a generation of blues artists to follow. Whether you're a fan of the blues or a newcomer to the music, this is the place to start.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Known as "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith was both the best and the most famous of the female singers of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist that could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was also the most commercially successful of the era's singers. Her records sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies - an unheard of level of sales for those days. Sadly, the public's interest in blues and jazz singers waned during the early-1930s and Smith was dropped by her label.

Smith returned to her roots and sang in small clubs for a pittance - a far cry from her peak, when she performed in theaters and hotel ballrooms across the country. Rediscovered by Columbia Records' talent scout John Hammond, Smith recorded with bandleader Benny Goodman before tragically dying in an auto accident in 1937. Smith's best material can be heard on the two-CD set The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy).

Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958)

Perhaps more than any other artist, Big Bill Broonzy brought the blues to Chicago and helped define the city's sound. Born, literally, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago as a teenager in 1920, picking up the guitar and learning to play from older bluesmen. Broonzy began recording in the mid-1920s and by the early-1930s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene, performing alongside talents like Tampa Red and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson.

Capable of playing in both the older vaudeville style (ragtime and hokum) and the newly-developing Chicago style, Broonzy was a smooth vocalist, accomplished guitarist, and prolific songwriter. When the post-war blues boom rendered Broonzy's quaint homegrown style a thing of the past, he re-invented himself as a singer of authentic folk-blues and became one of the first blues artists to tour Europe, developing a new and appreciate following. The best of Broonzy's early work can be found on The Young Big Bill Broonzy CD (Shanachie Records), but you can't go wrong with just about any collection of Broonzy's music.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929)

Arguably the founding father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially-successful artists of the 1920s and a major influence on younger players like Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born blind, Jefferson taught himself to play the guitar, and was a familiar figure busking on the streets of Dallas, earning enough to support a wife and child. Jefferson played for awhile with Leadbelly, and is said to have traveled to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Chicago to perform.

Although Jefferson's recording career was brief (1926-29), during that time he recorded over 100 songs, including such classics as "Matchbox Blues," "Black Snake Moan" and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." The specifics of Jefferson's death are shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have died in late-December 1929. Jefferson remains a favorite among musicians that appreciate the artist's simple country blues, and his songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Peter Case, and John Hammond, Jr., among others. Jefferson's crucial early work has been collected on the King of the Country Blues CD (Shanachie Records).

Charley Patton (1887-1934)

The biggest star of the 1920s Delta firmament, Charley Patton was the region's E-Ticket attraction. A charismatic performer with a flash style, his talented fretwork and flamboyant showmanship inspired a legion of bluesmen and rockers, from Son House and Robert Johnson, to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Patton lived a high-flying lifestyle full of liquor and women, and his performances at house parties, juke joints, and plantation dances became the stuff of legend. His loud voice, coupled with a rhythmic and percussive guitar style, was both groundbreaking and designed to entertain a raucous audience.

Patton began recording late in his career, but made up for lost time by laying down some 60 songs in less than five years, including his best-selling first single "Pony Blues." Although many of Patton's earliest recordings are only represented by inferior-quality 78s, the Founder of the Delta Blues CD (Shanachie Records) offers beginners a solid collection of two-dozen tracks of varying sound quality.

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