Blues in the '60s and '70s

By the beginning of the 1960s, African American music like rock and roll and soul were parts of mainstream popular music. White performers had brought black music to new audiences, both within the United States and abroad. Though many listeners simply enjoyed the catchy pop tunes of the day, others were inspired to learn more about the roots of rock, soul, R&B and gospel. Especially in the United Kingdom, many young men and women formed bands to emulate blues legends. By the end of the decade, white-performed blues in a number of styles, mostly fusions of blues and rock, had come to dominate popular music across much of the world.

Blues legend B.B. King with his guitar "Lucille"

Blues masters such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continued to perform to enthusiastic audiences, inspiring new artists steeped in traditional blues, such as New York-born Taj Mahal. John Lee Hooker was particularly successful in the late sixties in blending his own style with some rock elements, playing together with younger white musicians. The 1971 album Endless Boogie is a major example of this style. B.B. King had emerged as a major artist in the fifties and reached his height in the late sixties. His virtuoso guitar technique earned him the eponymous title "king of the blues". In contrast to the Chicago style, King's band used strong brass support (saxophone, trumpet, trombone) instead of slide guitar or harp. Tennessee-born Bobby "Blue" Bland is another artist of the time who, like B.B. King, successfully straddled blues and R&B genres.

The music of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements in the U.S. prompted a resurgence of interest in American roots music in general and in early African American music, specifically. Important music festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival brought traditional blues to a new audience. Prewar acoustic blues was rediscovered along with many forgotten blues heroes including Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis. Many compilations of classic prewar blues were republished, in particular by the Yazoo Records company. J. B. Lenoir, an important artist of the Chicago blues movement in the fifties, recorded several outstanding LPs using acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanied by Willie Dixon on the acoustic bass or drums. His work at this time had an unusually direct political content relative to racism or Vietnam War issues. As an example, this quotation from Alabama blues record:

I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me (2x)
You know they killed my sister and my brother,
and the whole world let them peoples go down there free

In the late sixties, the so-called West Side blues emerged in Chicago with Magic Sam, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. In contrast with the early Chicago style, this style is characterized by a strong rhythm support (a rhythm and a bass electric guitar, and drums). Talented, new musicians like Albert King, Freddy King, Buddy Guy, or Luther Allison appeared.

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album coverHowever, what made blues really come across to the young white audiences in the early 1960s was the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the British blues movement. The style of British blues developed in England, when dozens of bands such as Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Cream took to covering the classic blues numbers from either the Delta or Chicago blues traditions. The British blues musicians of the early 1960s would ultimately inspire a number of American blues-rock fusion performers, including Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, The J. Geils Band, Ry Cooder, and others, who at first discovered the form by listening to British performers, but in turn went on to explore the blues tradition on their own. Many of Led Zeppelin's earlier hits were renditions of traditional blues songs. One blues-rock performer, Jimi Hendrix, was a rarity in his field at the time: a black man who played psychedelic blues-rock. Hendrix was a virtuoso guitarist, and a pioneer in the innovative use of distortion and feedback in his music. Through these artists and others, both earlier and later, blues music has been strongly influential in the development of rock music.

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