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The blues is a style characterized by a melancholy mood (particularly evident in the lyrics, which typically feature a second line repeat of the first line followed by the punch line or lines) and a standard chord progression generally comprised of twelve measures. The genre evolved out of the call-and-response work songs and spirituals of southern black culture during the mid-nineteenth century.

The first hit blues recordings were instrumental renditions of the W.C. Handy composition, "Memphis Blues," by Prince's Orchestra (Columbia) and the Victor Military Band (directed by Walter Rogers), both of which were released in the fall of 1914. "Memphis Blues" also became the first vocal blues recording in a treatment by Morton Harvey with accompaniment by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Victor), released in January 1915. However, none of these records were considered to constitute authentic blues interpretations; the earliest such recording may well have been Al Bernard's "Hesitation Blues" (Edison Diamond Disc, 1919), albeit by a white performer. The first black blues vocal was cut by Mamie Smith, backed by the Rega Orchestra, "That Thing Called Love"/"You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" (Okeh), released in July 1920. Smith would go on to achieve considerable success with a succession of Okeh recordings, most notably "Crazy Blues" (1920).

The major record labels were not aggressive in signing black blues artists; Victor and Edison ignored the field altogether. As a result, newly established independents such as Okeh, Paramount, and Black Swan were allowed to dominate the blues sector in the early 1920s. The industry employed the term "race records" to designate blues music and any other material interpreted by African Americans for an African American audience.


Columbia's signing of Bessie Smith in 1923 represented a watershed event. Smith immediately established herself as the top-selling blues singer, stimulating many other labels--even Victor and Edison--to enter the race market. Brunswick established a Race Record Division in 1926, and Paramount began recording notable black male singers such as Charlie Jackson (1924), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926), and Charley Patton (1927).

Blues recordings peaked in popularity between 1927-1930, before the Great Depression nearly destroyed the record industry altogether. The Memphis Jug Band achieved great success with "Sun Brimmer's Blues"/"Stingy Woman Blues" on Victor in early 1927 and followed up with over 70 more records until 1934. Leroy Carr, the first blues pianist of note, as well as a singer, went on to become the leading blues artist up through the early 1930s.

As the blues matured in the 1930s, a series of stylistic offshoots also made considerable impact within the recording medium, including the piano-based barrelhouse and boogie woogie genres and urban blues. The latter idiom arose in Depression-era Chicago, its prime disinguishing features being a more aggressive delivery and a group setting to put it across. Leading performers in this style included Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy.

The Decca label, established in 1934, made a substantial impression in the race market with its low-priced discs (thirty-five cents as compared with the standard seventy-five cents) and active pursuit of blues talent, including Sleepy John Estes, Rosetta Howard, Louis Jordan, the Norfolk Jubille Quartet, Ollie Shepard, Johnnie Temple, and Peetie Wheatstraw. Decca retained its industry lead into the post-World War II years, at which time the style had evolved into electrified rhythm and blues. In recognition of this change, the music business retired the "race" and "sepia blues" terms, opting for the r & b moniker.

The older blues styles, most notably the acoustic-oriented country blues, were now followed primarily by folk music enthusiasts. Artists such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, and Lightnin' Hopkins continued to record for retro specialty labels such as Arhoolie and Bluesville which catered almost exclusively to whites interested in the history of indigenous American music. Urban "electric" blues purists still active in the post-World War II era--most notably Albert King, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and the Chess Records stable--also performed and recorded largely for a white audience, particularly after the revival of interest in the genre during the 1960s.


Top Artists and Their Recordings

Blues Pioneers

Big Bill Broonzy--"Romance in the Dark" (1940)

Alberta Hunter--"Beale Street Blues" (1927)

Lonnie Johnson--"Tomorrow Night" (1948)

Bessie Smith--"Down Hearted Blues"/"Gulf Coast Blues" (1923); "Baby Won't You Please Come Home Blues" (1923); "T'aint Nobody's Biz-Ness If I Do" (1923); "The St. Louis Blues" (1925); "Careless Love Blues" (1925); "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" (1925); "I Ain't Got Noboody" (1926); "Lost Your Head Blues" (1926); "After You've Gone" (1927); "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1928); "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (1929)

Clara Smith--"Chicago Blues" (1924)

Mamie Smith (and Her Jazz Hounds)--"Crazy Blues" (1920/1); "Fare Thee Honey Blues" (1921); "Royal Garden Blues" (1921); "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" (1921); "Dangerous Blues" (1921); "Lonesome Mama Blues" (1922); "You Can Have Him, I Don't Want Him Blues" (1923); "You've Got to See Mama Ev'ry Night (or You Can't See Mama At All)" (1923)

Pine Top Smith--Pine Top's Boogie Woogie (1929)

Roosevelt Sykes--"I Wonder" (1945); "The Honeydripper" (1945); "Sunny Road" (1946)

Tampa Red and His Chicago Five--"Let's Get Drunk and Truck" (1936)

Modern Blues Performers

Willie Dixon--"Walking the Blues" (1955)

John Lee Hooker--"Boogie Chillen'" (1949); "Hobo Blues" (1949); "Hoogie Boogie" (1949); "Crawling King Snake Blues" (1949); "I'm in the Mood" (1951); "Boom Boom" (1962)

Lightnin' Hopkins--"'T' Model Blues" (1949); "Shotgun Blues" (1949); "Give Me Central 209" (1952); "Coffee Blues" (1952)

Howlin' Wolf--"Moanin' at Midnight" (1951); "How Many More Years" (1951); "Smoke Stack Lightning" (1956); "I Asked For Water" (1956)

Elmore James--"Dust My Broom" (1952); "I Believe" (1953); "The Sky Is Crying" (1960); "It Hurts Me Too" (1965)

Albert King--"Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" (1961); "That's What the Blues Is All About" (1974)

B.B. King--"Three O'Clock Blues" (1951/2); "You Know I Love You" (1952); "Woke Up This Morning" (1953); "Please Love Me" (1953); "Please Hurry Home" (1953); "You Upset Me Baby" (1954); Every Day I Have the Blues" (1955); "Bad Luck" (1956); "On My Word of Honor" (1956); "Please Accept My Love" (1958); "Sweet Sixteen, Pt. 1" (1960); "Partin' Time" (1960); "Peace of Mind" (1961); "Don't Answer the Door, Pt. 1" (1966); "The Thrill Is Gone" (1970); Chains and Things" (1970); "I Like to Live the Love" (1973/4); Riding With the King (w/Eric Clapton; 2000)

Freddy King--"Hide Away" (1961); "Lonesome Whistle Blues" (1961); "San-Ho-Zay" (1961); "I'm Tore Down" (1961)

Sonny Boy Williamson--"Shake the Boogie" (1947)

Sonny Boy Williamson (r.n. Aleck Ford)--"Don't Start Me Talkin'" (1955)