Thursday, September 24, 2009

...if Blues is your middle name...

(See my introduction to this series of posts.)

I love blues, but I'm no expert on the music and I've never actually DJed for blues dances. Since I'm not any sort of authority, I asked someone who knows what she's talkin' 'bout to help me pick some good starter albums for blues dancing. My friend Sara Cherny is a fabulous blues dancer, instructor, and organizer on the Chicago scene. (In fact, she's giving a dance workshop called Blues for One coming up this Sunday, Sept. 27th--details here.) We put our heads together and came up with a few recommendations:

...if you like it Chicago-style, with plenty of guitar...
  • Sara explains: to me, Chicago-style blues means a solid, driving beat and a full, amplified sound. Everything is electric: most importantly, the lead and bass guitars, but also sometimes keys, horns, and harmonica.
  • Muddy Waters is the father of Chicago blues. Like many of his contemporaries, he actually grew up in the South, soaking in the sounds of the Mississippi delta before moving north. The amplified, aggressive sound that he developed became the signature style of Chicago. His band included some of the most talented names of all time: Otis Spann, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon. His repertoire included dozens of songs that became blues standards, and many that also became big hits for rock & rollers like the Rolling Stones. If you just want one album from Muddy, try His Best: 1956 to 1964. For the definitive box set, go for The Chess Box.
  • The next generation of Chicago blues musicians included Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, both of whom played with Muddy at one point or another. Their 1970 album South Side Blues Jam captures an incredible session, full of languid, lusty music.
  • Blues wasn't exclusively a male domain. For a female vocalist who could stand up to any man out there, check out Big Mama Thornton. Her album With the Muddy Waters Blues Band 1966 will blow you away.
  • If you like Big Mama, Koko Taylor will also be right up your alley. Try her classic sides from What It Takes: The Chess Years or one of her live sets on South Side Lady (Live in Netherlands 1973).

...if you like it jazzy...
  • James explains: Ever since there has been such a thing as jazz, its purveyors have drawn on the sound and feeling of the Blues--so much so that it's a pretty pointless exercise to argue about whether a track is one or the other. They're not exclusive categories, they're more like fraternal twins. Sara adds: As far as music for blues dancing goes, jazzy tunes will be more likely to have instruments like clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, and the rhythms are more likely to have a swing feeling.
  • Dinah Washington was a star vocalist in the 1950's who spanned Jazz, R&B, and Blues. (That's how the record companies would categorize it, at least. Like we said, they aren't actually different things.) On her album Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith, she pays tribute to one of the most famous and influential blues singers of the 1920's. The supporting players on the album include some big names from the jazz world: Max Roach on drums, Clark Terry on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano--and the tracks have lots of great little instrumental fills and flourishes. And Dinah's singing is electrifying.
  • Take a listen to Allen Toussaint's album The Bright Mississippi. Toussaint is a diverse and talented musician who embraces the roots of New Orleans jazz and blues, but also dips in to soul, boogie-woogie, rock.
  • You might enjoy the album Cat by Catherine Russell, a contemporary New York singer. The album has a number of good blues numbers, plus a couple songs that are good for lindy hop. All of the blues tunes are "jazzy"--for an example of what I mean, listen to "My Old Daddy's Got a Brand New Way to Love," sung by Catherine with only a piano accompaniment. Other tracks on the album feature mandolin and accordion, not instruments that your average Joe usually associates with blues music (even though mandolin actually does have a rich tradition in blues).

...if you like it with a lot of rock-and-roll energy...
  • James explains: Rock-and-Roll music embraced blues music from the start (and quite lustily!). And I do mean the entire genre--practically every artist from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix to Jack White (though the verdict is still out on Coldplay). Gradually, some rock influences began to seep into blues music too, with some younger blues musicians becoming known for their heroic guitar solos. In general, rock-influenced blues music tends to have big, amped up guitar solos and a heavy back beat from the drums.
  • Eric Clapton is one rock superstar who has continually gone back to traditional blues music for inspiration. His album From the Cradle contains nothing but classic blues tunes by bluesmen such as Leroy Carr, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon. James recalls that it was one of the first albums that sparked his interest in blues music. Sara also recommends Clapton's album The Blues. She appreciates it because he respects the true origin of a song, but then riffs it up with his own personality and creativity.
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan, tied with Lyle Lovett for the funniest-looking famous person from Texas, is worshiped by many as an electric guitar god. While Sara and James would both agree that he's really a rock musician with a bit of blues influence, his music is still a rollicking good time. Get his classic album Texas Flood.

...if you're still looking for your favorite style...
  • There are a bunch of different styles and feelings that are collectively known as blues, and there's no way we could cover them all here. Honestly, we haven't even begun to do them justice. Maybe in some future posts... In the mean time, here are a few more album recommendations, from all different styles, that don't fall into any of the categories above.
  • ...if you want a sparse, gritty sound, with acoustic guitar and male vocals, then your roots are in the delta, where the blues was born. Try the legendary Robert Johnson's The Complete Recordings.
  • ...if you like it country-style, with lots of whoopin' and hollerin', then check out Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. They've got a bunch of good albums, but you might start with An Introduction to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. It amazes us that a combo as simple as guitar, harmonica, and two dudes singing can sound so full and really make you want to get up and dance.
  • ...if you like it soulful, polished yet heartfelt, then get Ray Charles: The Genius Sings the Blues. You can't go wrong with Ray Charles. There's a reason they call him The Genius.

Note: Dancers, DJs, and folks searching for music, let me know what you think of these recommendations, and please don't be shy about posting a comment to suggest some of your favorites too.


  1. Hey James - have you looked at our podcast yet? Jonathan and I actually do a lot of talking about where to go to find blues music appropriate for blues dance.

    It's at and we update once a month. :)

  2. Yes! What Keither said! Everyone, Confessing the Blues is excellent!

  3. Hey Keith, I'm in the middle of the second episode--planning to do a post about it in the next couple days.

  4. Awesome post again, thanks James. I have only recently gotten into blues (dancing and music) and right now Pandora is my best friend (Station seed: Koko taylor, Buddy Guy). I think I am addicted to the music. Koko Taylor gives me the shivers..

    The pity is, it took the news of Koko Taylor's death for me to even know of her and subsequently get into her music. Oh well, better late than never..