LINKS

I dare say there are people who could tell you the catalogue number of every album Jimmy Reed ever released, or list the line-up of every band that backed Muddy Waters from the day he arrived in Chicago – but I’m not one of them. I’m just a fan: someone who has spent a fair bit over the time listening to blues albums, going to gigs and reading books about the blues. So what follows is simply a personal selection of suggested entry points into the world of First Time I Met The Blues.

British blues albums

If you’re looking for a comprehensive introduction to British blues music, this is what you want: a 4CD set that starts with Lonnie Donegan, ends with Gary Moore and covers all bases in between. In an alternative universe, The Hornets would appear early on disc two.

If there’s a single album that inspires the characters in my book to form a band, it’s this adrenaline rush of a live set, recorded at The Marquee in March 1964 and featuring Eric Clapton in blistering form.

Not namechecked in the book, but The Pretty Things were stalwarts of gritty British r’n’b who stuck to their guns throughout the 60s. This compilation showcases the usual range of covers and a few classic originals such as Don’t Bring Me Down and Rosalyn.

The combination with Clapton with one of the key figures in the British blues scene only lasted a year or so, but it did produce this fabulous album, mixing blues classics with Mayall’s own compositions. Listen to Clapton’s solo on ‘Have you heard’ and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.

Included because this is arguably both the high point and the end point of British blues in the 60s. Led Zeppelin’s debut takes the Chicago blues and extends it in every direction – faster, louder, showier, longer – helping to lay the foundations for heavy metal in the process. But this is still recognisably the blues, for now.

Chicago blues albums

‘Chess Blues-Rock Songbook: The Classic Originals’

There are numerous blues compilations available, but in general you can’t go wrong with anything from the Chess label, who recorded most of the greats of Chicago blues. This 2CD set is ideal because it features the originals of the songs that were widely covered by British artists in the 60s, so it provides a stepping stone back to the rest of their work.

Muddy Waters: ‘Hard Again’

A compilation of Muddy’s greatest hits is essential, of course, but so is this 1977 album, which contains the definitive version of Mannish Boy – not to mention one of my favourite blues lyrics: “My baby, she run off with the bus driver/And you know it don’t seem right/He used to give her rides in the daytime/Now she gives him rides at night.” (Bus Driver)

Howlin’ Wolf: ‘His Best – Chess 50th Anniversary Collection’

Any compilation of the Wolf’s ferocious growl will do, as long as it contains key songs like Smokestack Lightnin’, Killing Floor, Back Door Man (“The men don’t know/But the little girls understand”), Spoonful and The Red Rooster.

I always remember a sleeve note on the first Jimmy Reed album I bought: it was by John Peel, and it said something like ‘Jimmy’s music sounds like sex’. Listen to the 36 tracks of slurred, laid-back vocals and high-pitched harmonica solos here (possibly more than a novice needs – there’s not a lot of variation, in truth) and decide for yourself. For me, it’s a quintessential blues sound.

As a blues harp fan, I’m obviously prejudiced, and Little Walter wouldn’t make every blues fan’s top five. But this is the best amplified harmonica playing you’ll ever hear, utterly thrilling. The singing isn’t bad, either.

And once you’ve absorbed that lot, you can move on to Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Bo Diddley – and then, ultimately, on to Robert Johnson, who wasn’t a Chicago blues artist at all (he never made it that far north), but inspired the whole lot of them.

Or, of course, you could start with Robert Johnson and work your way forwards in time. But no one ever seems to do it that way round, somehow.


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