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Archive for the ‘Blues’ Category

The cream of Clapton


Mike Hall, the man behind the Classic Clapton tribute

RETRO is king. Exactly a week after the previously-reviewed Elvis Presley tribute by Garry J Foley at the Bandra Fort Amphitheatre, we had Mike Hall doing an Eric Clapton tribute.

This was on January 17, when the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana, Santa Cruz, was packed to capacity. Part of the MLA Ashish Shelar Neighbourhood Winter Festival, the event ‘Classic Clapton’ was coordinated by Dereyk Talker.

Guitarist-vocalist Clapton has had thousands of followers in India. After all, he has done some great work over the years, right from bands like the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominos, to almost four decades of solo work.

Well, why are we repeating what everyone knows? Let’s suffice it to say that Hall, who hails from Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, did a stupendous job. His guitarwork was first-rate throughout, and though his vocal timbre was slightly different from the legend’s, he had the crowd singing along.

Hall had come to Mumbai in 2009. But while that was at Bandra’s St Andrew’s Auditorium, the open-air environment of WCG gave a completely different feel. It was a half-seating, half-standing arrangement for a mixed crowd, with people of all ages. While the youngsters just listened to and admired the ongoings, the middle-aged and even older people sang along and danced.

The previous day, this blogger missed Hall’s performance at Phoenix Marketcity in Kurla. At WCG, after the opening act Rebecca Nazz, he came on and did a string of Clapton hits. One of his early numbers was JJ Cale’s ‘After Midnight’, which had the audience on their feet. Other gems included the brilliant ‘Lay Down Sally’, the Willie Dixon-penned and Muddy Waters-popularised ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (Clapton played guitar on that, uncredited on the original album) and the Freddie King classic ‘Hideaway’.

The Cream masterpiece ‘White Room’ was done perfectly, specially the famous wah-wah coda. On a more romantic note came ‘Wonderful Tonight’, which Clapton had written for ex-wife Pattie Boyd. Other electric numbers were Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ (which Clapton had covered) and the Cream version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’.

The show also had an unplugged set, including Bo Diddley’s ‘Before You Accuse Me’, the acoustic version of ‘Layla’, and ‘Tears In Heaven’, which Hall dedicated to the late David Bowie – the song was originally written by Clapton for his four-year-old son Conor, who died after falling from the 53rd floor.

Extra-popular songs like JJ Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ and the electric version of ‘Layla’ were kept for the latter part. All in all, the fans were thrilled by the fabulous selection, the quality of musicianship and the sheer liveliness of the show. For those who’ve had ‘blind faith’ in bluesbreaker Clapton, this was his ‘cream’.

See also


BB King and the legendary blues masters


THE title ‘King of the Blues’ wasn’t just a pun on his surname. BB King, who passed away in Las Vegas on May 14, was easily one of the most influential bluesmen of all time, matched in terms of following only by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. And he was definitely the most lasting of the legends, ruling the stage from the early 1950s till almost the end. Sixty-plus years at the very top is something very few musicians have achieved.

As news of his death spread, I was asked by Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper to write a tribute. For those who missed that in the May 16 edition of the newspaper, I am attaching the link below. The article sums up King’s life and contribution to music, and also talks of his biggest songs like ‘The thrill is gone’, ‘Lucille’ and ‘3o’clock blues’.

After King, a few others have successfully attempted to carry forward the blues. Buddy Guy, the other two Kings Albert and Freddie, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and Bonnie Raitt have been some of them. Today’s audiences are fairly familiar with their work, thanks to regular release of albums and the availability of their concert footage on YouTube. Many others are clued in to the modern blues-rock artistes, and in India, the Mahindra Blues Festival, has been a platform for some big contemporary names.

Yet, the music of the older masters remains largely unexplored among today’s younger lot. Their names would be familiar, as they have been mentioned in interviews by the likes of Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Now, with the passing of the legendary King, it might be ideal to start digging back into the work of all those greats who preceded or were contemporary to him. Those days, the blues was pure and unadulterated, and needless to say, was a delight to hear.

