The main figures in Chicago blues

By Sergio Ariza

Chicago is to blues what Brazil is to football, perhaps they didn’t invent it, but that’s where they best practised it. In the Chicago case their main figures were black emigrants from the South who went North to escape racial discrimination and lack of opportunities in what was known as the Great Migration. This is where the Delta blues was electrified and began to roar. Choosing the 10 best Chicago bluesmen is like choosing the 10 best Brazilian footballers in history, an impossible task, there’s too much talent. So we already know that we will have left someone in the inkwell, without going further, legends like  Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson I & II, James Cotton, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Lenoir, Big Bill Broonzy, Slim Harpo, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Reed, Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, but we can only choose 10...    

Muddy Waters

The city of Chicago has had different figures who have marked its history, for instance in the 20s, the city was controlled by the gangster King Al Capone, while in the 80s and 90s its emblem was “His Airness” Michael Jordan who carried the Chicago Bulls basketball team to glory with the best basketball ever seen (sorry LeBron). But, perhaps, the most important figure in its history is McKinley Morganfield, born in the Mississippi Delta in 1913 who moved to the “windy city” 30 years later to become the main man on the scene, and the man on whose sound the city was built, which would be the Mecca of electric blues during the 50s. Muddy Waters served as the nexus between Robert Johnson (with whom he played during the 30s) and Chuck Berry (whom he got a contract at Chess) or, which is to say, between Delta blues and Rock & Roll. He always had the best band at his disposal, whether it was the indomitable Headhunters, or the so called Muddy Waters Drunk Ass Band, including legends like Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, James Cotton, and Pat Hare.

Recommended albums: At Newport
(1960), Folk Festival of the Blues (Various) (1963), Folk Singer (1964), Hard Again (1977), The Chess Box (1990), The Complete Plantation Recordings (1993)
Main guitar: Fender Telecaster

Howlin' Wolf

The only rival Muddy Waters had as king of the scene arrived in the city in 1952, at 42 years of age, having already revolutionised the blues with his Memphis recordings with Sam Phillips. His name was Chester Arthur Burnett, best known as Howlin’ Wolf, a giant in every sense of the word, who learned from
Charley Patton himself, and was signed by the Chess brothers as a star. From his arrival to the appearance of the English groups who had learned from them, the Chicago blues lived a golden age, with Muddy Waters and Wolf fighting over who was the best. As in Waters’ case, it was enough to take a look at the roster of players that played in his band to get his tremendous importance, names such as Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Ike Turner, Jody Williams, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy.

Recommended albums: Moanin' in the Moonlight
(1959), Howlin' Wolf (The Rockin' Chair Album) (1962), The Real Folk Blues (1966), Cadillac Daddy: Memphis Recordings 1952 (1989), The Chess Box (1991)

Main guitar: Kat Thin Twin, Epiphone Casino

Elmore James

The undisputed king of the blues slide guitar. If Elmore James
had only recorded Dust My Broom, his electric cover of a Robert Johnson number, he would be one of the most important names in the history of the electric guitar. The riff in this song is the blues equivalent to rock & roll’s Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, the reason why so many people decided to pick up a guitar. His Broomdusters, with sax man J.T. Brown, drummer Odie Payne Jr., and pianist Johnny Jones, were one of the most significant bands in Chicago in the early 50s. A heart attack took him on May 24, 1963, keeping him from seeing how his music got to a white public thanks to a handful of white British lads…

Recommended albums: Blues After Blues (1960), Whose Muddy Shoes (1969), King of the Slide Guitar: The Fire/Fury/Enjoy Recordings (1992), The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James (1993)


Mike Bloomfield

Mike Bloomfield
was a Chicago native, so he had the luck to live in a perfect place, in a perfect time, if blues if what you liked. Young Bloomfield was a privileged kid who got to see gigs by Sonny Boy Williams, Little Walter, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, or the great stylists, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf non-stop. At 17 he was one of the few whites (along with others like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite) who the greats of the city allowed up on stage with them. At first they thought they were the police but over time they warmed to him, with Waters calling him his `sonand Buddy Guy claiming he was one of the best. But if Bloomfield has a place in history it’s not for being a mere copy, but for having his own style, going from electric blues to rock, also being one of the first to use in a rock context influences from Indian and modal music, becoming a benchmark for other white legends of blues and rock that would come later, from Jerry Garcia to Duane Allman, from Carlos Santana to Eric Clapton, who referred to him as “music on two legs”.

