As rich in talent as the early blues era was, artists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House set the stage for bluesmen in the 1940s and '50s to succeed commercially, thus bringing the blues to a mass audience. It's tough narrowing any list of talent down to a mere handful, but here are six essential blues artists of the modern era, those with the most influence and impact on both blues and popular music alike.
Photo courtesy Geffen Records
Riley B. King, known to the world as larger-than-life blues guitarist B.B. King, is one of a handful of the most influential bluesmen of the 20th century. Although King's fluid, muscular guitar tone and smoky vocals are informed by the Mississippi Delta that he grew up in, his sound is equal parts electric Chicago blues and early jazz guitar, influenced by both Louis Jordan and Charlie Christian. With a career that has spanned six decades and over 50 albums, King reigns as one of the most popular and successful bluesmen of the genre.
When a musician with the stature of Eric Clapton calls you his favorite blues guitarist, you've probably got some chops. But Buddy Guy has also won 23 W.C. Handy Awards, five Grammys, and been inducted into both the Blues and Rock & Roll Hall of Fames. A flamboyant showman, incendiary guitarist and powerful vocalist, Guy is the performer of choice for rockers like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin' Wolf, was less an artist and musician than a primal force of nature. With a deep, powerful voice and large physical presence, few contemporaries could match his onstage charisma and showmanship. Even on record, he would pound out the blues like nobody else. Only Muddy Waters was Wolf's equal, and the professional rivalry between the two friends was the stuff of legend.
John Lee Hooker's career, much like his music, took a different tact than most Delta bluesmen. Living in Detroit rather than Chicago, Hooker's music was rhythmic, hypnotic and downright primitive compared to the more sophisticated Chicago blues sound. Hooker pioneered the style of blues that became known as "boogie," and in doing so, influenced rock music from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes.
For better than three decades, Muddy Waters sat atop the fertile Chicago blues scene as its benevolent ruler, setting the style that others would follow and discovering the musicians that would help create the city's sound. As a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and band leader, Waters' shadow looms large over the contemporary blues and blues-rock worlds.
Willie Dixon's impact on the blues world may not have been as immediate as that of friends and contemporaries like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but his role in shaping the future of the blues is no less vital. Arguably the first professional blues songwriter, artists like Waters, Wolf, Little Walter and Koko Taylor had hits with Dixon's songs. Dixon also made his mark as a session bassist and a producer, working with talents like Bo Diddley and Otis Rush.