One may, of course, start with King’s live records ‘Live at the Regal’ and ‘Live at Cook County Jail’, or his studio album ‘Lucille’ or his collaboration with Clapton on ‘Riding with the King’. Besides that, here are 10 artistes one must check out:

Robert Johnson: A huge inspiration on greats like Muddy Waters, Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, Johnson recorded only 29 tracks in a brief career. He died a violent death at the age of 26, apparently of poisoning . His songs ‘Sweet home Chicago’, ‘Love in vain’, ‘Crossroads blues’, ‘Terraplane blues’ and ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’ have become major blues anthems.

Son House: In many ways, he was the father of the Delta blues, as he was the mentor of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. His style was rooted in the cottonfields of Mississippi, and he played often with the other blues pioneer Charlie Patton.

Big Bill Broonzy: His biggest achievement is of popularising the blues outside the US, doing concerts in Europe, South American, Africa and Australia in the early 1950s. He was also known for guiding many younger players, with Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs and Memphis Slim acknowledging his role.

Muddy Waters: Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters was called the father of the electric blues. Almost single handedly, he made the Chicago blues scene turn into the world’s most vibrant music centre in the 1950s and 1960s. His rendition of ‘I’m a hoochie coochie man’, ‘Got my mojo working’, ‘I got my brand on you’ and ‘I’m a man’ are hugely successful.

T-Bone Walker:
A huge influence on BB King and Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker was the man who first took the music electric in a big way. His guitar technique was unique, and he was known for his perfect timing.

Bessie Smith: The empress of the blues, Bessie’s music retains its power and emotion to this day, despite facing limitations in recording techniques during her era. Although primarily known as a blues singer, she was equally at home with jazz, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley material.

John Lee Hooker: Best known for songs like ‘Boom boom’, ‘Dimples’ and ‘Onions’, Hooker was known for his unique vocal timbre and brilliant guitar style. Despite being rooted in tradition, he also had a mass commercial appeal, specially in the 1990s.

Leadbelly: Huddle Ledbetter or Leadbelly was a notorious womaniser and convicted killer, who claimed to have twice sung his way out of prison. Musically, he was best known for keeping the country blues tradition alive, and played various instruments like 12-string guitar, bass, accordion, harmonica and piano.

Elmore James: It’s said that the most copied guitar sound in the blues is that of Elmore James’ bottleneck riff in ‘Dust my broom’. It was a sound he developed at age 12 running a broken bottleneck down a wire stung to his shack in Mississippi. James has been a huge influence on many slide guitar players.

Howlin’ Wolf: Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf was best known for his dark and brooding voice, and his innovative harmonica and guitar work. He was a major influence of British rock stars like Steve Winwood and the Rolling Stones.

Summing up: Besides King, these were 10 early legends to begin with. There are obviously many more and the list of greats from the pre-1950s era includes names like WC Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim, Charlie Patton and Memphis Minnie, to name a few.

In many ways and like Muddy Waters, King was the bridge between their music and the modern blues sound. His work will stay on forever.

This blogger’s tribute to BB King in Mumbai’s Mid Day newspaper appears on

Happy 70th Birthday, Eric Clapton


WHEN I first heard Eric Clapton, he was 35 years old, exactly half his current age. The year was 1980, and my first exposure came through the songs ‘Lay down Sally’, ‘Layla’, ‘I shot the sheriff’ and ‘Wonderful tonight’ over the radio. The following year, ‘Cocaine’ was played at every college festival in Delhi. Soon, I was hooked to the live album ‘Just One Night’, tripping on newer favourites like ‘After midnight’, ‘Tulsa time’, ‘Setting me up’ and ‘Blues power’ once my ear slowly got trained into appreciating those gorgeous guitar parts.

Clapton, who turns 70 today, has been regular on my playlist since the early 1980s. After the initial exposure, there was an effort to listen to his earlier stuff, beginning with his work for the groups Cream and Derek & The Dominoes, and his solo albums. His contributions to Blind Faith, Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers came later in my life, and at the same time, I tried to keep in touch with his latest releases.

While the initial admiration was more for his guitaring, I slowly began grasping the beauty of his raspy voice. Still, though he became one of my favourite musicians ever, I had two
complaints. One, many of his most popular songs were actually written by others. Even though he gave a completely different twist to his cover versions, only a handful of songs written by him were hugely successful.

