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Nothin' but the Blues
America's truly original music form

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Great Blues CDs you can buy  
(no, I don't sell them, I just recommend them)

There are many excellent compilation or "best-of" albums which provide a large collection of classic blues tunes. Many of these are European imports (blues are very popular in Europe). Often these collections are the only feasable way to acquire classic blues tunes since the original songs were sold only as 78 RPM singles.

Only in the late 1950s did blues recordings begin to be collected into 33 RPM long-playing records (LPs). One of the first was "Lightnin' and the Blues" (aka "The Herald Sessions") by Lightnin' Hopkins. It sold poorly because few blacks could afford more expensive LPs. It has since become a re-issued classic, and original pristine copies of the LP now sell for over a thousand dollars.

Here are my picks, rated on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best). For the blues rookie, the 4-CD "100 Blues Masters" set is a fantastic starting point...

100 Blues Masters
  • This 4-CD set is an outstanding collection of classic blues. There is probably no better starting point for learning about blues music than this diverse package.
  • Each CD has exactly 25 blues tunes, including artists like Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Memphis Slim, and many more.
  • Though hard to find though more traditional outlets, many specialty Internet vendors can be found selling this set. Prices typically range from 25 to 35 US dollars.
My rating: 5 (out of 5)

The Very Best Of John Lee Hooker
  • This album chronicles John Lee Hooker's work from his first record, the 1948 smash hit "Boogie Chillin", up to nearly 40 years later.
  • This album ends with Hooker's 1987 collaboration with Roy Rogers, the classic "Terraplane Blues" accompanied by Roger's masterful slide guitar.
  • Many of the tunes on this album demonstrate Hooker's "hypnotic one-chord drone blues" sound, as writer Robert Palmer described it.
  • Hooker's minimalist guitar techniques have influenced three generations of musicians, from the Rolling Stones to ZZ Top, Van Morrison, and George Thorogood.
  • Hooker's style is easy to recognize: usually one chord with a pulsing rhythmic groove chugging along, random vocal phrasing, and open-tuned guitar with a choppy percussive sound.
My rating: 5 (out of 5)

The Very Best of Lightnin' Hopkins
  • This album chronicles Lightnin' Hopkins' work from his first record, "Katie Mae Blues", in 1946, up to "Baby Don't You Tear My Clothes" in 1961.
  • Hopkins' guitar style features a smooth intertwining of introspective vocals with blues guitar licks that seem to wrap around the lyrics.
  • The song "Conversation Blues", recorded in 1960, features the additional vocals of Hopkins' harp player Sonny Terry, as they sing their way through a "conversation".
  • Hopkins often drifted away from standard blues structures, playing almost random variations. Only the most skilled musicians could keep up with his unpredictable changes.
  • When a young bass player commented about Hopkins' erratic chord changes, Hopkins looked back at him and told him "Lightnin' changes when he wants to *** change" [expletive deleted].
My rating: 4 (out of 5)

Lightnin' Hopkins - Lightnin' And The Blues
  • This album was one of the first long-playing blues records (LPs) ever made, recorded in April 1954.
  • The album sold poorly because black audiences could not afford the more expensive LP records; they were accustomed to buying 78 RPM singles.
  • This album eventally became a re-issued classic. Original copies of the LP record now sell for over one thousand dollars.
  • Hopkins' songs are often deeply personal, covering everything from his aching flu to his resolve to quit the fast life and return to church.
  • Hopkins also has a romping fun side, as seen in tunes like "Lightnin's Boogie" and "My Little Kewpie Doll".
My rating: 4 (out of 5)

Dinah Washington - Cocktail Hour
  • This 2-CD set covers a cross section of Dinah Washington's work. Though the packaging is minimal, no liner notes or photos, it is usually budget-priced.
  • The music in this CD set is early piano blues and light jazz. As the title suggests, it sounds much like what one would hear in a cocktail lounge. If you are seeking a more energetic, rocking blues sound, this is not it.
  • Years ago, I heard a fantastic live recording of Dinah Washington from the late 1950s on an FM station. Her performance was stunning in its sensuality and passion; she had the audience eating out of her hands. That recording was light-years better than anything on this CD set, but sadly, I have never located that fabulous recording since then.
My rating: 2 (out of 5)

