It probably goes without saying that, once you found yourself stranded on a distant island, there would be blues. And every kind, too — Delta, dirty, city, country, grease-popping, Texas crunching, let-it-all-hang low, you name it.
We’ve got ’em all, too. Muddy Waters was a favorite in our latest poll focusing on blues and blues rock, with five mentions. B.B. King received four nods, while Howlin’ Wolf and Eric Clapton (as a sideman with Wolf and John Mayall) got three. Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Lee Hooker each earned two votes. Elsewhere, the lists moved from Son House to Johnny Winter, from ZZ Top to Sonny Boy Williamson II, from Ronnie Earl to Jimi Hendrix.
So pull up a piece of beach, and sit a spell. Here are our newest suggestions for Desert Island Discs, hand picked for that long wait until help arrives …
1. WILLIE DIXON – CHESS BOX (1989): This box makes clear Dixon’s incalculable impact on Chess Records, as a poet, producer and bass player. It also works as the ultimate label overview, boasting seminal collaborations alongside the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Milton.
2. MUDDY WATERS – HOOCHIE COOCHIE MAN (1977): One of the last testaments to the Gospel of Muddy, and a must-have from outside his classic Chess period. Even at this late date, he remained the bridge between country and city cool, an urban griot with Delta dust on his boots. This is the stand-alone Waters album I listen to the most.
3. LITTLE WALTER – THE BLUES WORLD OF LITTLE WALTER (1988): Some of the best sides that hadn’t been issued under his old boss Muddy Waters’ name, this collection includes 13 very early recording dates for Parkway, JOB and Regal — and finds Walter running rivulets through much of the young-punk junk that passes for “blues” these days.
4. B.B. KING – ONE KIND FAVOR (2008): He could have put out an overhyped, soul-free album of duets, then beat a path to the check-cashing place. Instead, King opened himself up musically, putting away his polished, citified sophistication to create a rustic and rootsy highlight in the winter of a justly legendary career.
5. HOWLIN’ WOLF – THE LONDON HOWLIN’ WOLF SESSIONS (1971): Howlin’ Wolf was a chief architect of the city blues’ sound and fury, serving as a career-sparking crucible for Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood and the Beatles. I’ve never tired of this album, as they return the favor by recording alongside a still rough and randy Wolf.
1. TEN YEARS AFTER – RECORDED LIVE (1973): Ten Years After for a while were exempted from having to progress beyond rewriting blues rock clichés, and so eventually released this, the textbook document for the live blues rock genre. Just take a few decent songs and make them longer by extended, improvised instrumental soloing. Nowadays, that’s called a concession break.
2. JOHNNY WINTER AND – LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST 10/3/70 (2010): Apparently recorded a couple of weeks before the better known Columbia release of similar name, this live set is just a couple of notches more intense, more tight, and indefinably more better. Look at it this way: the 18-minute-long workout of “Mean Town Blues” isn’t even the longest song here.
3. ZZ TOP – TRES HOMBRES (1973): As the Li’l Ole Band from Texas says here in the song “La Grange” (a tribute to a famous house of ill repute) – “Ah haw haw haw haw.” ’Nuff said.
4. JIMI HENDRIX – BAND OF GYPSYS (1970): Nowhere else will you ever hear a concert where a three-piece band recreates the sound of firearms, bombs, napalm and death from above using only their instruments, voices and an indestructible one-chord blues riff. “Machine Gun,” indeed.
5. SAVOY BROWN – HELLBOUND TRAIN (1972): Another English band (which incidentally spawned Foghat as well) gets into the trenches and digs out the usual. The one exception: the title track, which has to be one of the creepiest blues rock tunes around, echoing Hoyt Axton’s version of “Downbound Train.”
1. HOWLIN’ WOLF – HOWLIN’ WOLF/MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT (1990): On this can’t-lose twofer that combines Howlin’ Wolf’s first two albums, the best musician named after prominent presidential bluesmaster Chester A. Arthur employs his grit and growl on many songs that went on to become blues benchmarks, such as “Red Rooster,” “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “Back Door Man.”
2. MUDDY WATERS – AT NEWPORT (1960): A rollicking live set of immediacy and high energy from the “father of modern Chicago blues,” in an influential album that would go on to inspire many up-and-coming British Invaders and American rockers.
3. JOHN LEE HOOKER – THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION 1948-1990 (1990): “Let that boy boogie-woogie / It’s in him, and it got to come out…” Which it does in this embarrassment of blues riches that extends beyond any one style to garner together Hooker’s wide variety of musical approaches, from country blues to Delta blues and Detroit blues.
4. JOHN MAYALL AND THE BLUESBREAKERS – WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966): Can pasty-faced English guys who maybe haven’t paid their dues play the blues? Yeah, pretty much so — and then some.