Secondly, Clapton has had a fair share of erratic and average albums, specially in the 1980s and early 2000s. While his work till the mid-1970s was memorable, his later efforts were not always consistent, despite some excellent albums now and then. In the latter part of his career, the collaborations with greats like BB King and JJ Cale were brilliant, and so were some of his blues tributes. His rendition of Gary Moore’s ‘Still got the blues’, from his 2013 album ‘Old Sock’ was first-rate. But efforts to write his own stuff were namby-pamby.

These flaws notwithstanding, nothing could stop me from getting back to Clapton after regular intervals. I may have spent months away from other favourites like Pink Floyd, Doors, Jethro Tull and Santana, but Clapton, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, always kept returning. To pep up one’s mood, nothing seemed better than a live album of Clapton – ‘Just One Night’, ‘Unplugged’, or his tie-ups with Steve Winwood and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

The admiration of the man increased after I read his autobiography, where he not only talks of his music and influences, but about his various romantic interests (including the one with George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd), his battles with drugs and alcohol, his subsequent attempts to help addicts, and the tragic death of his son Conor, which led him to write the brilliant ‘Tears in heaven’ in ‘Unplugged’.

Clapton has been on the scene for nearly five decades, and released some incredible stuff over the years. To join in his 70th birthday celebrations, here’s my list of favourite Clapton studio albums culled from various phases of his career. Not an easy task, of course, but here goes, in chronological order of their release:

Blues Breakers – John Mayall with Eric Clapton: This 1966 recording was fronted by British blues great John Mayall, who does lead vocals and plays piano and Hammond B3 organ. Clapton joins on electric guitar, with John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) on bass and Hughie Flint on drums. Popular songs are ‘All your love’, ‘Hideaway’ and ‘Rambling on my mind’.

Disraeli Gears – Cream: The second studio album of rock supergroup Cream, featuring Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. The 1967 record, also recognised for its psychedelic cover artwork, features classic Cream numbers like ‘Tales of brave Ulysses’, ‘Sunshine of your love’, ‘Strange brew’, ‘We’re going wrong’ and ‘SWLABR’.

Blind Faith – Blind Faith: Released in 1969 with a controversial cover, this was the only album by the legendary line-up of Clapton, keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, bassist-violinist Ric Grech and drummer Ginger Baker. Classic cuts include ‘Had to cry today’, ‘Can’t find my way home’, ‘Well all right’, ‘Presence of the lord’ and ‘Sea of joy’.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek & The Dominoes: One of Clapton’s best works to date, this 1970 release features the memorable ‘Layla’, which Clapton wrote for Pattie Boyd. Super-guitarist Duane Allman appears on 11 of the 14 songs, which also include ‘Bell bottom blues’, ‘Have you ever loved a woman’, ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out’ and a version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little wing’ Bobby Whitlock does a great job on piano and organ.

461 Ocean Boulevard – Solo: Clapton’s second solo studio album, released in 1974, was an indication of the style he was to follow for many years, using laidback pop-infused rock songs laced with blues influences. Hits here included a version of Bob Marley’s reggae hit ‘I shot the sheriff’, ‘Let it grow’ and ‘Willie and the hand jive’.

Slowhand – Solo: The title of this 1977 record was based on the nickname given to Clapton. The first three numbers became classics – namely ‘Cocaine’, ‘Wonderful tonight’ and ‘Lay down sally’. The album was to reach No 2 on the Billboard 200 charts.

From the Cradle – Solo: Released in 1994, this was Clapton’s marvelous tribute to old-school blues, as he played a selection of standards in his own style. On the list were Willie Dixon’s ‘Hoochie coochie man’, popularised by Muddy Waters, Tampa Red’s ‘It hurts me too’, Lowell Fulson’s ‘Sinner’s prayer’ and Leroy Carr’s ‘Blues before sunrise’.

Riding with the King – With BB King: Clapton fulfilled his dream of collaborating with one of his heroes in this 2000 album, which also featured great talent like guitarists Andy Fairweather Low, Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II, keyboardist Joe Sample, bassist Nathan East and drummer Steve Gadd. The version of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Keys to the highway’ is brilliant.

Me and Mr Johnson – Solo: Another blues tribute, this time dedicated to the legendary Robert Johnson, with Clapton exclusively playing his compositions. Released in 2004, it contains Clapton’s versions of favourites ‘Milkcow’s calf blues’, ‘Love in vain’ and ‘Kind hearted woman blues’.