Recommended albums:  Paul Butterfield Blues Band
(1965), East West (with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), A Long Time Comin' (with Electric Flag) (1968), Super Session (with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills) (1968), The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1969), My labors (with Nick Gravenites) (1969)

Main guitar: ‘64 Fender Telecaster, ‘59 Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst

Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley
used the guitar like a drum, from which sprang a hypnotic percussive sound that became “the mother of all riffs” according to Johnny Marr. The rhythm he created became one of the pillars on which the original rock & roll was built. Diddley is the bluesiest of the fathers of rock, with songs like I’m a Man, paying respects to his idol Muddy Waters, something that would not go unnoticed by Waters who responded with Mannish Boy. Don’t look for his name among bestsellers, but if you want to know who put the rhythm in blues to turn it on rock & roll, immerse yourself in this giant’s work.

Recommended albums: Bo Diddley (1958), Go Bo Diddley (1959), Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger (1961), Beach Party (1963), 500% More Man (1965), The Chess Box (1990)

Main guitar: Gibson L-5, Cigar Box (rectangular), Jupiter Thunderbird

Buddy Guy

The current King of the city and possibly of all blues since the passing of B.B. King, has the date of his arrival in Chicago imprinted on all of his guitars: September 25, 1957. It wasn’t easy making a name for himself but after a legendary duel with Otis Rush, he was welcomed by Muddy Waters himself who became like his father figure. His wild, aggressive style didn’t sit right with the tastes of the Chess brothers, but after the appearance of Jimi Hendrix, they saw that they had been mistaken. Guy has collaborated with all the greats but the best team he formed was with harp wizard Junior Wells with whom he would record some of his best records. He came to town with little more than a change of clothes and a Les Paul. Today he runs the most prestigious club and has a Stratocaster Signature, the 25th of September should be a date remembered by all blues lovers.

Recommended albums: Folk Festival of The Blues
(Various) (1963), Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells) (1965), I Left My Blues in San Francisco (1967), A Man And The Blues (1968), Play The Blues (Buddy Guy & Junior Wells) (1972), Damn Right I've Got the Blues (1991)

Main guitar: Fender Stratocaster

Little Walter

In Chicago blues it was as distinct a sound as the electric guitar: the amplified harmonica. We could name giants here like the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Junior wells, Paul Butterfield or James Cotton, but we’ll stick with the most important, whether he’s from Chicago or not, of all post WWII harp players, Little Walter. He was responsible for taking the instrument out of its rural context and take it to the city, a fierce sound heard among amped-up guitars and drums. He made a name as Muddy Waters’ lieutenant in the Headhunters (the legendary band would hit all the juke joints challenging other groups until they destroyed and “cut their heads off
) but in the early 50s he had already established himself by his own and began cutting records like Juke, Mean Old World, and My Babe. Even today, more than 50 years after his death, there isn’t a harp player in the world who doesn’t sing his praises to Little Walter.

Recommended albums: The Best
(1958), The Chess Years 1952-1963 (1992)

Willie Dixon

Of all the names that appear here, perhaps Willie Dixon is the one with the weakest solo career, but how in the devil are we going to leave off this list the man who wrote the fundamental blues repertoire? If we asked anyone (with minimal knowledge) to tell us their 10 favourite blues songs in history, it's most likely Dixon had written at least half, and played the rest. He was the quintessential session player at Chess, sitting in with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. A short list of songs written by Dixon include, I Can’t Quit You Baby, Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Little Red Rooster, You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover, Diddy Wah Diddy, I Ain't Superstitious, My Babe, You Shook Me, The Seventh Son, Spoonful and You Need Love (the song used by Led Zeppelin for Whole Lotta Love). Little more can be said...

Recommended albums:  I Am The Blues
(1970), The Chess Box (1989)

Magic Sam

Samuel Gene Maghett
was one of the most important figures from the West Side scene in Chicago, together with other young players like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. Most of the juke joints in Chicago were  found in the South side, it was the sacred turf of Muddy and Wolf, but in the mid-50s, other jukes opened on the West side and a group of young lads started to make some noise there, with their fresh, tuned sound, close to R&B. Around it the Cobra label was built, where Sam would record his first classic record, All Your Love, proving he had real magic in those fingers. In the 60s, the fundamental album of the movement was consolidated and released, West Side Soul, in 1967, when he was with the Delmark label.

Recommended albums: West Side Soul
(1967), Black Magic (1968), The Essential Magic Sam: The Cobra and Chief Recordings 1957-1961 (2001)

Main guitar: Epiphone Rivera


Otis Rush

His debut album was none other than I Can’t Quit You Baby
in 1956, truly big words, but his career is one of the most consistent in blues, performing until his death on September 28th of last year. His lengthy shadow can be seen in the first batch of white bluesmen such as Bloomfield, Clapton, and Peter Green.  

Recommended albums: This One's a Good Un
(1969), Right Place Wrong Time (1976), Otis Rush, 1956-1958: His Cobra Recordings (1989)

Main guitar: Gibson ES-345 and ES-355, Fender Stratocaster.