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My last post covered my picks for the greatest blues guitarists of all time – be sure to check out my post from August 21, 2022. Part Two of this special request topic covers my picks for the greatest blues singers, old school and new school. Here goes…
OLD SCHOOL SINGERS
Howlin’ Wolf – Born Chester Burnett, he’s a member of both the Blues and the Rock & Roll Halls of Fame. Listen to his classic song Smokestack Lightning, and you’ll discover why he got the nickname “Howlin'”. The song was chosen for the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. His signature growling and howling of the blues made him a legend.
Ma Rainey – The “Mother of the Blues” began recording in 1923, and her song See See Rider Blues recorded the following year was chosen for the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. She recorded 94 songs before her death in 1939 – enough to earn a spot in both the Blues and the Rock & Roll Halls of Fame. She brought the blues to the masses – wealthy and poor, urban and rural, North and South.
Mamie Smith – In 1920, Smith was the first black artist ever to record vocal blues songs. The success of That Thing Called Love and You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down opened the door for future black blues artists. Later that year, she had her biggest hit with Crazy Blues, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry.
Bessie Smith – Another inductee into both the Rock & Roll and Blues Halls of Fame, Smith surpassed her namesake Mamie Smith (dubbed “Queen of the Blues”) with the nickname “Empress of the Blues.” She was the most popular blues singer of the 20s and 30s, a career cut short by a car accident that took her life in 1937. Three of her songs are in the Grammy Hall of Fame – Downhearted Blues, St. Louis Blues and Empty Bed Blues.
NEW SCHOOL SINGERS
Ray Charles – Charles combined blues with jazz and gospel to create his own unmistakable style. Halls of Fame? He’s in the Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B and Country Music Halls of Fame, among others. Rolling Stone ranked him at #2 on their list of the Greatest Singers of All Time. He received 18 Grammy awards and ten of his recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. His most famous blues album was aptly named The Genius Sings the Blues – it includes blues classics Ray’s Blues, I Believe To My Soul, Feelin’ Sad, Nobody Cares and Mr. Charles’ Blues.
Billie Holiday – Another vocalist who was just as easily labeled a jazz artist as a blues artist, she was abused as a child and hooked on heroin as an adult, and these tribulations shine through her vocal magic. Her earliest records date to the early 30s, and in 1937 she recorded a song that would become one of the most important songs of the century. Strange Fruit was a protest song about the lynching of black Americans in the South, comparing the victims to the fruit on trees. Time magazine named it the best song of the century in 1999, and Rolling Stone ranked it #21 on their list of the Greatest Songs of All Time. One of her last albums before her death was 1956’s Lady Sings the Blues.
Muddy Waters – Waters makes both the guitarist and the vocalist lists. His vocal prowess made him unique, and several of his biggest blues hits were recorded originally with other guitarists, including I’m Ready and Mannish Boy, allowing him to feature his rich baritone voice. The latter, and other classics like Rollin’ Stone, Hoochie Coochie Man and Got My Mojo Working, puts Waters’ in the conversation of one of the greatest singers ever.
B.B. King – King also makes both the guitarist and the vocalist lists. He started on Beale Street in Memphis in the late 40s, and his last performance was at Chicago’s House of Blues in 2014 – performing his amazing guitar and blues vocals in eight different decades. I can’t dispute what scores of others in the genre have said – B.B. King is the greatest. Want to hear the greatest at his greatest? Listen to his 1965 live album Live At the Regal – it’s considered by many to be the greatest blues album of all time.
These “new schoolers” are pretty old school. Just like on the guitar side, there are some great up-and-coming blues vocalists. Who knows – maybe one of these artists will end up on my list in 25 years! Check out Shemekia Copeland, Kingfish Ingram (also mentioned on the guitarists list), and Adia Victoria – they are still making an impact on the blues with their new music in the 20s decade.
Here’s B.B. King with his iconic The Thrill Is Gone, from Montreux in 1993. Enjoy the master of the blues!