The Road to Escondido – with JJ Cale: Clapton had over the years popularized two Cale songs ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’. In this 2006 collaboration, he teams up with his idol on songs like ‘Sporting life blues’, ‘Hard to thrill’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Ride the river’. The guests include guitarists Derek Trucks and John Mayer.

The Buddy Guy story

buddy two


When I Left Home: My Story

Buddy Guy, with David Ritz

Da Capo Press, pp 280

THE first time I saw Buddy Guy on stage, I was totally mesmerised. At Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Hall in December 2005, he dazzled on the numbers ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Someone Else is Steppin’ In’. What was most impressive was his showmanship, as he suddenly moved into the hall and came close to the crowd.

The previous morning, I had interviewed him for Mid Day. He came across as an extremely friendly and humorous person, always ready to talk about the blues and always filled with stories about the past. But since we had only 20 minutes slotted, he couldn’t really get into too much detail. I saw him two more times in Mumbai, one at the One Tree Festival and the other at the Mahindra Blues Festival, and though I felt disappointed at the third gig for more or less repeating the same set, there was no denying that he was a stunning guitarist with immense stage appeal.

Buddy’s life story was always something I wanted to know more about. His involvement with the Chicago Blues scene, and the fact that he influenced greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, speak volumes for his genius.

Last year, Buddy released his autobiography, written with the help of David Ritz, who has penned or co-authored biographies of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Etta James. I had no hesitation in ordering it, and boy, what a journey it describes!

THE best thing about ‘When I Left Home: My Story’ is that you actually feel Buddy is conversing with you. The whole book has been written in the manner Americans speak in the countryside. Add to that the regular doses of humour and nostalgia, and you have a clear winner.

And there’s the story too. In 280 pages, Buddy talks about his upbringing in a farm without electricity, his love for the guitar, his exposure to the blues, his idols, his decision to move to Chicago where all the action was, big city life, the blues clubs, his struggle and ultimate recognition in Chicago, blues record labels, his visits to Europe and Africa, his interaction with rock stars, his famous collaboration with harmonica player Junior Wells, his own feelings after many of his heroes passed away, and of course his parents, siblings, family and affairs.

Appropriately, Buddy writes his book “in memory of Muddy, father to us all.” Naturally, Muddy is one of the central characters to this story, and Buddy talks nostalgically of how the legend encouraged him when he was still trying to find his feet in Chicago and was actually planning to leave the city.

Buddy talks about his first exposure to amplified sound, thanks to Lightnin’ Slim, and how his own style and showmanship were majorly influenced by Guitar Slim. Other giants to get prominent mention are BB King, John Lee Hooker (check out Buddy’s written mimicry of his stuttering), Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Rush, Freddie King, Magic Sam, harmonica great Little Walter, Big Mama Thornton, songwriter Willie Dixon (who tried to use his influence to give him a big break) and Chess Records boss Leonard Chess, who recorded with all the great artistes but got into conflicts over royalty issues.

There are many stories on Junior Wells, the way he got into trouble and the hilarious interactions between him and Muddy Waters. There’s a very nostalgic tale on events that led to the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter crash in August 1990. And there’s a section which talks of how he was impressed by white blues artistes for the first time, when he saw Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield join him on a jam. “That’s one of the first time I realised that the blues was blue, not white or black,” he says.

To be sure, Buddy focuses only on his active years, and avoids any mention of blues history prior to the time he reached Chicago on September 25, 1957, a date he keeps repeating. Thus, original masters like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House are mentioned only in passing, and there’s little talk of the Memphis or Texas contributions to the blues.

What also seems incomplete is that Buddy devotes only about five pages to his career after 1990, and of the success of albums ‘Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues’, ‘Feels Like Rain’, ‘Slippin’ In’, ‘Sweet Tea’, ‘Blues Singer’ and ‘Living Proof’. In fact, his latest album ‘Rhythm & Blues’, released on his 77th birthday on July 30, has had a superb opening. One really wishes he had added another 30 pages on the past two decades.