5. B.B. KING – LIVE IN COOK COUNTRY JAIL (1971): “Lucille, baby, satisfy my heart…” From the introductory booing of the local sheriff and the criminal courts judge to the last notes, King captivates a captive audience (sorry) with his clean, crisp guitar lines and rough and tumble voice.The thrill was there.
1. MUDDY WATERS – FOLK SINGER (1964): By far my favorite blues record. It’s so hard to leave behind all of those great electric Chicago blues records but hearing Muddy in this stripped-down format? It’s just too powerful of an experience to ignore.
2. RONNIE EARL – I LIKE IT WHEN IT RAINS (1986): Mr. Earl, former replacement for Duke Robillard in Roomful of Blues, plays the most soulful blend jazz-tinged blues I’ve ever heard.
3. JOHN LEE HOOKER – THE CREAM (1978): A live recording that showcases Hooker at his snarling best.
4. B.B. KING – LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL (1971): King has put out so many great records that it’s tough to make a choice. This date has him at the very top of his game.
5. SON HOUSE – FATHER OF THE DELTA BLUES: THE COMPLETE 1965 SESSIONS (1965): “Death Letter Blues” is as dark and scary as the blues ever gets. Son House was a true force of nature.
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1. ROBERT JOHNSON – KING OF THE DELTA BLUES SINGERS (1961): “Cross Road Blues,” recorded in 1936, has two prominent interpretations — either about Johnson selling his soul to the devil for his musical ability or about the common fear or lynching felt by African Americans in the south if taking the wrong road in the dark (at the crossroads), trying to get home.
2. MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT – AVALON BLUES: COMPLETE 1928 OKEH RECORDINGS (1996): This album captures the early recordings of the soft and easy-going playing of Mississippi John Hurt.
3. B.B. KING – COMPLETELY WELL (1969): The at-the-time unconventional addition of strings to “The Thrill is Gone” adds to the already bittersweet tune.
4. STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN – TEXAS FLOOD (1983): SRV’s debut album, which was recorded in three days, sparked the re-vitalization of the blues.
5. MUDDY WATERS – FATHERS AND SONS (1969): This album shows Muddy shying away from the psychedelic sounds of Electric Mud, and returning to his classic sound of the 50’s.
1. JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS – WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966): This album turned EC into “God.” He could do no wrong here. Mayall sure knew how to pick ’em.
2. THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND – IDLEWILD SOUTH (1970): “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Revival,” and “Midnight Rider.” What else is there to say? The best album the band ever made, Fillmore East included. Their second LP showed a great band in peak form. Dickie Betts was starting to hit his stride.
3. STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN – IN STEP (1989): All of Stevie’s albums were fairly even in quality but this one gets the edge because of “Riviera Paradise,” a song I MUST be able to hear on an island in the middle of nowhere.
4. THE WHITELEY BROTHERS – TAKING OUR TIME (2001): Two Canadian brothers offer up acoustic Delta blues, R&B, and even a little jazz. They wrote, sung, and played every note on 21 different instruments, including electric guitar, banjo, standup bass, coronet, harmonica, drums, and a washboard.
5. VARIOUS ARTISTS – EXILE ON BLUES STREET (2003): With Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton laying down the beat in the rhythm section, Telarc Records took 10 songs from the Rolling Stones’ classic album and covered them using real blues artists. Included are Jimmy Thackery, Otis Taylor, Lucky Peterson, and more. Highlighted by Christine Ohlman’s outstanding take on “All Down the Line.” Better than the original.
1. MUDDY WATERS – HIS BEST: 1947-55 (1997): The storied history of Chicago blues — and Chess Records — encapsulated by the man who came up from a Mississippi Delta plantation and shaped both into his own image.
2. HOWLIN’ WOLF – AIN’T GONNA BE YOUR DOG (1994): This one gets the nod over the His Best compilation, due to the inclusion of the 1968 acoustic session. Lots more Hubert Sumlin on this 2-CD collection, too.
3. LITTLE WALTER – HIS BEST (1997): Little Walter Jacobs was to the amplified harmonica what Jimi Hendrix was to the amplified guitar. Greatly under appreciated as a singer and even songwriter, though Willie Dixon gave him his signature hit “My Babe.”
4. SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II – HIS BEST (1997): Sonny Boy didn’t have quite the power of Little Walter but he still brought the swagger and more directly influenced many of the ’60s British blues bands like the Yardbirds, who in turn brought the blues to a wider audience.
5. FREDDIE KING – KING OF THE BLUES (1995): King made a lot of instrumental sides in the ’60s, but Leon Russell brought him on board his Shelter label in the early ’70s and coaxed the best in King, who matched his stinging guitar with scorching vocals.
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