Listen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.
This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.
Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof. Read more
Listen to this track by fiery Torontonian guitarist, singer, and all around blues-rock titan Jeff Healey along with his two compatriots Joe Rockman on bass and Tom Stephen on drums; The Jeff Healey Band. It’s “See The Light”, the title cut and closing track on their 1988 debut record See The Light.
The notable point that critics and fans made about Healey on his debut beyond his blindness was his re-definition on how to play guitar. Playing the instrument more like a piano, he held the chords in an inverted manner, playing the instrument in his lap. That he was able to do this and still completely wail while doing so was akin to trying to figure out how bumblebees fly; that he shouldn’t be able to do it the way he did, but he somehow managed it anyway. This caused something of a sensation, and by the next year Healey and his bandmates would appear as a version of themselves in the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze, in which Healey’s every line seemed to start with the expositionary phrase “well, word on the street is …”. Otherwise, who but Healey could have played a blind white blues guitarist with such credibility?
Healey would of course carry that credibility over into his music career, during a period when the blues in the mainstream was just coming into its own after a period in the wilderness. This was not simply down to gimmickry, but rather down to something more vital; a consuming interest from the artist as to where the music he played originally came from. Read more
Listen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.
That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream. Read more
Listen to this track by Akron Ohio blues-rock twosome The Black Keys. It’s “Tighten Up”, a single as taken from their 2010 album Brothers.
The single was twinned with another hit in “Howlin’ For You”, hearkening back to the days of the double A-side. Both songs evoke the spirit of one of the band’s greatest influences, that being Howlin’ Wolf. Even the album design mirrored Wolf’s 1969 album The Howlin’ Wolf Album on which the self-referential words “This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”. Even if that statement about his view of his own record was true, it showed that the blues was changing by the latter years of Wolf’s career, mixing with rock music and psychedelia.
Even if this song hearkens back to what Wolf helped to establish – echoey and subterranean blues that is coloured with an edge of desperation and menace – it also demonstrates that the form is not stagnant by the 21st century, either. It still had plenty of space to grow, with The Black Keys certainly playing their part to get the music back on mainstream radio and on video screens too. With this, another aspect comes to the fore; that this is not mere musical curation of sounds from days gone by. It’s a part of a living tradition that also has a place in the pop charts. Read more
Listen to this track by East L.A rock ‘n’ roll and Tex-Mex paragons Los Lobos. It’s “Don’t Worry Baby”, a blues-steeped workout that is featured on their 1984 album How Will The Wolf Survive?
Given that their name has a definite lupine association, that question was certainly pertinent to a group of otherwise regular guys playing music during the height of the MTV era. In the meantime, they had just scraped enough together after their EP … And A Time To Dance to buy a van and do a proper tour of the United States on their own steam after opening for Public Image, Ltd in the early eighties. The gambit seemed to pay off, with the band gaining traction and industry attention to record this, their first major label full-length record in the summer of 1984, with the help of the meticulous production ear of T-Bone Burnett, who also co-wrote this song.
This tune is infused with several musical streams the band were exposed to before forming in East L.A in the early 1970s as high school kids. The overall effect is a sort of bluesy rockabilly feel that not many in the mainstream were putting forward on top forty radio by 1984. Even the title of the song seems to be self-reflexive of their situation, being a singular group with no proven template for success to follow outside of their own identity as a band. So, how indeed would the wolf survive? Read more
Listen to this track by Detroit proto-punk progenitors MC5. It’s “The Motor City’s Burning”, a song that appears on their 1969 album Kick Out The Jams. The song was written by Al Smith, and previously recorded by no less than John Lee Hooker, making an appearance on Hooker’s Urban Blues live album in 1967.
That was the year that the riots which inspired this song occurred, in July and indeed at the corner of Clairmont and 12th street in Detroit. Given that both Hooker and The MC5 called Detroit home, this was more than just a blues tune full of violence and sadness, which it certainly is. It’s not even a protest song as such. It’s more like simple a view of the action, with no sides taken, but with a personal stake in the outcome all the same.