Those are minor flaws, of course. What’s really great is that this book reads like a thriller. There are so many stories, and it wouldn’t be fair to reveal any here, as that may just spoil the fun of any blues fan who would want to read this book. And this is an absolute must for anyone who loves the blues. After all, Buddy tells stories with almost the same effortlessness that he plays his guitar.

Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young for the blues and jazz

bill wyman mick ralphs

Bill Wyman (left) and Mick Ralphs

A FEW weeks ago, the music press talked of the formation of the blues-rock supergroup The Rides, featuring the legendary Stephen Stills on vocals and guitar, the hugely talented Kenny Wayne Shepherd on guitar and Electric Flag veteran Barry Goldberg on keyboards.

Those who’ve grown up on rock and folk-rock of the late 1960s would be delighted to hear of the involvement of Stills, best known as a member of iconic bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Having been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer and recovering from it a few years ago, the master musician is taking his career in a new direction.

Like Stills, many musicians of the 1960s and 1970s have been working on new music or on side projects. We’re not talking of Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and Ian Gillan who continue to be associated full-time with their earlier groups, or people like Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and David Gilmour who have been releasing solo material. Specifically, we’re mentioning musicians who are now doing more work in the blues and jazz, instead of continuing in the field of rock, which they were known for.

A few random searches on Google and YouTube revealed some very interesting results. Though this music and these bands may not get the kind of popularity that their earlier rock bands earned, they are definitely brilliant in quality. And though these musicians are making the occasional appearance at blues and jazz festivals, a lot of their new stuff is going unnoticed.

Let’s look at five such acts, which are definitely worth checking out:

Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings: The former, long-time bassist of the Rolling Stones, Wyman ventured into blues-rock with this group, which also consists of some veteran musicians like guitarist Albert Lee and keyboardist Georgie Fame.

Also featured are vocalists Beverly Skeete and Gary US Bonds, guitarist Andy Fairweather Low (who accompanied Roger Waters on his India tour) and keyboardist Mike Sanchez. Guitar hero Peter Frampton, best-known for his mega-selling live album ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, appears as a regular guest, and even guitarists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor have guested with this group.

Wyman and the Rhythm Kings have been around for a while, releasing five studio albums since 1997. Their versions of ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Chicken Shack Boogie’, ‘Green River’ and ‘Melody’ are simply outstanding, and Skeete’s singing on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins masterpiece ‘I Put A Spell On You’ takes you to another planet.

Peter Green and Friends: Vocalist and guitarist of Fleetwood Mac and writer of the Santana-popularised ‘Black Magic Woman’, Peter Green has had his roots in the blues, which was evident in some of the band’s early albums. This project marks his comeback in 2009, after a five-year hiatus.

Here, in fact, Green goes into exploring the blues even deeper. Accompanying him are Mike Dodd (rhythm guitar, vocals), Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Matt Radford (bass), Andrew Flude (drums) and Martin Winning (tenor sax).

The group’s versions of ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, ‘The Stumble’, ‘Sitting in the Rain’, ‘Stranger Blues’ and ‘When the Lights Go Out’ are surely worth checking out.

Mick Ralphs Blues Band: Formerly with glam-rock group Mott the Hoople and then with the marvellous rock band Bad Company, Mick Ralphs is one of the most under-rated yet brilliant guitarists ever. His Mick Ralphs Blues Band totally showcases his talent and his proficiency with the blues.

Accompanying Ralphs are vocalist/ harmonica player Son Maxwell, slide guitarist Jim Maving, bassist Dicky Baldwin and drummer Sam Kelly. They’ve done some brilliant work on songs like ‘Can’t Do It All By Myself’, ‘ ‘Mister Charlie’, ‘Hideaway’, Just a Little Bit’, the classic Albert King song ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ and the Bad Company hit ‘Can’t Get Enough’.

John Densmore’s Tribaljazz: The former Doors drummer has been in the new more for his legal conflict with other band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, which he wrote about in his book ‘The Doors Unhinged’. Following Manzarek’s death in May, he has initiated a reunion with Krieger.

Over the past few years, Densmore has been actively involved with Tribaljazz, which explores a mix of jazz, African beats and world music. The group released its debut album in 2006, featuring songs like ‘Blues For Bali’, ‘The First Time I Heard Coltrane’ (dedicated to the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane) and ‘Violet Love’, besides a more jazzed-up version of the Doors classic ‘Riders On The Storm’.