Louis Jordan - Saturday Night Fish Fry (the original & greatest hits)
  • Released by Jasmine records in 2001, this album provides a rich overview of Louis Jordan's work over the years.
  • Many of Jordan's songs are quite comical, drawing from his sense of humor. When performing, Jordan was known for his witty introductions and sense of fun.
  • Songs written by Jordan offer a unique glimpse into a different era: topics range from World War II rationing to the love of trains that used to be so common.
  • Jordan's band reflected the decline of the Big Band era; economics required bands to be smaller in size, and the Big Band style slowly evolved into dance-oriented "jump blues".
  • The nonsense song "Open The Door, Richard" was a smash hit in 1947, played endlessly on the radio and performed by many artists, yet the origin of the song is uncertain.
My rating: 4 (out of 5)

Jimmy Reed - Boss Man
  • This 2-CD import from Recall Records UK is a typical example of European record companies leading the way in releasing compilations of otherwise-forgotten blues legacies. This is undoubtably due to the popularity of blues in Europse.
  • Most of the songs have a similar minimalist style and structure, featuring Jimmy Reed's guitar, voice, and harmonica.
  • In spite of such a simple and predictable musical formula, Jimmy Reed consistently beat out Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James in record sales.
  • In a departure from his trademark style, the song "Ends and Odds" is a short instrumential duet with a hauntingly abstract violin.
  • Many of the songs in this collection would eventually be covered by other blues artists, who looked to Reed as a founding influence.
My rating: 3 (out of 5)

Muddy Waters - In Concert
  • "Muddy Waters - In Concert" is a collection of live recordings from an undocumented performance of unknown date.
  • Though there are no dates or locations given in the liner notes, the best speculation is possibly somewhere in Europe in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
  • Though the sound quality is slightly weak, this is such a fine showcase of Muddy Waters' earlier work that the sound is quickly overlooked.
  • Water's band, including greats like Pinetop Perkins, delivers great performances, accented by Waters' trademark slide guitar solos.
  • Rare performances of "Garbage Man" and "Caldonia" are found on this album. Though they are not among Waters' best-known songs, they are a delight to listen to and hard to find. The album is worthwhile just for these two tunes.
  • This import may be hard to find, and it's liner notes are sparse and indistinct. In spite of this, this album is a great catch for Muddy Waters fans and worth every penny.
My rating: 5 (out of 5)

Muddy Waters - Hard Again
  • "Hard Again" was recorded in late 1976 when Muddy Waters assembled an amazing band of master bluesmen and long-time friends.
  • This album, featuring an all-star band, is a wonderful collection of 12-bar blues with a punchy, hard-driving energy combined with great chemistry among the performers, not to mention excellent liner notes.
  • In large thanks to his devotee Johnny Winter, "Hard Again" sparked a revival in Muddy Waters' career as a new generation of music fans discovered him for the first time.
  • "Hard Again" was recorded in a professional home studio with everyone playing at the same time in the same room, giving the songs a warm, yet powerful "live recording" feel.
  • While recording "Hard Again", Muddy Waters had his famous red Telecaster guitar plugged in and ready to play, but he never played a single note with it.
My rating: 5 (out of 5)

Muddy Waters - Muddy 'Mississippi' Waters Live
  • This live album captures the raw energy of Muddy Waters and his band touring in 1977 after the release of their comeback album "Hard Again".
  • Featuring the entire band from "Hard Again", these recordings capture passionate performances by Muddy Waters, and guitarists Johnny Winter and Bob Margolin.
  • Johnny Winter performs masterful slide guitar solos, faithfully following Muddy's classic style.
  • Perhaps due to aging or health matters, Muddy seemed content to mostly sing and leave the bulk of the guitar work to his two trusted devotees, Winters and Margolin.
  • The performance of "Mannish Boy" recorded here is probably one of the best to be found (with the "Hard Again" version a close second), in part because of the ecstatic audience joining into the song.
My rating: 5 (out of 5)

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