What is that personal stake? Well, it’s all tied up in the value of home, and from a band who are not only from Detroit, but who had attached their identity to it. Read more
Listen to this track by San Franciscan psychedelic blues band fronted by transplanted Texan R&B shouter Janis Joplin. It’s “Summertime”, a re-telling of the Gershwin-Heyward American songbook classic as featured on the band’s 1968 debut album Cheap Thrills.
The song is one of three cover versions on the record, and the one with the longest pedigree having been covered by many over the years since it was written in 1935 for the musical Porgy and Bess. That musical, and certainly this song, was a snapshot of American southern life through a very romanticized lens. Maybe this band covering this song is kind of an unexpected choice for a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band like Big Brother & The Holding Company. The song had grown a sheen of respectability by the 1960s along with the jazz traditions out of which it came. But, when you think of where jazz, the blues and rock music comes from, and the idealistic nature of the counterculture, it really isn’t all that much of a leap. After all, George Gershwin was as fascinated by African-American folk culture as any white rock ‘n’ roll singer was by 1968.
But, I think this cover version is notable for something else, too when it comes to Big Brother frontwoman Janis Joplin. In many ways, this song was waiting for her to record it. Because its story is hers. Read more
Listen to this track by volatile brotherly outfit and Atlanta blooze rock concern The Black Crowes. It’s “She Talks To Angels”, the fourth single from their smash-hit 1990 debut Shake Your Moneymaker. The song was a number one on the US rock charts, and scored a modest success in the UK as well.
The band’s sound is based in the kind of music that had its origins where the band itself originated, to wit: classic soul music and the blues. But, it also owed a strong debt to bands in the UK who first interpreted that music for the rock idiom, repackaging it for fans back in the United States during the ’60s and ’70s, most notably, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Free, and The Faces. As such, The Black Crowes represent a kind of cultural and stylistic Mobius strip, and certainly were a singular musical unit when they hit the ground running chartwise in the early ’90s.
But, none of their interesting origins would matter much without the songs. And this remains to be among the Black Crowes’ best. Read more
Listen to this track by Sheffieldian blues-rock exemplar Joe Cocker, who today turns 69. It’s “Feeling Alright” as taken from Cocker’s 1969 record With A Little Help From My Friends. The album is well-named, given the range of talent that went into its creation, taking Cocker’s own formidable talents as a given. Among the many contributors to the record as a whole include Jimmy Page, Stevie Winwood, Tony Visconti, Henri McCulloch, and Chris Stainton, among others.
On this track, a cover version of Dave Mason’s song that first was heard by Traffic, Carol Kaye holds down the bottom end on bass guitar, David Cohen on guitar, Paul Humphrey on drums, and Artie Butler on the piano. It’s Butler’s ivory-tinkling that really stands out here, balanced against Cocker’s gruff and impossibly soulful vocals. It’s hard to believe that Butler would make his name later on as a musical director for Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka, among other middle-of-the-road acts. But, there you are.
The concoction made for one of the most memorable songs of the era, eclipsing the original and creating a template for many versions to follow. This isn’t a bad feat for an interpretive singer at a time when interpreters were making less and less impact covering the material of others – although Cocker would pen tunes on the record as well. So, what’s the difference here? Read more
Listen to this track by ’60s British blues-rock progenitors Fleetwood Mac. It’s their pre-Rumors, proto-metal 1970 single “The Green Manalishi (with The Two Prong Crown)”, a song about greed, and possibly about a disturbed state of mind, too. This is a composition from one of the group’s founders Peter Green, one of the finest guitarists of the era.
After their start as a blues band that covered Chicago blues and R&B standards, Green had moved Fleetwood Mac away from a blues purist approach. His material drew the group into a space that provided a more defined template for blues-rock and metal into the next decade. He would write the band’s most enduring songs during its first incarnation; “Man of The World”, “Oh Well”, “Black Magic Woman” (covered famously by Santana), and others.
But, on a personal level a great distance would open up between Green and his bandmates. This was due in part to his excessive LSD use and the beginnings of his struggles with schizophrenia, undiagnosed at the time.
Months before he left the ‘Mac to the leadership of co-founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, he wrote this song after waking from a vivid nightmare. But, what lies behind this song, apparently driven as it is by the forces of darkness? Read more