Besides Densmore, the group features saxophonist/ flautist Art Ellis, pianist Quinn Johnson, Egyptian bassist Osama Afifi, Guatemalan conga player Miguel Rivera, Italian-born, Brazil-trained percussionist Cristina Berio and African drummers Marcel Adjibi and Aziz Faye. Going by that very line-up, one can imagine how eclectic the music will be.

Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion: One of the rock world’s best drummers, Baker had very successful stints with Cream (along with Eric Clapton and bassist Jac Bruce) and the short-lived Blind Faith (with Clapton, keyboardist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech). He later teamed up with African musician Fela Kuti and explored world music.

Baker’s group Jazz Confusion is doing the rounds on the UK festival circuit, and is slated to play at next month’s Great British Blues Festival in Colne, Lancashire. Also featuring veteran saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and conga player Abass Dodoo, the band plays a highly energetic blend of jazz and African music.

Superb stuff from all five. Just a quick tour of YouTube will unleash loads of pure magic.

Take Five: The earliest female blues singing legends


ma rainey

Bessie Smith (top) and Ma Rainey

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music and electronic music, respectively. This month, we look at five of the earliest female blues legends.

WHEN one talks of the blues, most people would instantly think of legends like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King or Willie Dixon. Or even blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. They’d talk of the slide guitar, harmonica and 12-bar chord progressions, or of songs like ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. More often than not, the mental picture would be of a man singing the blues, gleaming guitar in hand.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, however, the female blues singer reigned supreme. Though the male world had prominent names like W C Handy, Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, that period had a string of women with awesome voices and amazing recordings. And though many of them specialised in the more rootsy form of blues, they also sang sophisticated jazz, theatrical vaudeville songs and popular Tin Pan Alley material.

Though old-timers would have fond memories of these female blues legends, many of today’s younger blues listeners haven’t been exposed to them. Their records are rare to find, but luckily, one finds a lot of their music on YouTube.

Here, we shall focus only on those singers who made it big in the blues only during those two decades, in the pre-World War II era. Another generation of female blues singers became popular in the 1950s, but that’s another story. We shall begin with five, and list some of the others at the end.

Ma Rainey: The undisputed ‘Mother of the Blues’, Rainey was one of the earliest professional singers in this genre, and among the earliest to record. Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, she began performing in her early teens and changed her name after marrying Will Rainey at the age of 18.

A majority of female singers have been directly or indirectly influenced by Rainey, who was best known for her powerful voice, energetic stage presence and a typical folk style of singing called ‘moaning’. Among her numerous recordings, ‘Bo-weevil Blues’, ‘Moonshine Blues’, ‘Soon This Morning’, ‘Black Bottom’ and ‘See See Rider’ were all popular in the 1920s. Her performances with jazz great Louis Armstrong, blues guitarist Tampa Red and singer Papa Charlie Jackson are remembered vividly.

Rainey died of a heart attack at the age of 53. While her work is remembered fondly, an interesting bit of trivia revolves around how, in 1965, Bob Dylan used her name in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’, where he sang, “Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll”. Dylan, after all!

Bessie Smith: While many other singers were given the title ‘Queen of the Blues’, the only one who deserved to be called ‘Empress of the Blues’ was the great Bessie Smith. The fact that she was a primary influence on some of the world’s greatest singers like Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Janis Joplin speaks volumes for her prowess.

Bessie’s songs ‘Downhearted Blues’, ‘Women’s Trouble Blues’, ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Empty Bed Blues’ have been covered by many. But her biggest success came with her rendition of Jimmy Cox’s iconic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, which became an anthem during the Great Depression, and was revived when Eric Clapton recorded it in 1970 with his band Derek and the Dominoes.

Born in a poor family, Bessie lost both her parents before she was 10, and joined her brother to sing on the streets. Soon, she joined a troupe that also featured Ma Rainey, who influenced her to concentrate on the blues.

Bessie’s career was later affected by a serious gin-drinking problem, accompanied by falling record sales during the Great Depression. And just when she was staging a comeback with a series of successful concerts, she was killed in a car accident, allegedly denied admission by a whites-only hospital. She was only 43 and the world lost one of its greatest singers.

Mamie Smith: Even before Rainey and Bessie really hit the big time, another extremely talented singer became the first woman to record the blues with phenomenal success. In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded a set of tunes written by Afro-American songwriter Perry Bradford, including ‘Crazy Blues’ and ‘It’s Right Here For You’. The record created history, selling a million copies in less than a year.

Mamie’s repertoire moved much beyond the blues, as she excelled in jazz and vaudeville too, besides being a pianist, dancer and an actress. Following the success of her records, the industry began promoting other female singers, and Mamie herself was described as ‘Queen of the Blues’.

Mamie later concentrated on her group Jazz Hounds, and even acted in a few movies. She passed away in 1946 at age 63.

Ethel Waters: She excelled equally in blues, jazz and gospel, but she began with the blues in the 1920s. It’s often said that very few artistes deserved to express the blues more than Ethel Waters, a statement attributed to her tragic upbringing.

Born as a result of her mother’s rape, Ethel was never shown any love by her family. She married at 13, only to end up in an abusive relationship with her husband, whom she left. Soon, she ended up falling in love with a drug addict.

Ethel had a string of hits in the 1920s and 1930s, including ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Dinah’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Cabin in the Sky’, ‘Taking a Chance on Love’, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ and ‘Am I Blue?’, featured in the 1929 movie ‘On With The Show’. She performed with the great Duke Ellington and pianist Fletcher Henderson, and later pursued a parallel film career. She died in 1977 from uterine cancer, aged 80.

Memphis Minnie: Lizzie Douglas aka Memphis Minnie was known not only as a singer but also as one of the earliest female guitar greats. Story has it that in 1933, she and the great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy got into a guitar contest. Broonzy, who was a very big name in Chicago, says in his autobiography ‘Big Bill Blues’ that a jury of fellow musicians awarded Minnie the prize of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of gin for her performance of ‘Chauffeur Blues’ and ‘Looking the World Over’.

Minnie began learning banjo and guitar when she was eight, and in five years, ran away from home to play on the streets. Later, she even took to prostitution to earn additional income.

One of her earliest hits was ‘When the Levee Breaks’, a song performed with her second husband Joe McCoy, and many years later reworked by rock band Led Zeppelin. Her other hits include ‘Bumble Bee Blues’, ‘Hoodoo Lady’, ‘I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuit’ and ‘I Want Something For You’.

Minnie, who died in 1973 at age 76, was a huge influence on many later blues musicians, including the great guitarist-singer Bonnie Raitt.

WHILE these were five of the biggest pioneers, the list of female blues greats from the 1920s and 1930s would be incomplete without mentioning a few other names. Notable among them were Ida Cox, often called the ‘Uncrowned Queen of the Blues’, and Victoria Spivey, who was inspired by Mamie Smith to become a blues singer, and hit the big time with her 1926 original ‘Black Snake Blues’.

Two other Smiths — Clara Smith, who often accompanied Bessie, no relation of hers, and Trixie Smith — had a huge following. As did Alberta Hunter (one of the first to tour Paris and London), Sara Martin and Sippie Wallace, known as the ‘Texas Nightingale’.

And yes, there was the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who attracted attention from the mid-1930s. Though called the ‘Voice of Jazz’, she had a style that boasted strong blues leanings, strongly influenced by blues singers Bessie Smith and Blue Lu Barker. Her biopic, starring Diana Ross, is called ‘The Lady Sings the Blues’, and she had a huge impact on many later-day blues singers.

Needless to say, that era had some astonishing talent. The voices those days were supple, soulful and stirring. Those ladies really sang the blues.

Sweet Home Mumbai Blues

THE blues anthems ‘Boom Boom’, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ filled the air. And yes, there was the right mix of legendary names, the younger talented lot and Indian bands, playing two days of scintillating blues in an absolutely festive atmosphere.

The great bluesmen Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal were the star attractions at the second instalment of the Mahindra Blues Festival, held at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios on February 11 and 12. Add names like John Lee Hooker Jr (son of the legendary John Lee Hooker), pedal steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph, Serbian singer-guitarist Ana Popovic, and the Indian bands Soulmate, Blackstratblues and Overdrive Trio, and what you had was a perfect setting for the blues lover.

Ah, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal! The former has been on the scene for some 55 years now, and the latter for 45. Two contrasting styles —with Buddy playing electrifying electric blues and Taj amalgamating an array of world music influences into his sound. It was Buddy’s fourth concert tour of India, and Taj’s first, even though he takes his name from the famous mausoleum in Agra.

Of the two, Buddy attracted the larger crowd — and probably more rare reviews. He played well-known numbers like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’, his own ‘Slippin’ In’ and ‘Love Her With A Feeling’, and even walked into the crowd to everyone’s delight. The thing is: barring his new song ‘I’m 74 Years Old’, he’s done pretty much the same thing on his previous three visits. The first time I saw him at the Jamshed Bhabha Hall in 2005, I was totally floored. A couple of years later, he did an action replay at the One Tree Festival, which he repeated at last year’s Mahindra Bluesfest.

This time too, he used the same formula, the only difference being the guest appearance by the brilliant Robert Randolph an hour into his gig. Surely, 95 per cent of the crowd loved him, and he’s also been a personal favourite all along. But then, why should an artiste of his stature, ability, showmanship and following keep playing the same set again and again? In the end, it never really mattered.

Taj had a comparatively smaller audience, and probably didn’t create the same kind of hysteria —in fact, there were a few who were just not impressed. But he played his own brand of blues soulfully enough to delight the purist. With his unique infusion of folk, country, Caribbean, African and Latin American influences, he was brilliant on the songs ‘Fishing Blues’, ‘Corrina’, ‘Going Up To The Country Paint My Mailbox Blue’ and ‘Lovin In My Baby’s Eyes’. He didn’t compromise by playing to the gallery, and yet, impressed with his sheer feel.

Yet, the majority went home remembering Buddy’s act more, even though it was repeat bluescast. The reason was simple: today’s audiences, whether in India or probably anywhere else, prefer the more uptempo type of blues. Crackling guitar solos and pounding drums are what drive away your blues. A high-pitched falsetto is an advantage. Roots music is for the traditional, or rather old-fashioned listener.

It may be safe to say that unlike the previous generation which grew up on the blues, today’s lot has been exposed to the genre more through rock music, after listening to blues-influenced bands like the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, Jeff Beck and certain songs of Led Zeppelin, or to specific blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. So at blues concerts, they look for something more energetic and electric.

In this festival, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker Jr and Ana Popovic provided precisely that. Hooker Jr played his father’s songs ‘Boom Boom’, ‘I’m In The Mood’ and ‘I Got My Eyes On You’, but added his own contemporary twist to them.  Popovic played a lot of contemporary and original material, but also did a modern medley of songs by female greats Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Sugar Pie DeSanto.

Compared to the old-school listeners, the following for great masters like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Elmore James is now restricted to a select few, who are passionate about the genre and interested in getting into the depths.  So when it comes to selecting a line-up for a festival, organisers will naturally go for the more rocking blues acts.

The heartening thing, of course, is that the blues is finally getting recognition in India — the latest positive sign being Brian Tellis’ blues show on Mumbai’s Radio One on Sunday nights. While the Jazz Yatra began in the late ’70s and catered to the jazz fans, the number of blues concerts has been few and far between. Fleetwood Mac’s slide guitar virtuoso Jeremy Spencer came a few times, and dazzled with blues favourites like ‘Dust My Broom’ and ‘Telephone Blues’. 

A few years ago, the One Tree Music festival attracted artistes like Buddy, Robert Cray, Walter Trout and Bernard Allison, though it wasn’t strictly a blues event, but showcased other genres too. Managed by Oranjuice Entertainment, the first Mahindra Blues Festival in 2011 featured Buddy, Jonny Lang, Matt Schofield and Shemekia Copeland. It clearly filled a much-needed gap, and also gave exposure to Indian blues bands, Soulmate being simply fabulous.

After the successful turn-out and fabulous music one heard this year, one can truly hope for many more fantastic blues experiences in future. The only hitch, and a very important one: by pricing it pretty high, the organisers are not making it accessible to some of the genuine blues lovers, but instead catering mainly to those who can pay through their blue-blooded noses, even if they think Muddy Waters is some brand of premium whisky.

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